papa noelIt’s 82° F, the sun is hot with that crisp, polarized light you see only in California and the Mediterranean. It’s breezy, the birds chirp, the jasmine is out, causing entire neighborhoods to reject their desert status and cradle everyone with a gentle scent instead of coating them with brake dust. Even though the city is always breathing under the burgeoning cloud of a devastating earthquake, and the traffic is enough to make the most patient monk let loose with godless obscenities, you won’t forget these kinds of early spring days. It’s the kind of day where it seems one’s only goal should be cocktails with good friends, and taking the shortest possible path of least resistance to get to that point.

Hopefully, this music will assist. I’ve posted other easy-going Congolese rumbas in the past, however, some of my favorite discs from this period are actually from a bit later, from the late 1950s-early 1960s, featuring the Congolese cha-cha-cha. It’s driving, sharp rhythm hits home the fact that some of the most carefree and joyous Latin music of the 20th century came out of the two cities on the river in the Congos. Many of these tunes were sung in Spanish by the Congolese – sometimes broken or improvised Spanish, but Spanish nonetheless!

The Congolese version of the cha-cha-cha was born out of the continued influence of Cuban and Caribbean music on the popular musicians of the Congo. And by the late 1950s, that influence was pervasive across Sub-Saharan Africa. The popularity of the hundreds of Congolese rumbas issued on labels like Ngoma, Opika, and Loningisa was so strong that their distribution and influence spread across to Kenya, into West Africa, and to the nightclubs of France, with much success.

The Congolese cha-cha-cha apparently began in the studios of the short-lived but influential Esengo label. In late 1956-early 1957, the Greek-owned Esengo had purloined many of the area’s most popular stars from other labels, essentially creating stellar supergroups with a stock of talent that would become the mainstays of music in the Congo for decades: Joseph “Grand Kalle” Kabasele, Nico Kasanda (aka “Dr Nico” or simply “Nico”), Nedule “Papa Noël” Montswet on guitar, Tino Baroza, Jean Serge Essous, and Nino Malapet on saxophones, and Moniania ma Muluma, also known as “Roitelet” on bass. This group, with additions and subtractions, in various shapes and forms, became the famous Orchestre Rock-A-Mambo, contributing to or issuing about 250 records on Esengo over approximately 4 years.

The first cha-cha-cha in Congo came quickly – “Baila” written by Essous, and the 7th release on the Esengo label – and it was a major success. The Orchestre Rock-A-Mambo eventually disbanded, and in the meantime members had siphoned themselves across the river to Brazzaville to form the Orchestre Bantou Jazz, another crack outfit continuing the trend of electrified rumbas, merengues, and cha-cha-chas.

This track, “The Moon and the Sun” (certainly it should be “y el” as opposed to “yel” on the label – but I’ve kept the original spelling), was written and performed by guitarist Papa Noël accompanied by the Bantou group sometime in the early 1960s. Nothing is quite as enjoyable as their perfectly timed, overlapping electric guitars – Papa Noël wasn’t quite as adventurous as Nico as a guitarist, but he was refined and perfectly timed. Seeing this band in its prime must have been simply incredible.

This release of this tune was meant for the Kenyan market. ASL (Associated Sound Limited) was an independent label that distributed Congolese pop music in East Africa. Their South African pressings are particularly clean. ASL lasted well into the 70s, but at this point in their murky history, they were issuing (guitarist Nico would claim bootlegging) 78s of original material from the masters of other Congolese labels, such as CEFA and Surboum. Bootlegs or not, the sound quality, pressing quality, and musical quality of the material on this label is tremendous.

Papa Noël et l’Orchestre Bantou Jazz – La Luna Yel Sol

Label: ASL
Issue Number: ASL.603
Matrix Number: Fo 45/9739