THE TWO CITIES of Brazzaville and Kinshasa, nestled on either side of the Congo River, share two major obsessions: the political significance of proper names and the existential importance of a fluid guitar run. In the Seventies, Zairean strongman Mobutu Sese Seko (a.k.a. Joseph Désiré) decided to Africanize his foot-dragging countrymen, beginning by rechristening his capital Kinshasa--it had been known in colonial days as Leopoldville. As a result of this enforced "Zaireanization," the two greatest stars of Congolese music whose fame (and names) had spread throughout the continent--the corpulent, rakish Franco and the lithe, wary Rochereau--were "encouraged" to redub themselves Luambo Makiandi and Tabu Ley, respectively.
Yet no one has ever been quite sure what to call the music both men shaped and reshaped for so many decades. Soukous, the generic term, is mostly a marketing niche that lumps together Parisian discophiles such as Loketo with rustic founders like Henri Bowane. Most Congo musicians insist they play a rumba beat. But, as Gary Stewart notes in his invaluable, if unwieldy, companion to Congolese history Rumba on the River, the Cuban rhythm that has actually been appropriated is a son--an African pattern carried across the Atlantic in slave days, then returned to the continent in the form of vinyl 78s in the 1930s.
Stewart, who has periodically lived in Africa and chronicled its music in various journals for two decades now, crams his tome with juicy accounts of how rival combos like Kinshasa's O.K. Jazz and African Jazz bribed, lured, and outright pilfered musicians from each other's ranks. The resulting acrimony was often aired to public delight: When Kwamy Munsi defected from Franco's O.K. Jazz to crosstown antagonists African Fiesta, he penned the playa-hatin' satire "Faux Millionaire" about his former employer. Franco countered with "Chicotte" (a horsehair whip of Congolese legend), claiming he had rescued the ungrateful Kwamy from certain death in the Kinshasan gutter: "You were rotting and stinking like a corpse/You drooled/Your burial would have been a burden on the State!"
For every such anecdote, however, Stewart's history appends a page of burdensome detail. One chapter head, "You Can't Tell the Players Without a Program," reveals itself as less a quip than a tedious truth: Stewart is so painstaking in his cataloging of names, dates, and recordings that his style sometimes seems better suited to liner notes. But if this urge to completism congests the narrative at times, Stewart's exhaustive approach lends itself to keen musical analysis, whether he's dissecting the roots of Franco's finger-picking style or outlining how Zaïko Langa Langa caused an uproar by eliminating horns from its ensemble lineup. And as evidenced above, Stewart's generously quoted lyrics are a revelation to those of us who don't speak Lingala. (Ignore Stewart's equally fulsome discography, however, which is of little help for the neophyte. Start instead with Franco and Rochereau's gorgeous Om Ono Wapi and Loketo's racy Extra Ball (both on Shanachie) for a study in contrasts, then try a sampler or two. If you can't find Celluloid's African Connection, Vol. I: Zaire Choc!, settle for Music Club's Lightning Across the River).
Too bad that Stewart's expert ear wavers with a bit of old-timer's prejudice. His deaf spot for synthesizers of any stripe leads him to conflate the speed-soukous of Diblo Dibala and the world-beat bland-outs of Papa Wemba. Since both efforts employ this infidel technology, in the author's view, both are bastardized crossover moves. It may also be this aesthetic bias that leads to Stewart's pessimistic prediction for the future of Congolese music. The dire state of the region shouldn't be underplayed: The past decade saw the death (many AIDS-related) of countless musicians (most notably Franco), the dispersal of Congolese musicians across Europe, and a shift from vicious--though stable--dictatorship to war and political chaos.
Still, the music of the Congos has survived brutal realities in the past; why should relocation to Paris necessarily sap its vitality?