The soukous king Syran M’Benza

More powerful than a line of snow done the hard way, faster than a bottle of Ballantyne’s Finest taken with a straw and stirred not shaken, more exhilarating than deep breathing on the summit of Mount Everest, more exciting than seeing Pamela Anderson in her underwear – supposing she was to wear any (and I have no idea which man looks exciting in his underwear) and a lot easier on the ears than a Bon Jovi concert. What the heck am I leading up to?

One of my favourite listening experiences over the past 10 years is Syran M’Benza’s 1990 album Symbiose. Just six tracks, all composed and arranged by Syran, who plays lead guitar on four of them. Here is one of the world’s finest guitarists at the peak of his form, enough unforgettable riffs to give the old master Keith Richard a dozen albums, and a roomful of Africa’s top musicians and singers playing so tightly it seems like a symphony orchestra. You’d suppose there would be a huge demand for this kind of virtuosity.

So I looked. Amazon, OOP except for one second hand copy, and no reviews. Allmusic doesn’t think highly of it, no reviews there either. ITunes has it, emusic has it, CD Baby has it and gives the only vendor review –

So I’m going to make a fool of myself and give a review, knowing nothing about music in any technical sense, and equally ignorant about the music of Africa.

Africa: 54 countries, a thousand languages, more than a billion people. Every style of music is cross-fertilised here, and a dozen new styles are created every week. From West Africa we have inherited samba, blues, jazz, reggae, hip hop, soca, calypso, zouk and rock, courtesy of the slave trade. In central African countries there are a myriad more forms: rumba, soukous, ndombolo, makossa, couper decaler, son montuno, mbalax, kompa, zouk, kwaito, mbaqanga, benga, salsa, highlife, afrobeat and more. The most widespread of these styles, originating in the former Congo, is soukous, and one of soukous’ greatest musicians is Syran M’Benza.

The style is based on a vocal exchange, the call and response, often with drum accompaniment, that lies behind so much African music. There is a sophisticated cross beat, a slower prelude followed by a high energy passage of dance rhythm, a chorus showing Cuban influence. Songs are considerably longer than most Western styles. There is a call of encouragement as each musician has his solo which is reminiscent of flamenco. Instrumentation is chorus, soloist singer (sometimes several), percussion, brass, rhythm guitar, bass and often several lead guitarists. This is high energy music, designed to keep the party going all night, but minus the frenetic quality in most rock music (which after all is based on the blues).

Because many African states have been and are politically unstable, and many people have ended up dead as a result, there has been a diaspora of musicians out of the continent, and a lot of them have ended up in Paris. France after all is a major ex-colonial power, and many Africans speak French. In Paris generations of sound engineers have modified the raw sound of Africa and produced something new called afrobeat, adding a finesse to the produced sound, editing the ragged edge from the performances. There are those who choose to see this as “inauthentic”, somehow not the real thing, but I disagree. One of the biggest influences on soukous has been Western pop music, and that’s where the electric guitars come from. This is pop music, not folk music. Soukous takes in influences from all over the world, and changes daily. Attempting to define it has to be inaccurate. It’s either bad, or good, music. Anyone who has heard what Paris technicians have done to the makossa of Manu Dibango (Manu Safari or the juju of King Sunny Ade (Odù must admit it’s a very good thing.

Symbiose starts with a track called Youyou. A loping beat introduces the chorus, which sings a verse, with two guitarists playing an intricate rhythm in the background, then a highlight on the brass introduces the lead vocalist, Nyboma. Lead guitarist Diblo Dibala, a legend in his own right, takes the stage with a hypnotic riff, suddenly switches to a faster tempo, and is urged on by a chorus member. The guitar sound is clean, with a ringing tone that reminds me of the playing of Mark Knopfler. The riff is repeated again and again and has a hypnotic effect. Two things make this track work. The perfect rhythm, and the faultless lead guitar.

Mon ami, the next track, gets off to a good start with the chorus accompanied by a brass section, and a brilliantly precise rhythm section and great bass guitar, while two lead guitarists play grace notes in the background. One of the greatest voices in African music takes the lead, J P Ramazani, taken up in response by another great voice, an unidentified female singer, perhaps the Luciana given a credit (probably not Demingongo). Then, unexpectedly, a flute gives a jazz improvisation. Flute, brass, guitars and voices mesh flawlessly to make this a truly great performance.

Molatisi follows, chorus and brass alternating, then guitar and brass, in a hypnotic and intricate rhythm that is almost impossible not to dance to. Icha, the next track, with chorus, and lead by Nyboma, features Syran’s guitar switching between two rhythms, with a makossa flavour to the soukous. The guitarist actually improvises on each rhythm, backed by another lead guitarist, while effortlessly holding the beat, in an amazing performance that shows just why Syran’s a super star to many Africans. Not virtuosity, just perfection.

Kabibi features chorus and lead guitar, clear as crystal, alternating throughout in a driving rhythm that is totally infectious. Rhythm sections don’t get any better than this. Biloula features the superb, soulful voice of Ramazani. About half way the lead guitar of Dally Kimoko takes the floor, and for a while it sounds like all three lead guitarists are playing, two note for note, while the rhythm guitar adds a counterpoint. This is guitar playing as you rarely hear it, intricate, balanced, and with a powerful rhythm. Another mesmerising track that’s hard to stay still for.

Thanks to Soukousman at Youtube!

There have been few super groups like the one that made Symbiose in 1991. Ten major recording stars, five guitarists and five vocalists, each with a huge following and hundreds of records to their credit, got together in Paris and put their accumulated skills at Syran’s disposal, a measure of the esteem in which he is held. Worth commenting on is the backup team, synthesiser, by a Jean Claude, which is absolutely brilliant and gives the device a good name, trumpet, by a Freddy, and saxophone, by a Claude, and percussion by Mavoungou.

Lead guitars Syran M’Benza, Diblo Dibala, Dally Kimoko; rhythm guitars Lokassa, Bopol Mansiamina; bass Vincent Hamandjan, Miguel Yamba; vocals Nyboma, Wuta-Mayi, J P Ramazani, Passi-Jo, Luciana.

Nyboma Mwan’dido was born in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and has been singing since the 60s. He has collaborated with many other stars of soukous and was a member of Les Quatre Etoiles along with Syran. He has several CDs to his name.

Wuta-Mayi comes from Leopoldville and also started singing in the 60s. He is a celebrated composer as well as singer, and has sung with Franco in OK Jazz as well as in Kékélé. He is another member of Les Quatre Etoiles.

Jean-Papy Ramazani began his career in 1968, singing with Orchestre Jamel National. His high reedy voice was one of the most popular in Kinshasa in the ’70s. The following decade the singer made four albums with Syran Mbenza and Passi Jo in the group Kass Kass. Jean-Papy has also been an occasional “fifth star” in Quatre Étoiles.

Passi-Jo was born in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) and has worked with some of the greatest African musicians including Verkys, Sam Mangwana, and Les Quatre Etoiles. In the early nineties his original composition Mama Helena was a number one hit. He has been resident in Australia since 1993.

Lokassa Ya Mbongo is the longtime rhythm guitarist for Kanda Bongo Man, and considered one of the greatest rhythm guitarists of all time. Lokassa helped to transform soukous, a fast-paced fusion of traditional Congolese melodies and Afro-Cuban rhythms, into an international dance craze. His collaborations include work with Tshale Muana, the “queen” of Mutuashi, a dance style popular in the Kasai region, and Eurodisco-influenced vocalist Fode Baro of Guinea. Prior to leaving his homeland and settling in Paris in 1983, Mbongo performed with Tabu Rochereau’s Afrisa and Sam Mangwana’s African All Stars.

Bopol Mansiamina was born in Congo-Kinshasa in 1949. He is a guitarist, vocalist, arranger and producer. His career started when he joined Orchestre Bamboula with Papa Noel in 1969. Bopol was one of the co-founders of Orchestre Continental in 1971 and at this point began to compose. He joined Tabu Ley’s Afrisa, then in 1976 founded the group Ya Toupas with Ray Lema and Manuaku. In 1978 he joined Sam Mangwana, Lokassa and Dizzy Mandjeku in Africa All Stars. In 1982 Bopol settled in France and, with Syran Mbenza, Nyboma and Wuta Mayi, formed Les Quatres Etoiles. In 2002 he toured with Mose Fan Fan’s Somo Somo. Another musician Bopol has worked closely with is Ricardo Lemvo.

Diblo Dibala is known as “Machine Gun” for his speed and skill on the guitar. He was born in 1954 in Kisangani. He moved to Kinshasa as a child, and played guitar in Franco’s TPOK band. In 1979, he moved to Brussels, and in 1981 he joined Kanda Bongo Man’s band in Paris. In the mid 1980s, he formed his own band, Loketo (meaning ‘hips’), with singer Aurlus Mabele. In 1990 he formed a new group, Matchatcha.

Dally Kimoko comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He has released four solo albums and is a contributor to more than 200 others. His professional career began in 1968. In 1979 he joined Sam Mangwana’s African All Stars. From there he went to Paris, where he became one of the most sought after guitarists of African music. Kanda Bongo Man , a pioneer of kwasa kwasa, recruited him. Other collaborations were with Papa Wemba, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Oliver Ngoma, Petit Pays, Pepe Kalle, Prince Eyango, Guy Bilong, Oumou Sangare, and others.

Syran M’Benza was born in Kinshasa on May 31, 1950. His artistic career began in 1968, when, still in school, he played in a neighborhood group called La Banita. Following that, he joined other bands: Jamel Jazz, Dynamic Jazz Ewawa de Malph, Somo-Somo and Lovy du Zaire, led by Vicky Longomba. It was after leaving Lovy du Zaire that he decided to become a professional musician, working with a group called Kara in a nightclub of the same name. An adventurous spirit, Syran decided to explore other musical arenas, leaving Zaire for Togo and Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa, where he encountered Sam Mangwana and Lokassa, and collaborated with them for three years in the African All Stars, and also recorded his first solo album, Kouame. From West Africa, Syran departed for Europe to continue his solo career. His next album, Ilanga, was produced by Eddy Son. His other solo albums were Elisa Dangwa, Sisika, Kelele, Africa: the Golden Years, and Symbiose. Also in great demand over the past 25 years as a studio musician and producer, he has recorded with many of the significant Congolese artists of the era. In 1982, taking advantage of the presence in Paris of old friends Nyboma Mwan’Dido, Bopol Mansiamina and Wuta Mayi, they formed the Quatre Etoiles du Zaire (Four Stars), releasing their first album on the Afro Rythme label, which opened the path to great success. Five albums followed, and many tours throughout Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, the U.S. and Canada, making the group one of the pillars of the highly popular soukous music of the era. In 1988 he joined forces with Passi Jo and J.P. Ramazani for a side project called Kass Kass, which also recorded several albums of dance-floor soukous.

Tastes differ. But be warned: this CD could make you seriously happy.

©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


One thought on “The soukous king Syran M’Benza

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s