In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Congolese musicians fused Congolese and other African traditional music with Caribbean (especially Afro-Cuban) and South American sounds – rhythms that were not entirely foreign to the region, having been based - to varying degrees - on musical traditions from the area. This music emerged in the cities of Leopoldville, as Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was then called, and Brazzaville, then capital of the French Congo, now capital of the Republic of the Congo. Most of the musicians performed in Lingala language, but some also used Swahili, Tshiluba and Kikongo languages.
The big bands
Antoine Kolosoy, also known as Papa Wendo, became the first star of African rumba, touring Europe and North America in the 1940s and 1950s with his regular band, Victoria Bakolo Miziki.
By the 1950s, big bands had become the preferred format, using acoustic bass guitar, multiple electric guitars, conga drums, maracas, scraper, flute or clarinet, saxophones, and trumpet. Grand Kalle et l'African Jazz" (also known as African Jazz) led by Joseph Kabasele Tshamala (Grand Kalle), and OK Jazz, later renamed TPOK Jazz (Tout Puissant Orchestre Kinshasa, meaning "all-powerful Kinshasa band") led by Francois Luambo Makiadi became the leading bands.
In the 1950s and 1960s, some artists who performed in the bands of Franco Luambo and Grand Kalle formed their own groups. Tabu Ley Rochereau and Dr Nico Kasanda formed African Fiesta and transformed their music further by fusing Congolese folk music with soul music, as well as Caribbean and Latin beats and instrumentation. They were joined by Papa Wemba and Sam Mangwana, and classics like Afrika Mokili Mobimba made them one of Africa's greatest bands, rivalled only by TP OK Jazz. Tabu Ley Rochereau and Dr Nico Kasanda are considered the pioneers of modern soukous.
1960s – 1970s
While the influence of rumba became stronger in some bands, including Lipua-Lipua, Veve, TP OK Jazz and Bella Bella, younger Congolese musicians looked for ways to reduce the rumba influence and play a faster paced soukous, inspired by rock n roll. A group of students calling themselves Zaiko Langa Langa came together in 1969. The energy of their music, and the high-fashion sense of the singers and dancers, inspired by founding vocalist Papa Wemba, made them very popular. Pepe Kalle, a protégé of Grand Kalle, created the band Empire Bakuba together with Papy Tex, and they soon became Kinshasa's most popular youth band, equaled only by Zaiko Langa Langa.
Other greats of this period include Koffi Olomide, Tshala Muana and Wenge Musica. Soukous now spread across Africa and became an influence on virtually all the styles of modern African popular music, including highlife, palm-wine music, taarab and makossa.
The Spread to East Africa in the 1970s
As political conditions in Zaire, as Congo DRC was known then, deteriorated in the 1970s, some groups made their way to Tanzania and Kenya. By the mid-seventies, several Congolese groups were playing soukous at Kenyan night clubs. The lively cavacha, a dance craze that swept East and Central Africa during the seventies, was popularized through recordings of bands such as Zaiko Langa Langa and Orchestra Shama Shama, influencing Kenyan musicians. This rhythm, played on the snare drum or hi-hat, quickly became a hallmark of the Congolese sound in Nairobi and is frequently used by many of the regional bands. Several of Nairobi's renowned Swahili rumba bands formed around Tanzanian groups like Simba Wanyika and their offshoots, Les Wanyika and Super Wanyika Stars.
In the late 1970s, Virgin records got involved in a couple of projects in Nairobi that produced two acclaimed LPs from the Tanzanian-Congolese group, Orchestra Makassy and the Kenya-based band, Super Mazembe. One of the tracks from this album was the Swahili song Shauri Yako (meaning "it's your problem), which became a hit in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. About this same time, the Nairobi-based Congolese vocalist Samba Mapangala and his band Orchestra Virunga, released the LP Malako, which became one of the pioneering releases of the newly emerging world music scene in Europe. The musical style of the East Africa-based Congolese bands gradually incorporated new elements, including Kenyan benga music, and spawned what is sometimes called the "Swahili sound" or "Congolese sound".
The 1980s and the Paris scene
In the 1980s soukous became popular in London and Paris. A few more musicians left Kinshasa to work around central and east Africa before settling in either the UK or France. The basic line-up for a soukous band included three or four guitars, bass guitar, drums, brass, vocals, and some of them having over 20 musicians. Lyrics were often in Lingala and occasionally in French. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Parisian studios were used by many soukous stars, and the music became heavily reliant on synthesizers and other electronic instruments. Some artists continued to record for the Congolese market, but others abandoned the demands of the Kinshasa public and set out to pursue new audiences. Some, like Paris-based Papa Wemba maintained two bands, Viva la Musica for soukous, and a group including French session players for international pop.
Kanda Bongo Man, another Paris-based artist, pioneered fast, short tracks suitable for play on dance floors everywhere and popularly known as Kwassa kwassa after the dance moves popularized by his and other artists' music videos. This music appealed to Africans and to new audiences as well. Artists like Diblo Dibala, Mbilia Bel, Yondo Sister, Loketo, Rigo Star, Madilu System, Soukous Stars and veterans like Pepe Kalle and Koffi Olomide followed suit. Soon Paris became home to talented studio musicians who recorded for the African and Caribbean markets and filled out bands for occasional tours.
The fast soukous music currently dominating dance floors in central, eastern and western Africa is called soukous ndombolo, performed by Dany Engobo, Awilo Longomba, Aurlus Mabele, Koffi Olomide and groups like Extra Musica, Wenge Musica among others.
The hip-swinging, booty-shaking dance to the fast pace of soukous ndombolo has come under criticism amid charges that it is obscene. There have been attempts to ban it in Mali, Cameroon and Kenya. After an attempt to ban it from state radio and television in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2000, it became even more popular. In February, 2005 ndombolo music videos in the DR Congo were censored for indecency, and video clips by Koffi Olomide, JB M'Piana and Werrason were banned from the airwaves.