Creation date : 2001
Language : Lingala
Category : Composer / Male Artist / Songwriter
Style of music : Congolese rumba
Members : Loko Massengo, Wuta Mayi, Nyboma Mwan Dido, Syran Mbenza, Bumba Massa

Kekele - aka the roving ambassadors of authentic Congolese rumba - are a group of five singers from the D.R.C. and Congo Brazzaville. The five rumba veterans have revived the flagging fortunes of a sound which, without them, may well have disappeared from the face of the earth altogether.

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Kekele - aka the roving ambassadors of authentic Congolese rumba - are a group of five singers from the D.R.C. and Congo Brazzaville. The five rumba veterans have revived the flagging fortunes of a sound which, without them, may well have disappeared from the face of the earth altogether.

The group Kekele was the brainchild of Ibrahima Sylla, a Senegalese producer who has been responsible for overseeing the careers of numerous African artists over the last three decades. Around the year 2000, Sylla came up with the idea of reviving Congolese rumba, a sound which had once packed out dancefloors across Africa, but in later years had been superseded by new crazes such as soukouss and ndombolo. Sylla who, a few years earlier, had revived the fortunes of African salsa creating the group Africando, started casting about for artists to form a rumba group based in Paris. He started out auditioning over twenty singers and musicians and finally whittled his original list down to five to form Kékélé (the group’s name means "tropical creeper" in Lingala).

The five members of the group, all aged between 50 and 55, were obviously not newcomers to the music scene. Indeed, all five had long and distinguished careers behind them. In the early ‘70s, Nyboma Mwan began to make a name for himself in Kinshasa, singing with various groups. Mwan eventually left Kinshasa and moved to Togo in 1979 to join the African All Stars (set up by Sam Mangwana). He went on to score the biggest hit of his career two years later with the song "Doublé Doublé" recorded with Kamale Dynamique.

Mwan’s compatriot Syran Mbenza had headed out to the Togolese capital, Lomé, shortly before him. Mbenza, who honed his guitar skills performing with a number of bands including Vicky Longomba’s group Lovy du Zaïre, also hoped to add an international dimension to his career with the African All Stars. Mbenza eventually based himself in Europe where he went on to bring out a number of solo albums. In Paris in 1982, he set up the group 4 Etoiles which also involved Nyboma Mwan (who had also moved to the French capital by that point).

Interestingly enough, the quartet also included Wuta Mayi, another future member of Kekele. Mayi, who had played with the Jamel National in 1967 and then joined guitarist Papa Noël’s Orchestre Bamboula, went on to spend eight years with Franco’s TP OK Jazz. And Bumba Massa - aka "Massamour" - has an equally impressive track record, having spent many years working with Vicky Longomba.

Loko Massengo - aka "Djeskain" - the fifth element in Kékélé is the only member of the group to come from Congo Brazzaville. He forged his reputation playing with Trio Madjesi, a group who enjoyed immense popularity in the Congo and other African countries between 1972 and 1975.

While the five rumba veterans had met one another at various stages of their careers, they had never actually played together officially since relocating to France. However, just before Ibrahima Sylla got them together to form Kékélé, the sprightly fifty-somethings had jammed together live on stage at a wedding in Brussels. They had hoped to repeat the experience, but had never really believed that rumba had a future on the musical mainstream.

2001: "Rumba Congo"

Thanks to Ibrahima Sylla’s organising force, Kekele went into the studio together at the beginning of 2001. Here, they worked with two talented guitarists: the Cameroonian guitar wizard Yves Ndjock and Congolese rumba veteran Papa Noël. The singers each tapped into their own personal repertoires as well as recording covers of rumba classics and a medley of the hits of their illustrious compatriot Joseph Kabasélé entitled "Success Ya Grand Kallé." When Kékélé’s debut album, "Rumba Congo", was released in July, the quintet believed their rumba revival venture would probably end there. But the tour the group performed in the U.K. in November and December 2001 proved that Kekele had hit upon a winning formula! In October 2002, Kekele went on to perform at a major music festival in the Canary Islands.

Encouraged by their success on the road, the fivesome went back into the studio to record a second album, "Congo Life", released at the end of 2003. This time round, the rumba veterans paid tribute to the legendary songwriters from OK Jazz, compiling a medley of covers by Franco, Rossignol and Vicky Longomba on the song "Souvenirs OK Jazz." Their compatriot Rigo Star Bamundélé - a former guitarist with Papa Wemba’s group Viva la Musica, who had accompanied Kekele on their U.K. tour - accompanied the group in the studio and also wrote one of the eleven tracks on the album. "Congo Life" also featured another special guest star in the form of Madagascar’s accordion virtuoso Régis Gizavo.

In November 2003, Kekele supported Africando in concert at Le Bataclan, in Paris. Then, in January 2004, they headlined themselves at the legendary Paris venue Le New Morning. "Congo Life" opened a whole set of new doors for them and in July and August 2004, the group flew off across the Atlantic to play a series of 23 concerts across the U.S. and Canada, performing at the Summer Festival in Montreal. In September, Kekele performed at a special fund-raising concert "Congo - Rythmes et rumba" organised in Paris by Unesco. The group continued their hectic schedule throughout 2005, playing at a series of music festivals across Europe. In June, they appeared in Germany and brought the house down at the Festival Mundial in the Netherlands. Then they headed out to the Indian Ocean island of Réunion to perform at the Sakifo festival.

2006: "Kinavana"

On their third album "Kinavana" (the title is an amalgamation of Kinshasa and Havana), Kekele hooked up with Papa Noël again and also invited two other guest stars into the studio in the form of singers Madilu System (a former vocalist with OK Jazz) and Mbilia Bel. The Cameroonian sax star Manu Dibango, a committed fan of rumba (which he had played himself in Kinshasa in the ‘60s), kept the promise he had made to Kekele after seeing them live on stage in Switzerland and came along to the studio to make his own contribution to the album. "Kinavana" was recorded between Paris and New York where the Venezuelan producer Nelson Hernandez (renowned for his work with the likes of Celia Cruz and Africando) added his own special Latino touch. On their third album, Kekele celebrated the links between Congolese rumba and its Cuban cousin. Each singer in the group chose to interpret a song from the Cuban star Guillermo Portabales’ repertoire which they had listened to growing up in Congo.

Kekele followed the release of "Kinavana" with two consecutive shows at La Boule noire in Paris in the spring of 2006. Then, after performing in Guadeloupe in June, they went on to kick off a 15-date tour of North America the following month which included appearances in Los Angeles and Chicago as well as Canadian stop-offs in Montreal and Toronto before finishing with a grand finale in New York. In October 2006, Kekele flew off across the Atlantic again to perform at the first edition of the ACP (African Caribbean Pacific) festival in the Dominican Republic.

After impressing the audience at a concert in Rabat, Morocco, in May 2007, the group appeared at a number of summer music festivals across France and also headed out to Congo Brazzaville for the Fespam festival in July. This was a landmark performance in Kekele’s career, being the group’s first concert in sub-Saharan Africa. Three months later, Kekele kicked off another U.K. tour in Birmingham.

The group gave a few more concerts in 2008 in France and Switzerland. The next year they were invited by the rap group MAP (Ministère des Affaires Populaires) to feature on a song entitled "La Vie, c’est pas facile", while Syran Mbenza released a solo album, followed by Bumba Massa the next year. As the Congo celebrated fifty years of independence, Kekele performed once more at Bozar in Brussels in July 2010.

December 2013

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