This extraordinary album of Congolese rumbas from a quintet of musical veterans with about 200 years of musical experience among them is an enthralling musical lesson. As much as the rumba is usually identified as quintessentially Cuban, it has historic roots in the Congo. When Congolese music fans began seriously listening to recordings of Cuban rumba in the '50s, they had the uncanny sense that their own musical heritage was returning to them in a transfigured form. The rumba swept a triumphant path through popular Congolese music, indeed through much of African pop music, for much of the '60s and early '70s, and then began to fade as a dominant style.
Much as the Buena Vista Social Club resurrected the old Cuban son style, Kekele, formed six years ago by forever-young oldsters still tuned into the rumba's power, has brought about a rebirth to a propulsive, danceable style many young Africans, Europeans and North Americans have lost track of over the years.
This is Kekele's third album on the Stern's Africa label and arguably the group's strongest, since it is an exceptionally well-programmed "concept" album unified by having all of the songs composed by the late Cuban songwriter, singer and guitarist Guilolermo Portabales. But Kekele has substituted original lyrics for Portabales', and even more centrally, has added countless rhythmic and harmonic touches which place the music more on the "African" side of the "Afro-Cuban" musical continuum. This occurs through the stunning guitar work of Syran Mbenza and the transcendentally sweet, close harmonies of Kekele's four singers: Loko Massengo, Wata Mayi, Bumba Massa and Nyboma Mwan'dido. There are guest cameos by some big names in Afropop, like saxman Manu Dibango and the silky vocalist Mbilia Bel, but the fundamental glory of the album resides in the five older gentlemen who comprise Kekele.
At a time when so much African pop music seems aimlessly decorated with electronica or projected by hysterically melodramatic vocals, Kekele brings a refreshing sense of cool mastery rooted in tradition, sounding totally relaxed while evolving toward a future where the lines between African and Cuban music increasingly blur. This music sounds effortless, joyous, free of contrivance, and even for ears steeped mainly in jazz, intensely swinging. This is not just the best African album I've heard in years; it's superior to most of the world music releases that I've heard lately, from any place. What a case for how age can bring a perfect blend of musical seasonings.
Personnel: Loko Massengo: vocals; Wuta Mayi: vocals; Bumba Massa: vocals; Nyboma Mwan'dido: vocals:
Syran Mbenza: guitar: Ruben Rodriguez: bass; Luis Quintero: percussion; Mbilia Bel: vocals;
Manu Dibango: sax; and others.