Congolese Music Collectives: A Mood

Updated: Jan 15

So I posted something about this on Twitter a couple of days ago [tweet], and it was great that people saw the angle and wanted to explore it more. I know the title is quite ambiguous; even I was wondering, "what do you mean by 'a mood' ?" I will explain that, but first of all let's establish that this piece is centered and dedicated to 4 artists (and subsequent music groups). These are: Papa Wemba, Koffi Olomide, Werrason and JB Mpiana, and their groups were 'Wenge Musica Maison Mere', 'Wenge Musica BCBG', 'Quarter Latin', 'Zaiko Langa Langa (and subsequently Viva La Musica)'. I know there are so many other influential Congolese artists but naturally, I'm going to speak about those I grew up listening to myself, and those who actually represent 'a mood' to me. So let's talk about it.

This piece is definitely inspired by my childhood and the music I grew up listening to, and I'm sure many people can relate to listening to the artists that this piece is dedicated to. Releasing this piece on the 24th April 2021 being 5 years since we lost the musical legend Papa Wemba, seemed like a great time to do so. You always hear Congolese people saying things like "Congolese music is the blueprint" or "Congolese music is the greatest", and I really think there is a reason why we have such a deep connection to this music and artistry.

I guess the purpose of this article is to pay them homage for the impact that they had outside of what their music sounded like. This post will explore what I think makes them such pioneers, and the different images and lifestyles that each collective represent, and how they still have influence in our community and culture even up to today. It goes without saying that the 4 collectives mentioned were really the first to ever do it like this when it comes to Congolese music.

"don't you just feel like Werrason makes you dance like a mad person, but Koffi can make you feel sexy?"

So what are the 'moods'?

This is really how each group makes me feel when I am listening to them.

Wenge Musica Maison Mere - Street style, Energetic, youthful hairstyles and appearance, more use of street language and terminology

Wenge Musica BCBG - Raw, Natural Entertainers, Technical, Themes, Catchy One Liners

Quarter Latin - Themes, Mysterious, Flirtatious

Papa Wemba ft. Zaiko Langa Langa / Viva La Musica - Sapologie, Traditional Rockstars, Class, Simplicity

Upon looking into each of their backgrounds more, you get more of an understanding as to why they are like that, they represent different tribes for example Jb Mpiana is Muluba, and Werrason is from Kwilu District and is Bandundu, so their tribal background definitely has an influence on how each one comes across. We'll get to explore that more later. But first I want to start with how they spearheaded the culture of self-naming in the Congolese community.

Nickname Culture

Each one would have one or several nicknames, almost like alter-egos that they felt represented their image. This has encouraged many Congolese people over the years, from young to give themselves personal nicknames, other than their name. So for example you have popular known Congolese artists and their respective nicknames, such as:

Werrason - 'Le Roi de La Forêt' or 'King of the forest' in English, some also referred to him as 'Igwe of the jungle', 'Ya Ngiama', 'Ambassadeur de la paix', 'Afula tala te'

JB Mpiana - 'Papa Cherie', 'Binadama', 'Souloutani'

Koffi Olomide - 'Grand Mopao Mokonzi', 'Quadra Kora Man', 'Patraõ', 'Le Rambo', 'Nkolo Lupemba' -

the list goes on, trust me.

Over time, this culture of nicknaming yourself has definitely followed our culture down to my generation. Popular artists now like Fally Ipupa, is also widely referred to as 'Dicap la merveille, or more recently in the last decade has progressed through various stages of alias, including referring to himself as 'El pibe de oro', 'El Mara', '3x Hustler', 'El Rey Mago', 'The King', 'Aigle' - I think you get my point lol. This even extends to media personalities; a good example I can give would be Grace Mbizi who is a Congolese reporter, she had added 'La Sexi' to her name, that is her alter ego and her representation of herself. You also have the modern day sapeurs who have nicknamed themselves such as Didier Nzongo aka 'Mokonzi ya Ngaba'. As you can see, in Congolese culture its very normal and accepted. People embrace it as light humour and a form of self expression.

I think this has all come from the influence of those artists and all the work they put in, to represent who they were and establish their sound in music. This level of authenticity and pushing boundaries has transcended their music and shows. Now, 30 years on, people are still adopting behaviours and labels that THEY pioneered.

Wenge 4x4 (Werrason - red hoodie, JB Mpiana - second to end)

Wenge Musica Maison Mere (Mother's House)

As per the image above, Werrason founded the music collective 'Wenge Musica 4X4 Tout Terrain Bon Chic Bon Genre' - gosh what a name. Alongside him were Adolphe Dominguez, JB Mpiana (who joined later), and many others. Eventually the group split and formed two sectors of 'Wenge' - with Werrason leading one part and JB Mpiana leading the other. In the next section I speak about Wenge BCGG separately, and I go into a bit more detail about this split.

What I loved about Maison Mere was that Werrason was a bit rough around the edges. He represented his culture and where he was from in calling himself 'The King of the Forest', being someone born in a village surrounding by green and forest. Because of this, his music was always very energetic and this always brought him a younger crowd. His music was popular street party music, and many times his group were recognised for their street inspired, crazy dance moves, which some may have thought were quite outrageous at the time. Remember the dance 'Sele mama sele' ? Yeah that was Werrason all over, outrageous and fabulous LOL.

Of course it is important to note that Werrason had a wide discovery of music with Maison Mere and not all of them were generique's, but he was fresh and youthful and every time you hear a 10 minute long Werrason generique's, you know you are about to dance up a storm and pull some funky looking moves! At one point Maison Mere was referred to as the ‘rebirth of the Congolese music’ - which is probably down to the youthful and electric vibe. Not to mention that much of the ambience surrounding Maison Mere’s music has to do with the ‘animateurs’ , which are hype men or 'MC's' who talk over the beat.

Wenge BCBG - A New Era

a young Werrason and JB Mpiana

After the split of the group in December 1997, JB Mpiana created with Alain Prince Makaba, Blaise Bula, Alain Mpela and Aimélia Lias, alongside the guitarists Ficarré Mwamba, Burkina Faso Mboka Liya, Patient Kusangila, Fiston Zamuangana, the drummers Titina Mbwinga, Seguin Mignon and hosts Tutu Caludji and Roberto Ekokota and a wide range of dancers. His animateur recruited were Roger Ngandu and Blanchard Mosaka. Of the original Wenge 4x4 group, seven members do not appear (Didier Masela, Werrason, Adolphe Dominguez, Christian Mwepu Mabanga, Ali Mbonda, Ferré Gola and Japanese Maladi) - those members joined Werrason.

One thing I would say about JB Mpiana is that he is a natural born entertainer. Over the years has maintained his position of being the best dancer in his group despite his lovely range of female and male dancers, who come in all shapes and sizes and have a wide range of dance/ performance skills. I would say he is very technical but deliberate when it comes to his dancing and entertaining. BCBG were never shy of a theme, you can use the record ‘Anti Terror’ as an example, where in the video, JB Mpiana and his crew resembled soldiers who I guess (by the title of the song) were deployed to combat terrorism and it was illustrated by the use of army-print one pieces as costume in the video. Lol, it's a random theme, but it has made that song and video extremely catchy and memorable for me because they presented it like that. That's the key thing, Congolese artists never took themselves too seriously and you can tell they had a lot of fun with it. JB Mpiana was a great example of this.

'Anti Terro' music video by JB Mpiana

Simultaneously, I felt like JB Mpiana's crew was very wholesome because they were all different and individuals, especially his dancers. His dance crew always included regular, thin and plus-sized women. I remember watching these voluptuous women as a young child who weren’t worried about a roll, or a love handle slipping out while you’re performing dances - and this is definitely something prominent in Congolese culture; body POSITIVITY. Especially when it comes to dancing.

Quartier Latin

Quarter Latin was an international music band formed in 1986 by Koffi Olomide. This group was responsible for founding artists such as Fally Ipupa and developing the likes of Ferre Gola too. There is so much history here and if we start speaking on all the artists we could be here all day! But the reason why I mentioned those two artists (Fally and Ferre) is because you can see through the type of music that the both make today, the influence of Quarter Latin. One of the words I used to describe them was 'flirtacious' and you can see this in Fally Ipupa very heavily. Koffi was always that one sensual artist who would sport a bad b**** in his video while he follows her around looking dapper *do you have the image in your head?* But this is what makes you feel good when you're listening to Koffi, he kind of sounds like a sugar daddy sometimes. That's the vibe he is STILL giving at his tender old age.

Not only that but we know Koffi was no stranger to a good theme! One of the most iconic ones of course would be 'Monde Arab' - he payed homage to Arabic culture with this song title and music video. The whole look was inspired by an 'Arabian nights' vibe.

This is why I would say that Koffi was very mysterious as he sported many loud outfits. But as far as the themes, he made you feel like he was so carefree he didn't care who he was going to be dressed up as tomorrow. 'You can be anyone you want to be' - that's the vibe I get from Koffi.

Papa Wemba (Zaiko Langa Langa and Viva La Musica)

Papa Wemba's rise to prominence began when he joined the music group Zaiko Langa Langa in the late 1960s. Over time, Papa Wemba founded many small music groups and bands, while he was establishing his music style which included traditional Congolese rumba and soukous, infused with traditional African sounds, Caribbean rhythms, rock and soul. But Papa Wemba became truly influential when he started his band Viva La Musica, with whom he reached international success. This became more evident when he took his band to Paris, France in the early '80's. There, he was able to achieve more success with that as he established his "eclectic sound" influenced by western popular music that reflected a European flavour and style. Papa Wemba pioneered the genre 'Europop'. He spoke about this transition in his music during a 2004 interview:

"When I started singing pop music, I left religious music completely. But there was always the influence of religious music on my voice because, with religious music, the minor key always recurs. When I compose songs, I often use the minor key".

I know many people were probably wondering how Papa Wemba was hitting all them notes? He used to sing in the church!

Very shortly, Papa Wemba was dubbed the 'King of Rumba Rock' and many people respect him as a pioneer in African music. It was clear that Papa Wemba was also a trendsetter, and musical sounds were not the only thing he adopted from his time in Europe. 'Sapologie' was a subculture formed in Congo but derived from Europe. Men that travelled back and forth to France adopted the fashions of European men in Congo to express their want for a 'better life'. They put their own twists of flare and style to it and lo and behold, now we have sapeurs! Papa Wemba always flaunted this style in his videos and appearance, encouraging younger men to adopt the lifestyle and express themselves through clothing but in a gentlemanly manner. I think Papa Wemba is what you would call, a classy Rockstar.

Today marks 5 years since Papa Wemba tragically passed away. I am so honoured to be able to share this post and speak about Congolese music, something that he was so proud of and important to. Rest in Peace now and forever King!

I hope that you enjoyed this blog post! And maybe you can relate to some of the points I made about these artists, I would love to hear about it if so. Please leave a comment about your thoughts under this post.

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Thank you for reading!

- SS