The Baltimore Sun

Kinshasa, Congo -- Under the swirling lights at the nightclub L'Atmosphere, Congolese music's hottest new star is in full swing.

"This love was like a novel by Shakespeare," croons Fally Ipupa as his backup singers harmonize and the single-plucked guitars run circles around each other. "You turn it into one by Daniel Dafoe/ I stay isolated like Robinson Crusoe."

Fally, as everyone calls him, has a weakness for Americana. His hat of choice is a New York Yankees cap. His jeans ride low in belated emulation of the boxers-baring hip-hop style. He even sings about the 1980s television series Dallas along with those odd literary references.

But his music - that rhythm, that Cuban-with-a-twist sound - is distinctly Congolese: Tock-tock-tock - tock-tock. And therein lies not only one key to his rising popularity but a tale going back decades and indeed centuries.

His fans, many of them women, do not ponder the history, of course. They just like hearing his raspy voice soar through syrupy, love-ballad rumbas and watching his hips move to the beat. Men and women alike seem to admire his handsome, unshaven face.

"He's a good singer, a good dancer. He's good-looking," said Solomon Bimansha, director of music programming for the Digital Congo network. "And his fashion style has been hot."

Fally may yet fizzle. The music business here is cruel.

Whatever happens to Fally, Congolese popular music will likely stay king in this part of the world, even as the sound undergoes steady reinvention.

The core sound is deeply rooted in the Atlantic slave trade, which beginning in the 16th century sent millions of Africans from present-day Congo to the Americas, shackled in the hulls of ships.

"One of the things that couldn't be taken away from them was the music running around in their heads, and that's what got planted in the New World, the Americas," said Gary Stewart, author of Rumba on the River, a book on Congo's music.

In Cuba, that music found expression in the percussion-heavy rumba and in the "son" style that used a guitar-like instrument called the "tres." In the 1930s, Stewart says, the "son" style - mislabeled "rumba," apparently for marketing purposes - crossed the Atlantic east to Congo on 78 rpm records. By then, Congo-Kinshasa was a Belgian colony exploited for its ivory and rubber, while across the Congo River lay the French colony of Congo-Brazzaville.

Local musicians who heard these albums in Kinshasa's bars or on street corners felt a visceral connection, said Stewart. "As one of the guys I interviewed for the book told me, the musicians heard something of themselves."

The Spanish words bore a striking similarity to the vowel-heavy Lingala tongue that Fally mixes with French in his songs. The single-note plucking of the tres echoed the Congolese thumb piano.

As natural resources flowed out of Congo, new instruments arrived from Europe and took root, especially the guitar but also the brass instruments that formed colonial-era marching bands. Touring Belgian jazz musicians brought the saxophone. In the 1950s, a Belgian named Bill Alexandre introduced the electric guitar.

"Then everybody had to have an electric guitar," Stewart said.

The 1950s saw the emergence of the first Congo music stars to make a name across Africa as well as in France, led by Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau. Hitting a stride just as Congo and colonies around Africa gained independence in the early 1960s, their music became a soundtrack of freedom.

Such heady optimism is a memory. For 32 years Congo suffered under the despotic, kleptocratic Mobutu Sese Seko, who renamed it Zaire and reigned until he was toppled in 1997. Some musicians received state subsidies, but the country sank into an economic abyss.

A year after Mobutu's ouster, a war broke out that drew in six countries and caused roughly 4 million deaths before the fighting largely ended in 2003.

Today the Congo music scene has its share of stars - Papa Wemba, Werrason, Koffi Olomide - although many of them spend much of their time in Paris rather than in the dysfunctional wreck that is Kinshasa, the capital of what is officially the Democratic Republic of Congo.

For years Fally sang under Olomide as his top backup singer. Last year he mustered the courage and the financial backing to launch a solo album. Now 29, he's a growing celebrity, as evidenced by his pitching for Skol, one of Congo's two beer companies.

"He's obviously a great singer," said Martin Sinnock, a British-based free-lance journalist who specializes in Congolese music. "And all the young girls have fallen in love with him."

In a recent review of Fally's album, Droit Chemin, for The Beat magazine, Sinnock praised his "exquisite voice" and the backup singing, drumming and guitar work. Sinnock liked nearly every track, from love-song rumbas to the couple of upbeat dance track and hip-hop flavored numbers.

Overall, Sinnock called the album a "splendid solo debut." Fally hopes to make a name for himself in the United States. His album is available on iTunes. He performed in New York in December and said he hopes to return this spring.

"He may make it, or he may well be sabotaged," said Sinnock, noting that if Olomide felt threatened by his success, he could easily make Fally's financial backers suddenly vanish.

Fally realizes this, which may explain his uncharacteristic modesty among Congolese musicians: "People are always trying to cut you down and criticize you," he said in an interview the day after his concert. "I've had criticism that I'm new and not established. I still have to prove myself."

At L'Atmosphere, within the high-end Grand Hotel, Fally performed for an invitation-only audience mostly seated in big leather armchairs. Security was tight, and bouncers at one point physically threw out a zealous fan who kept trying to get upstairs.

Not even a pair of Milli Vanilli-esque Fally impersonators were let in until the show was well under way. "This is his moment," said one of them, Jean Masaluki. The other, Dede Moniato, said, "He's a champion, he's great, he's big. He makes the whole country vibrate and move."

Seated in the front row at the concert was none other than Tabu Ley Rochereau, popularizer of the soukous dance style that gave its name in the '80s to a more up-tempo style. Tabu Ley and his entourage left before the show ended, and Fally made a point of stepping to the front of the stage to shake the man's hand.

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