Kekele merges Congo and Cuba

Boston Globe, July 28, 2006

In the beginning there was a rhythm. It crossed the Atlantic with the slave trade and came to thrive in Cuba. About 70 years ago, it found its way back to Congo (etched into the grooves of Cuban 78s), where most of the Cuban slaves had come from in the first place.

The rhythm was rumba, and once back in Congo it changed, eventually producing soukous, the high-energy Congolese pop of recent decades, with its segments of frenetic guitar riffs and barked-out audience exhortations. But memories of a sweet transition period endure: a time, mainly in the 1960s, when nations like Congo celebrated their newly achieved independence to the sway of a rumba beat.

The members of Kekele, the stunning Congolese band that visits the Lowell Folk Festival this weekend, are guardians of this musical memory. Their new album, “Kinavana” the title is a mix of Kinshasa and Havana, the capitals of Congo and Cuba stands as a definitive living tribute to the sound, with the benefit of the latest produc tion technology.veterans came together in 2000 to form Kekele the name refers to a creeping jungle plant it was a bit like the birth of the Buena Vista Social Club, only without an outside instigator.

“Our approach is very simple,” says mellifluous singer Loko “Djeskain” Massengo, reached during a tour stop in Montreal. “We come from a generation that was immersed in rumba. Considering that rumba is not just a music but a whole culture, we need to bring it back into today’s fashion.

“As you know, in Africa there is music through good times and bad,” Massengo continues. “Rumba is a musical structure in which one can express a message. The frenetic dances today are only about rhythm. But people need to learn, we need to give them knowledge and educate them while they dance.”

Massengo alludes to a famous precedent. In 1960, news of Congo’s independence from Belgium was spread across the vast country to a largely illiterate population by means of a song, “Independence Cha Cha,” which became a pan-African hit. The song appears in the Raoul Peck film “Lumumba,” which reenacts that time.

Sung in the Congolese market language Lingala, the tracks on “Kinavana” carry gentle messages, Massengo says; for instance, that development comes only through hard work, or that women must have the same opportunities as men. But Kekele is most of all about musical education.

Latin music connoisseurs will find Kekele’s music familiar. The songs on “Kinavana” were composed or interpreted by Guillermo Portabales, a seminal figure in Cuban music who died in 1970. They include the classic “El Carretero,” revamped as “Ba Kristo” and featuring female Congolese star M’bilia Bel and Isabel Martinez, a New York singer.

Adding to the trans-Atlantic ties, the US-based producer Nelson Hernandez, a veteran of countless Latin hits, contributed arrangements, working with engineer John Diaz in a New Jersey studio on tracks Kekele sent over from Paris, where they are based. Both men came away highly impressed.

“They have great songs, great singers, great players, altogether it’s something very beautiful,” Hernandez says. He adds that Kekele’s purist renderings fit into a growing movement to revive old- school Latin music, even though, he notes, the sound isn’t played much on the radio.

“I really enjoyed hearing the Spanish sounds that I know so well, being sung in their language,” says Diaz. “And their feeling about it felt really refreshing and enjoyable.”

Subtle African melodic and rhythmic touches enhance “Kinavana,” and by the end of the album one can hear the looser song patterns of soukous beginning to creep out. Kekele is just the latest in a series of musical ocean crossings that goes back to the Atlantic slave trade and produced myriad styles on either shore. In a sense, Kekele is repaying the visit by top Cuban artists half a century ago that put their music in motion.

“Latinos came to Africa in the 1950s and 1960s to return to the roots,” says Massengo. “Sonora Matancera, Celia Cruz, and so on. That is how we learned about Cuban son, and how we discovered that rumba came from Congo.”

With three albums, Kekele are making a mark, not only among world- music types but also back in Congo, Massengo says. He notes that Papa Wemba, a hugely popular Congolese artist and a longtime style bellwether, performed nothing but old-school rumba at a recent Paris concert.

“All of Kinshasa and Brazzaville has found renewal in this sound, after having their heads filled with music just to make you jump up and down,” Massengo says. “There is a youth that has been surprised. They have discovered rumba, as if for the first time.”

He adds: “If we don’t do it, we’ll have a culture that loses its music.”