Music Culture Wednesday Vol. 14

Kizomba music comes from all over the PALOP* community, not just Angola.  All mixes between zouk and Afro rhythms (not to be confused with Afro-house) are normally called kizomba, amongst PALOPS, regardless if the artists or bands are from Guiné-Bissau, Cabo-Verde, São Tomé and Prince, Mozambique or even the Congo (which is not a PALOP country).  

Our community has been influenced by rhythms and sounds from across the great continent of Africa and beyond. Every Wednesday I will be introducing great African artists that have been meaningful to the PALOP community.  Newer fans of kizomba will gain a richer understanding of culture and discover new artists and those of us who grew up in the community will enjoy trips down memory lane.  Let me introduce this weeks’ featured artist/band:

M’bilia Bel (born 1959) is a Rumba/World Music singer from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She is known as the “Queen of Congolese and African Rumba”. She rose to fame after being discovered first by Sam Manguana and later by Tabu Ley Rochereau who really helped her to gain confidence, fully control her powerful soprano-voice and to reach to the summit of one of the best Congolese female singers.

M’bilia Bel became successful in the early 1980s when she joined Tabu-ley Rochereau’s band (Afrisa International). Both of them have made several tracks together including her own solo albums. In the mid 80’s the birth of her child with her mentor and husband Tabu-ley prompted her to take a break from performing for a year.  After her final album with Tabu Ley in 1988 she moved to Paris. There she started working with guitarist Rigo Star Bamundele and between 1989 and 1990 she went on touring the United States, Europe, and West Africa. With a combination of beauty, an angelic soprano voice, really good dancing/dancers, and tremendous agility on stage, M’bilia Bel stole the hearts of music fans all over the continent of Africa and everywhere beyond its borders. She was Africa’s first female transcontinental diva and also became the first notorious female singer from Africa who could claim popularity all over the entire continent. In fact, one could argue that there has not been any female singer from Africa who has captured the imagination of music fans across the continent as much as M’bilia Bel did in the eighties. South African Miriam Makeba known as “Mama Afrika” popularity peaked in the 1960s but could not attract as many fans as M’bilia Bel did later.

At the age of seventeen Mbilia Bel began her performing career singing as a backup-singer for the Queen of “perfumed-Soukous”, as she used to call her own music‘s style, the one and only Abeti Masikini and later with Sam Mangwana. She really bursted onto the music scene when she became Tabu Ley’s protegee. And the combination of Tabu Ley’s composing genius with Mbilia Bel’s heavenly voice resulted in high sales of Afrisa records. Their partnership as performers was phenomenal and full of hits. Mbilia Bel’s first song with Afrisa, released in 1981, was “Mpeve Ya Longo”, which means Holy Spirit in Kikongo. It was a moving song about spousal abuse. In the song, she sang the part of a woman who had been abandoned by her husband and has to raise their children by herself. The song was very popular, especially among women in Zaire.

Mbilia Bel’s first ever album Eswi Yo Wapi, released in 1982, was extremely popular and also the title of one of the songs on the album composed by both Tabu Ley and M’bilia Bel, which roughly translates to “Where did it hurt you?”  The song won best song of 1982 in Zaire, and M’bilia Bel won the award for best new-comer. Songs from the same album such as Tabu Ley’s “Lisanga ya Bambanda”, “Kelhia” and Dino Vangu’s “Quelle Mechancete” were all huge hits and as a result Afrisa International’s popularity started soaring. The stronghold that Franco’s band TP.OK Jazz held in the music scene was now being loosened, as Afrisa was now a force to be reckoned with thanks to the arrival of this new sensation who was now being referred to as ” The Cleopatra of Congolese music“.

M’bilia Bel quickly became the main attraction when she appeared in Afrisa’s concerts in the Congo and everywhere they toured. Often she drew huge crowds into a frenzy. She was a talented stage performer and often tantalized crowds with her exceptional dancing ability when she would join the Rocherettes (dancers) in their dance routine.

By the mid-eighties, Mbilia bel officially married Tabu Ley and was a refined and mature performer. Her songs continued to dominate the scene. Among them was “Mobali na ngai wana”, which roughly translates to “This Husband of Mine”. The song was composed by Tabu Ley and Roger Izeidi and is an adaptation of a traditional song in Kikongo. In the song, M’bilia Bel praises her husband as being handsome and successful and stresses the fact that even though he has the opportunity to choose from any of Kinshasa’s beautiful women, he chose her. Other songs that blazed the charts during her reign in Afrisa included “Balle a terre”, “Bameli Soy” “Ba Gerants ya Mabala”, “Keyna”, “Cadence Mudanda”, “Bafosami”, “Nakei Nairobi”, “Ba Jeux de Coin”, “Paka Wewe”, “Boya Ye”, “Yamba Ngai” ShaWuri Yako” “Beyanga”, “La Beaute D’une Femme” and many more.

In 1987 Tabu Ley recruited another female artist to accompany M’bilia Bel. Kishila Ngoyi was her real name, but she was known by her artistic name, Faya Tess. It was with this new lineup that Afrisa embarked on a tour of East Africa that took in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, culminating in the album Nadina, which had Lingala and Swahili versions of the title song. The tour was well received by the crowds. M’bilia Bel took centre stage, overshadowing other Afrisa artistes including Ndombe Opetum who had returned from T.P OK Jazz. Upon their return to Kinshasa, rumours started surfacing about a rift between Tabu ley and M’bilia Bel, which they both publicly denied.

M’bilia Bel quit the band late in early 1988 to embark on a solo career. She briefly joined with a Gabonese producer in Libreville before leaving for Paris where she joined with guitarist Rigo Starr Bamundele. Her first album with Rigo Star was entitled Phénomène and was a huge success in Kinshasa as well as abroad. Subsequent releases such as Desolé, 8/10 Benedicta, Yalowa, and Exploration have met with limited success.

Following the departure of M’bilia Bel, the popularity of Afrisa International as a band plummeted substantially. Tabu Ley himself seemed to lose inspiration for composing as is evidenced by the substantial reduction in the number of albums released. With the exception of her debut album, Phénomène, Mbilia Bel’s career also took on a downward spiral when she left Afrisa.

Her more recent work has involved taking her usual style traditional African rumba and soukous and mixing in rap and other modern elements.

These are my personal picks and not necessarily the most popular mainstream songs. I hope my post inspires you to continue researching and exploring more on your own!


Afro- Zouk: Douceur

Afro-Zouk: Mario (Original from Franco)

Congolese Rumba: Eswi Yo Wapi

Sweet Africa Medley (vocal artist M’Bilia Bel)

Congolese Rumba: MPeve Ya Longo

Congolese Rumba: Yamba Ngai

*PALOP – Portuguese-speaking African countries, also referred to as Lusophone Africa, consists of six African countries in which the Portuguese language is an official language: Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe. Besides having a common language, the five former colonies of the Portuguese Empire share a strong “cultural identity, a similar system of governance and a long tradition of contacts and exchanges amongst themselves”. In 1992, the five Lusophone African countries formed an interstate organization called PALOP, a colloquial acronym that translates to African Countries of Portuguese Official Language (In Portuguese: Países Africanos de Língua Oficial Portuguesa). The PALOP countries signed official agreements with Portugal, the European Union and the United Nations, and they work together to promote the development of culture and education and the preservation of the Portuguese language. Together with Portugal and Brazil in 1996, the Portuguese-speaking African countries established the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (Portuguese: Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa, abbreviated to CPLP).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s