Wendo Kolosoy: Star of 'rumba congolaise'

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The Independent Online

Wendo Kolosoy was the first international star of rumba congolaise, a catch-all term for the amalgams of Congolese folk music and Latin American styles that swept Africa in the mid 20th century. Known to his fans as "Papa Wendo" – or simply "Wendo" – as well as "Alanga Nzembo" ("Song master"), he had his first and biggest hit in 1948 with "Marie-Louise" and continued to enjoy considerable popularity in the following decade.

In post-independence Zaire, he fell into obscurity for around three decades, only making a significant comeback in 1999 after recording an album of vintage material for the French label Indigo. By then, his uniquely relaxed, yodelling vocals and languorous "old school" rumba band sounded fresh and organic to world-music fans bored by soukous (the highly commercial modern form of Congolese rumba) and its sub-genres. So it was that Wendo Kolosoy spearheaded the 21st-century revival of the original form of the music more than 50 years after his début.

He was born Antoine Kalosoyi (which later changed to Kolosoy through popular usage) in the town of Mushie, 150 miles from Léopoldville – then the capital of the Belgian Congo – and was surrounded by music from an early age. His father was a hunter and his mother sang traditional songs at parties and other festivities, but by the time Antoine was nine, he had become orphaned and retreated into a world of music. He claimed his mother came to him in a dream and said "You're going to play the guitar", and he did, also picking up drums and keyboards.

He was taken into care in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) by the Christian Brothers, but they felt threatened by his music and its effects on others, so by his early teens he had left to work on the passenger and cargo boats that plied the Congo River, buying and selling goods and eventually becoming a mechanic. He also charmed the other passengers with his songs about the people and places he encountered in his travels.

From 1941 to 1946 he was a successful professional middleweight boxer, venturing as far as Cameroon and Senegal. Eventually settling in Léopoldville, he formed his first band, Victoria Kin. In the boom years after the Second World War, the Congolese recording industry was becoming established, and after Kolosoy performed his songs on Radio Congolia, he became one of the very first local artists to record for the fledgling Olympia label. His big break came when he teamed up with the guitarist Henri Bowane to record "Marie-Louise" for the Ngoma label. The song became a pan-African smash hit in 1948 and was said to have "brought the spirits out of the cemetery to listen". It is also widely credited with coining the notion of the "sebene", Congolese rumba's instrumental bridge, which allows musicians and dancers to stretch out and improvise.

"Marie-Louise" launched Kolosoy as a national star. By now he was known by the nickname Wendo (a derivation of Windsor – in homage to the Duke of Windsor). He achieved massive local popularity touring as part of the Trio BOW (Bukasa, D'Oliveira, Wendo), but by the mid 1950s, despite having switched to electric guitar, he found his style becoming eclipsed by younger competitors. For much of the 32-year dictatorial rule of President Mobutu, Wendo was forced to keep a low profile due to his unwillingness to toe the party line.

"They wanted me to sing their praises. They wanted to use me as a stepping stone, and I did not want to be involved in politics," he told the journalist Banning Eyre in a 2002 interview. Even so, he did participate in "Zaire 74", the cultural festival associated with the "Rumble in the Jungle" boxing match between George Foreman and Muhammed Ali.

During the 1980s, as soukous began to dominate, Wendo faded even further from the public ear, but the seeds of his late-flowering renaissance were sown when he recorded the album Nani Akolela Wendo? (1993) for the Belgian label Franc'Amour. This brought him to the attention of the French producer Christian Mousset, who recorded his comeback proper, Marie Louise (1999). In 2000 he toured Europe and the United States, and in 2003 performed a rapturously received gig at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London with the exquisite eight-piece band Victoria Bakolo Miziki, featuring veterans of his early career alongside younger players.

As well as contributions to several compilations, his subsequent output included the albums Amba (2002), Banaya Papa Wendo (2007) and On the Rumba River (2007), effectively the soundtrack for Jacques Sarasin's documentary of the same name celebrating Wendo Kolosoy's life's work.

Jon Lusk

Antoine Kalosoyi (Wendo Kolosoy), musician and songwriter: born Mushie, Belgian Congo 25 April 1925; twice married; died Kinshasa 28 July 2008.