A belated dewenati / happy new year to everyone.
After a month-long break Benn loxo is back. I hope you all had a nice holiday season.
Lately I’ve been reading a great book by Gary Stewart, Rumba on the River. It covers the history of 20th century Congolese popular music on both sides of the river, mainly in what are today known as Brazzaville and Kinshasa. Even if you have only a passing interest in Congolese music I really recommend this book. It’s an entertaining read that packs in a lot of information while still managing to tell an engaging story.
Aside from now knowing a large chunk of the groups involved, I’m no expert in the cultural and social history of Congolese music. One thing I certainly didn’t know is how much of a role Congo’s Greek community played in the development of popular music. Almost all of Congo’s greatest stars such as Franco, Dr. Nico, Rochereau, Essous, Kalle and others got their start in Kinshasa and Brazzaville’s Greek-run studios, clubs and labels throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s.
Much like with the Lebanese of West Africa and Indians of East Africa, Congo had a wave of immigration from European political trouble spots during the first half of the 20th century. Many young Greeks had fled the post-WWI troubles of the Greco-Turkish and Greco-Italian wars at home in search of adventure, stability and business opportunities. Plenty arrived on the banks of the Congos.
For reasons that are still not entirely clear to me many of these young Greeks took an interest in the local popular music of the time. Skeptics might argue that they were in it for the money, but starting a successful record label in mid-century Congo wasn’t exactly a guaranteed get-rich-quick scheme. You had to like the music to take the risk. Regardless, by the early 50s nearly every record label and studio in Kinshasa and Brazzaville was run by Greeks. Names like Olympia, Ngoma, Opika and Loningisa, all Greek-run, will all be familiar to Congolese music enthusiasts.
I found myself wondering: what kind of music were these young Greeks listening to back home before they arrived in Congo?
Some help from my friends at Calabash Music (which has been down for a few days, what’s up?) plus a little armchair research later, I offer you Rembetika: Songs of the Greek Underground. Rembetika was a style from the early to mid-20th century that would eventually evolve into Greek popular music.
You’ll hear two Greek Rembetika tracks today, the first by the famous 1930s singer, Rosa Eskenazi, the second a 1936 recording by Jorgos Batis.
It’s interesting to hear the contrast of the music that Congo’s Greek community left behind in their native country with the new sounds that they were producing in Congo. With that in mind, we’ll also hear some music from a few of era’s big stars, Kalle, Rochereau, Nico and Franco.
ps- there’s been much buzz lately about Matthew Lavoie’s African music blog on Voice of America. Great tunes from a humbling musical archive and wealth of knowledge.congo, greece, original music, rembetika, rumba