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Jan 14/08

Helen of Congo

Matt Yanchyshyn @ 09:56

NgomaA 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.

Rosa Eskenazy – Eimai Prezakias
Jorgos Batis – Zoula se mia varka bika
O.K. Jazz – On entre OK on sort KO
Orchestre African Jazz – Merengue Fafa
Kalle and Rochereau – Afrika Mokili Mobimbi

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8 Responses to “Helen of Congo”


  1. NGOMA! :D


  2. rumba on the river is a fantastic book. thanks for posting these songs.


  3. Γεια σου Matt,
    this is a very interesting post to me! Since I’m living on the Greek island of Samos for some months now (originally being from Germany and not considering going back already), the story about the Greek-Gongolese musical relation really amazed me. I didn’t know anything about that before.
    I’ve been liking Rembetika and, of course, most any kind of African music, so thanks for this historical trip!
    Keep up this site, it’s really interesting!
    Γεια χαρα,
    El Greco

    P.S.: Greek letters meaning
    1. Hello!
    2. Good-bye, happiness to you


  4. The OK Jazz and the Rochereau tracks are outstanding. Thanks!


  5. Interesting idea. I’ve wondered similarly about Jamaica – If the Chinese-Jamaican record producers had any influence on Chinese themed reggae and ska of the 60s and 70s (Augustus Pablo, Lee Perry, Desmond Dekker…)


  6. Indeed, great stuff! I’ve been reading the same book (R on the R). In terms of 78s, the first few chapters are completely essential. All the Opikas, Loningisas and Ngomas that I’ve either found on my own, or have heard firsthand (apart from all the wonderful stuff on the Ngoma and Roots of Rhumba comps) are truly beautiful. There was also what looks to have been a subsidiary of Opika that doesn’t seem to appear in any of the books: Kina was the name. I’ve only tracked down one. Anyone else?

    And one can hardly go wrong with anything by the great Rosa Eskenazi.


  7. i read gary stewart’s book. great scholarship!!! i’m over 50 (born somewhere in west africa) and grew up on a daily diet of ‘congolese’ music. so let’s see if i can give you the lowdown on some of the questions you asked. the greek-congolese musical connection was a result of the ‘fluid’ status greek immigrants had in colonial society. they were’nt colonisers and had no snobbish attitudes towards indigenous society and culture (probably some colonialists considered them ‘natives’ – remember in south africa they werent really considered whites. see if you can get some colonial literature). they were better able to feel the emotional pulse of the society because they dirtied their hands by having close contact with ‘natives’ – and so with a bit of money to invest what do you get people into your general store? so you had the jeronimidis and papadimitriou ans moussa benatar (a cypriot jew) etc. same pattern with jamaican music. the chinese were brought to the west indies after the abolition of slavery as cartel slaves – and later got into commerce. and how do you get people to come to your shop? music. so we’ve got the the veteran ‘byron lee and the dragonnaires’ – jamaica’s glorious calypso/soca veteran musician and producer – who is of chinese stock (those old enough will remember the band in their appearance and soundtrack in the james bond flick ‘dr. no). …and then reggae producers jojo hookim, leslie kong, randy chin, and of course the sound system pioneer ‘tom the great sebastian’ etc. a bit too long? i’ll stop here. just remember: globalisation started a long time ogo. but it’s underground history.


  8. Props for the diversity on the site. I am greek and for the information of your readers I d’like to say that the rembetika tracks you have posted are real rare underground gems. As for the lyrical content, Mobb Deep have called it “drug music”. Therapeutic for the user/you slam dance (= zeimbekiko!) to it.


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