L’Orchestre Afrisa International
Seattle, Washington and Los Angeles, California
The celebrated soukous ensemble, L’Orchestre Afrisa International, has embarked on a much-anticipated reunion tour, and this year brings the compelling dance sounds of “one of Africa’s most enduring and prolific bands” to the Richmond Folk Festival.
Emerging out of the urban centers of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), soukous is one of the most influential music genres to come out of Africa in the last century. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, musicians in Kinshasa mixed sounds from South America and the Caribbean, especially Afro-Cuban and Haitian elements, with traditional Congolese music. The result was African rumba, later called soukous, which spread across the continent in the 1970s. Soukous, from the French word for “shake,” is characterized by a distinctive guitar-picking style that is both rhythmic and melodic. This style harkens back to both the playing technique of the African thumb piano (the 800-year-old instrument called a likembe in the Congo) and the piano rhythms employed in Afro-Cuban rumba. The music’s mellow yet exciting quality, its distinctive cultural influences, and its lyrics, sung in the interethnic language of Lingala, combine to captivate audiences worldwide.
The definitive soukous band L’Orchestre Afrisa International was the creation of the singer, composer, and bandleader Tabu Ley, one of Congolese music’s most influential and charismatic figures. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he sang with Joseph Kabasele’s foundational group Orchestre African Jazz, before launching a series of bands which eventually became Afrisa International in 1970. Afrisa quickly became one of the most popular bands in Africa, but in the political tumult of the late 1980s they went into exile in France and later moved to the United States. After the fall of the Mobutu regime in 1997, Tabu Ley returned to Kinshasa to serve in the government of the newly renamed Democratic Republic of Congo. L’Orchestre Afrisa International disbanded, but its spirit lived on in the work of numerous Afrisa alumni who remained in the U.S., playing soukous for fans both new and old.
On his deathbed in 2013, Tabu Ley extracted a promise from his longtime bandmate Modero Mekanisi: that Modero would keep Ley’s legacy alive. Now Modero leads this reunion of many of Ley’s key musicians; in addition to Modero Mekanisi on saxophone and backing vocals, the band features returning Afrisa stalwarts Wawali Bonane Bungu and Monoko Doddo Gisalu on lead vocals, Nseka Bimwela (“Huit Kilos”) on lead guitar, Omba Shungu (“Ngouma Lokito”) on bass, and Parigo Asuka on drums and vocals. They are joined by West Coast musicians Hussein Kalonji on rhythm guitar and Jim Shafer on percussion. Following their time in the original incarnation of Afrisa, these musicians went on to play a central role in creating a vibrant African music scene in their adopted communities in Seattle and Los Angeles. Through this reunion, they continue Tabu Ley’s work of bringing the sound of soukous to the world.