Congolese Rumba and Soukous Star Koffi Olomide

The other day, while checking out the various (and many) African internet radio stations on Radio Garden, I zoomed over to Congo and discovered Radio Digital Congo/Radio Okapi (digitalcongo.net), broadcasting from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As the catchy rhythms rang out through my speakers, I didn’t need Shazam to recognize the sweet music of Koffi Olomide. His mellifluous voice once earned him the nickname the “Luther Vandross of Congolese music.”

Koffi Olomide, 1977. (Photo courtesy of dicap ipups)

Like Vandross, Olomide writes the type of lyrics that make women swoon. He also knows how to sweet talk them with his baritone à la Barry White. Olomide specializes in Congolese rumba—a glorious combination of African and Cuban sounds—as well as in its hip-shaking musical cousin, soukous, which is derived from traditional Congolese rumba. The word, soukous, comes from the French word, “secouer,” which means “to shake” (your hips and booty, that is).

Olomide is a colorful and sometimes controversial figure, whose history of assault has been caught on camera, when he kicked one of his dancers just last year (which he eventually apologized for). I don’t condone or trivialize the violence, obviously. It’s a pity, given the incredibly sweet sound of his music.

More recently, there have been rumors of Olomide’s illness and even death. This past week, there were purported reports in Kinshasa of his passing at the age of 60, following a brief illness. I searched the web, but found no reputable news outlets that have reported on any of this so it could all just be a bizarre rumor…

Hearing Olomide’s music on Congolese internet radio filled me with nostalgia for a time when this city hosted more African musicians. I’m pretty certain Olomide has never toured Los Angeles because I would have been there if he had. Back in the 1980s, African bands came to perform in town almost every week: at West LA’s Music Machine (then the epicenter of touring African bands); The Palace in Hollywood; the Greek Theatre; The Alligator Lounge; and many other venues. There was one show in February of 1983 that I’ll never forget, when King Sunny Ade performed at the Hollywood Palladium. His jùjú music blew the minds of the entire crowd that night, dancing with joy in that 5,000-person capacity venue.

Koffi Olomide. (Photo by dicap ipups)

Los Angeles was lucky to host so many African performing artists in the ’80s: Mbilia Bel, Fela Kuti, soukous band Les Quatre ÉtoilesPapa Wemba, Barrister, Alpha Blondy, Ebeneezer Obey, and countless others come to mind. Tabu Ley Rochereau performed once here as well, at a club that later became Luna Park, on Robertson Boulevard in West Hollywood.

KCRW had a popular African music show back then called The African Beat, which was co-hosted by C.C. Smith (publisher of Beat Magazine), Solomon Solo Egbuho, and Ade James. The African Beat promoted African shows that came through LA at a time when the LA Times actually had music writers covering the African music scene. Los Angeles earned its cred as the West Coast Mecca of African music.

Fans here can still hear African music on local radio and see the occasional live performance, but it’s become much tougher for bands to tour in the States. ICE and Homeland Security post-9/11 have made it increasingly difficult for African artists to obtain proper visas. Lack of radio and print promotion hurt as well. Not to mention the shrinking of the music industry and disappearance of music retail outlets across the country. Europeans are luckier as far as concerts are concerned, since African bands still tour the Continent regularly.

I guess we’re fortunate to at least have Radio Garden. Hearing Koffi Olomide and all the other great talents brings back treasured memories for me. My love and appreciation for African music is a blessing that will remain with me forever. I am grateful to have been exposed to so much of it back in the ’80s. Nowadays, we have internet radio to thank, as well as the true believers who still run the small record labels that continue to issue African music, a labor of love that pays rich—if not monetary—dividends for all involved.

Here is the official video for “Selfie” from Koffi’s album, 13ième Apôtre (13th Apostle), from 2015. It’s outrageous and funny and infectious. It’s impossible to resist dancing to this song.

Banner image: Koffi Olomidé & Quartier Latin by dicap ipups (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr.