My generation came of age with ace Congolese rhythm guitarist Lokassa ya M’bongo, the man who taught us how to dance, seduce girls, have fun on moonlit December nights; how to wear silk and viscose shirts with the top-three buttons undone to show off our sprouting chest hairs, and how to bleach our faces with Ambi cream and soften our hair with Hair Glo gel and then comb it out straaaaight, like the crown of a tree. He’s also the man who taught us how to wear imitation silver bling and spritz ourselves with cheap Yolanda colognes and hoist our trousers to chest-level, holding them up with a wide black belt with a shiny chrome buckle. This is the man who taught us how to walk and look fashionable.
We all met him at disco matangas, unfortunately, where he first spoke to us through the speaker of an old gramophone. We had placed it over a huge water pot with a little water in it (to amplify the sound so that it could be heard in the next ridge) – that is how we engineered sound back then. He was singing “Monica”, that song that went something like ‘‘Monica eeee . . . eeh… eeee . .. eeh…, Monica oooo . . . ooh . . . oooo… ooh…’’ and then ‘‘…asalaka what what what…’’, that French stuff that we didn’t care to know what it meant so long as he kept strumming his guitar and our groins were grinding against girls we fancied. That was all we lived for.
The man from the Democratic Republic of Congo wasn’t as young as we were but he was way livelier. He lived in Paris, we’d learn, the city of lights that stayed awake long after the rest of the world went to sleep. The city of music, fashion and love.
And there was a special reason why we were friends with Lokassa.
For a long time, our parents had made us listen to slow rumba on the radio. It had lots of blowing things in it like ducks quacking, and this other instrument in the background that went boom-boooom . . . boom-booom . . . boom-booooom . . . Well, it wasn’t that bad. Only that it made you go to sleep.
And then along came Lokassa with this exciting fast-paced guitar that made you spring up and start dancing, his performances supported by a troupe comprising guys like Shimita Lukombo ‘El Diego’, Ngouma Lokito, Ballou Canta, Saladin Fereira,Dally Kimoko, Zitany Neil and Komba Bellow. But the star for us at our disco matangas was Lokassa’s dancing sensation, the vixen with an agile and seemingly boneless waist, Yondo “Sister” Kusala, who would shortly drive us wild whenever VCR tapes came around and we were able to see her ‘in the flesh’ as she showcased her dancing prowess in the music videos.
This was the music we had been waiting for.
Born Lokassa Kasia Denis in Kinshasa in 1946, Lokassa cut his teeth with Tabu Ley’s Afrisa International – then called African Fiesta National – who he played with from 1969 to 1978, featuring alongside guitarists Michelino and Dino Vangu. Keeping a low profile, Lokassa accompanied Tabu Ley’s band to their breakthrough performance at the famed Olympia Hall in Paris in 1970.
Lokassa then broke away from Afrisa in 1978 while on tour in Abidjan, teaming up with guitarist Dizzy Madjeku, drummer Ringo Moya and singer Sam Mangwana to form the African All Stars. They played together for only a year, before breaking up while in Togo. Among the hits Lokassa released with African All Stars were “Makengo” and “Zamba y’Africa”.
When African All Stars split up, Lokassa stayed on in Togo for a while, setting up base in Lomé, where he occasionally teamed up with roving Congolese musicians such as Nyboma Mwan’dido, Syrian Mbenza and Bopol Mansiamina. Nyboma, Syrian and Bopol would later team up with Wuta Mayi to form the supergroup Les Quatre Etoiles. It was around this time when he christened himself Lokassa ya M’bongo – literally “Lokassa the Money-man”. In 1982, Lokassa briefly reunited with Mandjeku, Mangwana and Moya to release a couple of recordings as African All Stars, among them his composition “Bonne Année’’.
Then in 1984, Lokassa left Lome for Paris, where he played as a session musician as he found his feet, making recordings with musicians such as Abeti Masikini, Kanda Bongo Man and Pepe Kalle. However, it was not until 1986 that Lokassa made his proper debut with Monica, an album containing the smash hit “Marie Josse” on the flip side. Lokassa’s and his mates’ experimentation had finally paid off, giving them a sound they were looking for: the up-tempo ‘soukouss’ beat that was taking root in Paris recording studios, and which was a radical deviation from the traditional rumba odemba that had held sway in the Congo throughout the ‘70s, and whose distinctive feature was the horn section. Lokassa was at the centre of this new movement, the new music they were making largely riding on guitars, ditching the lengthy verses that characterised rhumba, the gear upshifted to get the fans on the dancefloor. The story had been sacrificed to the god of dance, with the occasional sax playing a complimentary role.
But then Lokassa and Company weren’t the first.
The Congolese group Zaiko Langa Langa had preceded them in the early seventies with their electrifying guitar-driven music that had already set Kinshasa dancefloors on fire. Producer and musician Verkys ‘Veve’ Kiamuangana had also played a key role with his experimentation with the ‘Cavacha’ sound, working with a slew of experimental bands under his stable who he encouraged to infuse modern elements of not just sound, but showbiz as well (notably Trio Madjesi, who attained phenomenal success with their James Brown-influenced act), revolutionising the Kinshasa showbiz scene of the ‘70s.
Following in that vein, Lokassa and his contemporaries likewise infused elements of West African music in their songs, in an attempt to create a sound that would reverberate with a youthful African Diaspora resident in Europe, and at the same time colonise the dancehalls back home.
Lokassa would ramp up the tempo with the 1993 release Soukouss Gozando as the soukous fervour took hold of the Paris music scene, drawing in not just Congolese musicians, but those from French-speaking West Africa as well,who were resident in Paris. Among the non-Zairoise musicians who featured in Soukous Stars are Pierre Belcos, Luciana De Mingongo and Lucien Bokilo from Congo Brazzaville, Saladin Fereira and Arsene Kounde from Benin and Joseph Koujojo from Cameroun.
Lokassa was renowned for stringing his guitar with two E strings, putting the second in place of the normal D string, a style that was called the mi-composé, and which had been popularised by earlier Congolese rhythm-guitarists like Mwamba Dechaud.
The Soukous Stars artists were largely session musicians who came together to do a studio album or sponsored tour and then went separate ways, the reason being producers mostly owned the production and paid well for session work, which made sticking together in a band difficult since band members were often working on different projects at a given time.
It is under these shifty circumstances that the Soukous Stars band was formed in 1989 when Lokassa was working with Ballou Canta, Dally Kimoko, Shimita Lukombo, Yondo Sister and Zitany Neil on a studio project for producer Ibrahima Sylla. Their debut album, Megamix Vol 1 had the hit medley “Nairobi Night” and “Lagos Night” on the flip side, reworkings of old hits from East and West Africa but done to the up-tempo soukous beat. It flew off the pan, attaining instant success. The band would attempt this feat in 1994 with another medley, Soukouss Attack, which similarly reworked old hits to the faster soukous beat. It was while he swam in this whirlwind of fame with the Soukous Stars that Lokassa popularised the refrain: “Lokassa ya M’bongo/ Lokassa ya Dollar! Ya Pas Sonde! L’homme de l’ambiance!”
On the contrary, while his bandmates Yondo, Ballou and Shimita would be going wild forestage as the seben guitars kicked in, Lokassa would remain rooted calmly in his spot, feet planted slightly apart, serving the rhythm stew in regal splendour with his trademark beret set slightly askew as if nothing was going on.
Lokassa ya M’bongo – who had been ailing for a while, going in and out of hospital and generally keeping a low profile – was hospitalized in Nashua, New Hampshire in the United States for diabetes-related complications, where he stayed for a month.
The dollarman died on Tuesday 14 March 2023 at the age of 80.