by Gary Stewart
African pop would be unrecognizable today if not for Congolese giants like Franco, Dr. Nico, Grand Kalle, Tabu Ley Rochereau and others chronicled in Gary Stewart's excellent read, Rumba on the River, A History of the Popular Music of The Two Congos (Verso). Spanning the early '50s through the mid-'90s, Rumba is a credit both to Gary's impeccable research and his sheer fortitude as he manages to keep track of an ever-changing roster of bands and solo artists, including the roiling membership of Zaiko Langa Langa and its offshoots.
I knew just enough about Congolese music to hit recognizable names every few pages, but the author is gifted enough at storytelling that unfamiliar names spin into fascinating chronicles. Artists I did know came alive with heady stuff like Franco's arrest for obscene song lyrics, the touching story of Dr. Nico's last days, the wheeling-dealing of former OK Jazz saxophonist Georges Kiamuangana (better known as Verckys), and the failure of Ngoma and other Congo record labels due to corruption, mismanagement, and muscle from European-based companies. And as with Gary's last book, Breakout, Profiles in African Rhythm, he has a way of describing a song that makes you want to stop reading and immediately cue up a forgotten track.