If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’m a fan of avant-garde Ugandan labels Nyege Nyege Tapes and Hakuna Kalala. And now and then I’ve written in the Reader about current African artists, among them Nihiloxica, Kirani Ayat, and Muthoni Drummer Queen. But I’ve long listened to older sounds from the continent—soukous, juju, mbalax, highlife, mbaqanga, apala, benga, fuji—and I don’t often have a timely reason to post about them in Chicago.
Fortunately, sharing music that’s decades past its press cycle is one purpose of this column. The Listener is for whatever we like, and that’s the only rule—as Salem Collo-Julin demonstrated last week by writing about a collection of vintage in-store music mixes from Kmart.
To celebrate the second spring of the longest year of my life, I’m revisiting an old favorite: “Ngui-Ngon,” released by all-star Congolese soukous band Tiers Monde Cooperation on their 1983 debut album, Nouvelle Formule. Unlike everything else I’ve covered in the Listener since December, this song doesn’t reflect the deterioration of my mental and physical health or my rapidly eroding faith in the future of America. It’s beautiful, it’s fun, and you can even dance to it.
- “Ngui-Ngon” also came out as a single in Kenya.
Airy, buoyant, and fabulously intricate, the song’s instrumental backing sparkles like a huge diamond slowly turning in the sun—its kaleidoscopic tumble of multiple electric guitars is a signature feature of soukous. Bubbly bass and chattering, frisky percussion power the groove, and every so often sassy, high-stepping saxophones parachute in from what feels like a different studio.
This fascinating lattice of notes and rhythms is what got me into soukous in the first place, so I’m frequently annoyed by vocal-forward productions like “Ngui-Ngon.” Here, though, I don’t mind, because the singing is so good.
The three front men pictured on the album cover are Sam Mangwana, Empompo Loway (also a saxophonist), and Ndombe Opetum. I think they all sing on “Ngui-Ngon”—that’s almost certainly Mangwana’s high, breezy tenor in the mix on the choruses—and I’m about 70 percent sure Opetum takes lead on the verses.
The lyrics are in Lingala, and if anyone reading this can offer a translation, I’d be grateful. Lingala evolved from a 19th-century trade language called Bobangi; it borrows from French, English, Spanish, and Portuguese, as well as from other African languages such as Swahili and Kikongo. Like French, it’s a common choice in soukous due to its status as a lingua franca—the Congo’s many ethnic groups speak almost 250 languages.
I love the way the vocal melody’s triplet rhythms trip light-footed across the beat, and the little swell in the chorus’s gorgeous, melancholy harmonies gets me every time. There’s nothing quite like the painfully sweet mix of joy and sorrow in great soukous.
Descended from Congolese rumba, which combined local folk with imported Caribbean and Latin elements in the 40s, soukous added influences from soul and rock in the 60s and 70s. By the time Tiers Monde Cooperation formed in 1983, the genre had influenced almost every form of popular music in Africa and was building audiences in London and Paris. It was the tail end of the long golden age of giant soukous bands, when it wasn’t uncommon to see more than 20 musicians onstage.
The front men of Tiers Monde Cooperation came to it from gigs with the giants of Congolese music. Mangwana, who’s still alive at 76, debuted professionally in 1963 with African Fiesta, a band led by singer and composer Tabu Ley Rochereau, a pioneer of modern soukous and one of the most influential African musicians of the 20th century. In 1972 he joined TPOK Jazz, the long-running group of guitarist, singer, and songwriter Franco Luambo Makiadi, who was perhaps Rochereau’s only peer. By the time Mangwana formed Tiers Monde Cooperation, he’d been a solo act for a few years and become popular outside Africa.
Loway, who died in 1990, had become friends with Mangwana when they played together in TPOK Jazz. Opetum, who died in 2012, had replaced Mangwana in Rochereau’s group Afrisa International in the mid-70s and later joined Franco’s band too. TPOK Jazz vocalists Djo Mpoyi and Diatho Lukoki were also involved in Tiers Monde Cooperation, though to be honest I couldn’t say to what extent.
Riding the career momentum of Mangwana and his comrades, “Ngui-Ngon” won over listeners across Africa—it was re-pressed as a single by the Lake Victoria label in Kenya. Later releases by Tiers Monde Cooperation also came out in France.
Today the song remains available on a reissue compilation you can hear through Apple Music, Tidal, Amazon Music, Spotify, and elsewhere, though it’s hardly well remembered in the States. Consider this my attempt to do something about that. v
The Listener is a weekly sampling of music Reader staffers love. Absolutely anything goes, and you can reach us at email@example.com.