Diblo Dibala, Bouger New York !  
   
   
   
Feature by AfricaSounds

Photography by William Farrington and Sal Principato

 
   
SOBs Nightclub: December 1996  
   
An enthusiastic crowd at Manhattan’s SOB’s witnessed a rare winter treat as guitar wizard Diblo Dibala and his acclaimed Soukous band, Matchatcha, hit the stage for an evening of modern Congolese Rumba music. On every fan’s mind that night was the stark reality that this was to be the one and only Soukous event of the winter season. The evening’s loyal turnout revealed that although Soukous music is disappointingly absent from New York as of late, the fans are numerous and supportive of this fiery Central African dance music. Diblo Dibala appeared truly satisfied with the crowd that night, his posture was at cool ease as he pushed his Matchatcha band on and on with a barrage of intense and delirious guitar licks. Often a song would begin as a romantic ballad, only to be slowly transformed and reworked by Diblo’s guitar playing into a hot dance track.  
   
Within each song, Diblo’s solo work would lead the music to higher and higher heights of listening pleasure. He has mastered the electric guitar, to such an extent that he can add intriguing new elements to a song without sounding cliché. Yet Diblo was able to do this while maintaining an important hold on Soukous’ tradition. At the root of each super-charged song was an essence of the Congolese Rumba music as was popularized in the heyday of the 1950’s.  Diblo Dibala is no newcomer to Soukous.  
   
As he explained, "I began playing the guitar around the age of 14," during the heyday of Luambo Makiadi "Franco’s" musical reign in Kinshasa. Within a couple of years, Diblo’s rumba guitar skills caught the attention of "le maitre" Franco himself, who offered Diblo opportunities in his band, L’Orchestre O.K. Jazz, as well as in the studio. It was in the Kinshasa’s studios that Diblo really excelled; he quickly became one of Zaire’s top session musicians, reportedly playing and composing music for some sixty albums by other artists. This coincided with a continent-wide boom in Congolese music throughout Central, West, and East Africa. Rumba had caught the hearts of many African listeners, and was particularly popular throughout
the bars and radio stations of Africa.
 
   
In the early eighties, Diblo decided to move on, as did many of his compatriots, to the more lucrative and fashionable cities of Europe. It was in the French capital of Paris that Diblo joined forces with Kanda Banda Man, the leader of an impressive new Soukous band. Together, Diblo and Kanda pioneered a new and red-hot Soukous style that was virtually a stripped down version of the tradition Congolese rumba. Gone were the elaborate choral arrangements and the strategic three part structure of the rumba song. The new Soukous started with a bang and continued in a constant escalation of guitar licks, accelerating until the final notes of the song. It was a progressive sound that could captivate an increasingly large urban audience.  
   
Despite the overwhelming success of their collaboration, Diblo decided to break away from Kanda’s band and front his own group of musicians in 1986, in a group which he called Loketo. The band highlighted veteran vocalist Aurlus Mabele, and created a sound that appealed to a sophisticated, urban and youthful audience. Diblo’s guitar came to the forefront, and Loketo allowed him to showcase his superior dexterity on the guitar to an ever-increasing audience.  
   
Three resulting albums were produced on the Shanachie label, the standouts being 1990’s "Soukous Trouble" and 1991’s "Extra Ball." Their accompanying U.S. tours also introduced Soukous to a new American audience, paving the way for
countless other Soukous artists in the future. Shortly after the third album was released, Diblo regrouped to form his present band, Matchatcha.
 
   
The band Matchatcha is thus the result of a complex evolution that Soukous has undergone over the past twenty years. In our interview after the SOB’s concert, Diblo explained in French that he draws musical inspiration "first from Franco, second from the Cuban rumba style that was popularized throughout Africa in the 50’s, and finally [from the Jazz guitar great,] George Benson." The combination of these elements is evident on the group’s most recent album, entitled "My Love" on the
French Atoll label. Diblo chose to showcase many of the new songs that night.
 
   

With the hit "Maman," Diblo experiments with an element of distortion on his electric guitar. The result is a pseudo hard-rock Soukous, grittier and meaner than the clean and soaring songs that many are accustomed to. For the purists, Diblo offers a host of ballads and romantic offerings, the new song "My Love" being a prime example. Next, the single "Fiancée" is a very intriguing and modern sounding collaboration with Ray Lema, who is notable for his experimental ventures. Finally, with the instrumental "Radi," Diblo explores blues and jazz dimensions while skipping in and out of a Soukous melody. It is
in this song where his guitar techniques are best appreciated.

 
   
During our post-concert discussion, Diblo commented on the differences between the Paris scene and the reception he has found here in America over the years. Diblo believes that "Soukous is as strong as ever in France, but the initial excitement once associated with its discovery is now gone." Indeed, mention Soukous to anyone in Paris and chances are they can cite some song or at least identify the musical style.  
   
Thus in Paris, "Soukous and the notion of African music go hand in hand." When comparing Paris to the United States, Diblo cites that "much progress has been made in America over the past 10 years, when groups such as Loketo introduced the music to a new audience."  
   
Today soukous is becoming known in America, and "Matchatcha is touring much of the United States... Dallas, New York, California, and especially Chicago, where we had a very big audience." Diblo believes that Soukous has far to go, and that it has the strength to continue to conquer America. "Soukous involves an element of spectacle... there is a melangé
of everything in our concerts; we have the rumba beat, the guitar element and the singing.
 
   
We also have the female dancers, [who constantly change costumes,] and this our audiences always love." With a little of
everything to offer the music lover, Diblo believes that the Soukous concert is the primary force behind its continued popularity abroad. It is a music that continues to capitvate, despite linguistic boundaries.  Judging from his warm reception in New York, Diblo and his entourage will be back to play many times in the future.