Koffi Olomide

& Quartier Latin Internationale

Royal Festival Hall, London - 30 March 2005

Feature and photos copyright Martin Sinnock

Editors Note: All photos copyright Martin Sinnock - March 2005.  Unauthorized use is prohibited.

When it was initially advertised that Koffi Olomide would appear at the series of events known as Africa Remix in London’s celebrated South Bank Centre I was sceptical about the likelihood of Koffi and the full Quartier Latin entourage actually arriving.  It is extremely difficult for a large Congolese orchestre comprising in excess of 25 musicians and dancers to organise themselves for a UK appearance scheduled to commence at 1730 hours.  However I remained hopeful that the experienced and well resourced promoters would be able to deal with the notoriously difficult UK authorities who have become even more reluctant to issue work permits and entry visas following Papa Wemba’s human trafficking scandal.  


Only four years earlier, in 2001, I had been equally doubtful about Koffi’s scheduled appearance at the New York City Lincoln Center Festival.  On that occasion I was proved spectacularly wrong when his 27 piece ensemble, which included eight young female dancers, appeared at the La Guardia “Fame School” concert hall.  The event turned out to be one of those landmark performances that even warranted a review and photograph in the New York Times (Check out the LINK to our feature on this event). 






In exactly the same way that he had broken across to a different audience in New York City the Africa Remix concert of Koffi Olomide at London’s prestigious Royal Festival Hall on the River Thames South Bank was an opportunity for Africa’s biggest selling artist to perform to a predominantly non-Congolese public and press for the first time in the UK.  Whilst Koffi has been a regular visitor to London he has always previously played to the ex-pat Congolese audience in remote venues in Hackney, Tottenham, Stratford, Stonebridge Park, and Brixton.  His usual performances are lengthy, late-start, all-night affairs that the Congolese and some other African audiences find perfectly normal.  Most non-Congolese fans of African music are reluctant to travel to remote and isolated venues for performances that frequently don’t commence until 0100 or 0200 hours in the morning and continue for up to five hours.  
The performance on the 30 March was part of a lengthy series of major events billed as Africa Remix and taking place in some upmarket and prestigious central London venues.  Support and publicity was received from the mainstream press as well as “World Music” magazines like Songlines.  Consequently the public that attended were probably not as familiar with Koffi’s music as they might be with the work of other major African artists who have received more publicity in the West.  



The capacity audience were to witness a remarkable concert by one of the world’s great live performers.  What most of the audience would not have even known is that the line-up of Koffi’s Quartier Latin International was made up of London based Congolese musicians.  Koffi was booked to make a series of appearances in South Africa immediately following the London performance and he chose to leave his band back in Africa and use some of the talented musicians that now base themselves in London.  






Appointed as chef d’orchestre in charge of recruitment and musical arrangements was Safro Manzangi.  Safro is the rhythm guitarist, originally a member of Papa Wemba’s Viva la Musica, who broke away with King Kester Emeneya and a large part of Wemba’s musicians to form Victoria Eleison in the early eighties.  For many years Safro and his former colleague in Victoria Eleison, soloist “Satana” Mongo Ley, have been based in the UK where they have continued to perform with many of the visiting stars of Congolese music.  For this major appearance with Koffi Olomide Safro told me that he was faced with a big problem: Every Congolese musician in London wanted to be part of the impromptu group.  He went on to explain to me how musicians were almost begging him to take them into the entourage.  Furthermore, when it became known that female dancers would be auditioned there was a queue of nubile young girls stretching down the road.  It was originally intended that Safro would bring Satana into the group for the show but in the end Koffi asked one of his former Quartier Latin guitarists Lebou Kabuya, now based in Paris, to come over.      

Another ex member of the group Champion Esthetique, one of Congolese music’s most exceptional drummers, was also invited by Koffi to re-take his place at the core of the rhythm section.  The rest of the temporary Quartier Latin squad were duly auditioned and recruited by Safro.  Joining Lebou and Safro were two more guitarists Shaber and Christian plus bass player Claude Bula.  Young keyboard player Longo filled out the sound whilst Tanzanian conga player Saidi Kanda boosted the percussion department.  Attempting to replace Koffi’s vocal line-up is an impossible task but Safro wisely chose a couple of solid UK based singers Rabbi Makuta (a former member of Defao’s Big Stars) and Nickens Nkoso.  In addition he picked some younger guys Gianni, Ido, animateur Charmant, and the centre stage attraction (both vocally and for his expressive dancing) Rossignol Koshar.  Not only did Rossignol sound good but he bore an uncanny resemblance to Quartier Latin singer Fally Ipupa – so much so that even Koffi started to call him Fally during the rehearsals.  Rather than attempting to recreate the complex dance routines of Koffi’s troupe of Koffiettes it was decided to recruit just two female dancers from London – Naomi and Stoney.  These two young girls may have little experience of performing with top Congolese bands but the effort that they put into their appearance with Koffi was as good as virtually any of the better known female dancers I have ever seen.  The band had spent five days rehearsing enough material for a two hour performance and they totally committed themselves to the task.  






\Starting the performance with a “generique” it seemed initially that the show might stumble into disaster at the first hurdle.  Lebou had a connection problem with his guitar lead and was badly out of tune (too many beers before the show?), and the sound balance was all over the place.  After a few minutes the musicians found some kind of semblance of order and they went into the anthemic song “Micko” after which Koffi bounced onto the stage with confidence and enthusiasm.  He flashed a couple of severe looks across to Lebou who quickly received the message and managed to sort his guitar problem for the rest of the performance.  Koffi oozed charm, chatted in his broken English, smiled a lot, and sang like the experienced and consummate artist he is.  The set balanced out old favourites with a couple of new tunes.  Having started his performance with the ballad “Coucou”, from his older repertoire, Koffi lifted the excitement with “Andrada”.  This was followed by the tour-de-force “Magie” in which they resurrected the old Ndombolo dance step – to the delight of the audience.  From the recent album, Monde Arabe, came the classic lengthy ballad “Silivi” followed by the powerful “Respect”, finally closing the show with more of the dynamic current Quartier Latin “generique”.




Alright – this was not a true Quartier Latin spectacle.  A stripped down stand-in band with two local dancing girls sounds like it might have turned out to be a huge disappointment.  However this event was just as enjoyable as many of the full Quartier Latin performances I have seen.  By restricting themselves to less than two hours stage-time the musicians were able to throw their full effort into pleasing the crowd.  Singer Rossignol was particularly active – pulling faces to the audience and exaggerating his dance steps to almost comical levels.  The backing musicians were solid and the two girls were cute, enthusiastic and full of character.  Koffi was masterful and showed himself to be a good ambassador for Congolese music by keeping the show tight, and by making the audience feel involved.  Clearly the audience were impressed and the only negative reaction came from a London evening newspaper whose reviewer declared the show to be "horrible", “cacophonous”, “excruciating” and “the aural equivalent of a marathon – with blisters”.  Clearly the reviewer was unfamiliar with Olomide’s music (I’d heard him asking the promoter for a list of song titles before the performance) and he was obviously unprepared for the Olomide “live experience”.  

Prior to the show I chatted to Koffi in his dressing room and he acknowledged that this event was an opportunity to expose his music beyond the African audience.  (The BBC actually recorded part of the show for broadcast).  I compared it to his first New York City performance – an event that he remembers very favourably.  His fondness for North America was clearly evident as he enthused about his visit to Niagara Falls and particularly for some vacation time that he and his wife had spent in Florida.  This prompted me to ask about the slightly thorny issue of the title of his most recent album Monde Arabe.  There has been some criticism from some quarters of the Congolese media suggesting that the album packaging might be construed as provocative in the light of 911.  Koffi happily made it very clear to me that his Arab influenced attire and the album title bore no relevance to 911.  He emphasised, with good humour, that the title is not THE Arab World it is just Arab World.  This explanation I took to mean that his title merely acknowledges that there is an “Arab World” but the world is not “The Arab World” (i.e. The Arab world is just another culture that helps to enrich the planet).  This I sincerely hope is a fair judgement on what Koffi was trying to explain to me.  


I’ve been privileged to meet Koffi Olomide several times over a period of 15 years and often in quite different circumstances.  These days I find him far more relaxed, convivial and communicative.  His concerts are always interesting and usually spectacular.  His recordings are also of a very high standard – even though some of his recent albums are starting to sound a little repetitive and lengthy.  Without doubt he is one of the world’s greatest artists.

Martin Sinnock