The Soukous Stars  - Congolese Rumba Feature  
   

 
Group co-founders: Ngouma Lokito and Lokassa Ya Mbongo  

   
The Soukous Stars has been pleasing USA-based african music fans for the past several years and are currently the most interesting and authentic Congolese touring act based full-time in America.  One glimpse at a sampling of Soukous Stars albums over the past decade and one theme is certainly evident - the band has hosted top session players and singers.  Nyboma, Madilu, Yondo Sister, Dally Kimoko and others have all made their mark on this groups history.  Luckily, the most recent incarnation of the band emphasis two of the more alluring elements of Congolese music.  First, the band has several talented youthful recruits who perform the latest congolese grooves and dance crazes from Kinshasa.  Second, the band veterans add a healthy dose of rumba congolaise including songs by Franco and featuring originals by Lokassa Ya Mbongo, Ngouma Lokito, Jirbo Ntunta and Chico Mawatu.  

 

Jirbo Ntunta

 

Lokassa on Rhythm Guitar

 
   
The band came to the USA in the early 1990s and included members Nyboma, Shimita, Dally Kimoko and Yondo SisterVideo footage exists of a California tour and the group's sound was clearly in the "soukous" vein with extended sabenes (guitar solos and animations).  The mainstays of the group are still with the Soukous Stars, and include renowned rhythm guitarist Lokassa Ya Mbongo and bassist Nguema Lokito.  The ever expanding the lineup has typically included those Congolese musicians and session players who either relocated to the USA or were on extended visits.  The group has shifted its home base from Los Angeles, to New Jersey, to Washington DC and is now presently in the New York City region.   
   

Solo Guitar Legend - Chico Mawatu

   

 
   
 
   
During the 1990s, the band was known as proponents of the slick based Paris "soukous" style, which truncated the more traditional Congolese rumba by focusing solely on the sabene (guitar solo/animation finale portion of the more traditional congolese rumba).  A sampling of Soukous Stars albums, all recommended, are as follows:  The band's most recent album, Freetown At Last, is an exciting homage to the music of Sierra Leone, with a rumba twist.  
   

   
The past year and a half, the band members have stabilized with exceptional talent, the result is the most authentic sounding Congolese group now presently residing in the USA.  The line up has expanded to include, among
others, Jirbo Ntunta (dancer and vocals) and Chico Mawatu (Lead guitar and vocals).  Jirbo Ntunta sings and dances in the style reminiscent of his mentor, the great General Defao, who is one of the better vocalists in Congolese music, having perfect pitch.  Jirbo was at one point a member of Defao's former group, The Big Stars.  The General Defao, formerly of Choc Stars came (legendary Congolese orchestra of 1980s including the vocal trinity Debaba, Carlito and Defao, among others).  With smash hits including Sala Noki, Amour Interdit and Famille Kikuta 2eme Mi-Temps in the mid-1990s, Defao launched a successful solo career fronting The Big Stars band, touring Africa, Europe and finally America around 2000.  Defao's larger physique and incredible dexterity made him one of the most sought after dancers on the Congolese music scene.  His superb, perfect pitch and near operatic style of singing and strong compositional skills were evident in both live performance and on a dozen plus solo releases, all recommended.  However, due to logistic difficulties of a lengthy USA and Canada tour during 2000-2001, with a large, full orchestra entourage, the strains were felt and sadly the legendary Big Stars orchestra sadly dissolved.  Reports from that tour, as well as photos of one of the band's last concerts together, are located on this website.  Band members were quickly snatched up by the leading Congolese orchestras in Paris, including Koffi Olomide's Quartier Latin and Bozi Boziana's L'Anti-Choc band.  Some band members remained in the USA and Canada, including Jirbo Ntunta.  With the addition of Jirbo Ntunta to the Soukous Stars, the band has dropped some of its slicker Paris "soukous" sound and has embraced a more soulful, rumba congolese style that includes scorching raunchier and far more exciting sabenes.  These dances and animations are accompagnied by the Soukous Stars dancing troupe which includes up to 6 female dancers lead by Jirbo.  Live performances also include traditional skits that include straw skirts and whistle blowing (see live concert photos in this feature).
 
 
   

 

 

   

 
   

 
   
   
Another recent recruit into the Soukous Stars lineup is Chico Mawatu, who although relatively unknown in the USA is considered by Congolese music connoisseurs to be a significant contributor to the the rumba congolaise genre.  He also happens to be a superb lead guitar, and the mix of Chico and Lokassa results in a magical performance.  Chico has penned several superb Congolese rumba hits many of which he performs at the live concerts.  Chico gains further American exposure via the Soukous Stars platform and we would suggest that the band include his name on future marketing flyers.  

Chico Mawatu

 
   
Most important for concert goers is the renewed rumba emphasis that Chico has brought to the Soukous Stars.  Chico' has mastered the guitar technique for classic congolese rumba and it is a revelation to hear the interplay
between Chico's solo guitar and Lokassa's rhythm.    This is all peppered by the thumping bassline and adventurous percussion that forms the foundation of the band.  Performing his own compositions, as well as classics by Franco and Taby Ley Rochereau, a good third of any current Soukous Stars concert is indeed classic Congolese rumba.
 
   

 
   

   

 

 

   
With all of the positive changes that have occurred to the Soukous Stars this past year and a half, AfricaSounds recommends that you revisit the band to hear the depth and breadth that their performance provide.  The classic
"soukpus" medleys are still there, but so too are the latest in urban Congolese guitar and dance riffs, as well as the lilting classic rumba sound.
 
   
   

   
   

 

   
The band has been busy in the studio, with a recent release entitled "Freetown, At Last" dedicated to the often neglected music of Sierra Leone.    The album is superbly produced and highlights classic works from that
country's repertoire, as interpreted by Congolese musicians.  It is a classy tribute and well worth your examination.  In addition, Jirbo Ntunta is readying his solo release, which will be on the market soon and will expand upon his soulful style of modern rumba.  The band recently at
tended the International Reggae Music Awards 2004 and performed a scorching set, photos of which are included in this feature.
 

 

 International Reggae Music Awards 2004