From Congo to Cuba to Congo



excerpt from Bob W. White (

How it is that Afro- Cuban records actually made it to African urban centers during the colonial period—this is a history that remains to be written; even specialists of ethnic recordings in the early years of the international record industry lament the lack of information available for the Caribbean and Africa.

Preliminary findings, however, do point in certain directions. We know, for instance, that as early as the 1890s record companies such as Edison (U.S.) and Pathé (France) were recording local artists in Havana. By 1904, larger record companies such as Columbia and Victor (both based in the U.S.) were sending field agents and engineers to Havana on a biannual basis, but as the companies that came before them, they were primarily interested in recruiting and recording classical music, opera, military bands and ballroom dance orchestras .

It was not until later that record companies expressed interest in local popular music: Victor first recorded the legendary son group Sexteto Habanero in New York in 1920 and Sexteto Nacional, their primary rival, was picked up by Columbia in 1926. In 1928 Victor discovered the Trio Oriental in Santiago, Cuba and brought them to Camden, New Jersey to record as the Trio Matamoros.

The music of the classic early son groups was extremely popular at home and abroad, and it was probably with hopes that these records could boost international sales that the G.V. series was launched by EMI on the His Master’s Voice label in 1933.

Before the 1940s the majority of the records listened to in Leopoldville were manufactured in Europe and imported to the Belgian Congo through the country’s principal port of entry, Matadi. During this period it was common for African sailors to bring back records from their travels abroad, some of which were intended as gifts and others that would be sold to friends or acquaintances.

It was also common for such transactions to happen through roving vendors at or around the port as boats arrived from overseas. After the arrival of radio technology to the region, the demand for pre-recorded music increased substantially and a number of local merchants began to see records as a potentially lucrative venture.

A Belgian radio enthusiast and entrepreneur by the name of Hourdebise, who in 1939 opened the first commercial radio station in the Congo, regularly played records from the G.V. series on the air, but he also devoted a regular part of air time to local artists; in fact it was Hourdebise who is credited with discovering the legendary singer-songwriter Wendo Kolosoy.

The G.V. series was not necessarily the first Afro-Cuban music to be heard in the Congo, but it certainly seemed to have the most impact. It was the music of preference for Congolese living in the fast-paced, quickly growing colonial city of Leopoldville, and it remained popular up until locally recorded commercial music became widely available.

There were other musical styles that were available to Congolese audiences—French crooner music like that of Tino Rossi and Patrice et Mario, various types of Caribbean music that people refer to vaguely as Antillais, fanfare or marching band music, and of course church hymns and mission music—but the songs of the G.V. series are the ones that elicit the most passionate response from Congolese who were born or living in Leopoldville during the 1930s.

The well-known Congolese artist Luambo Makiadi “Franco” said in a personal interview a few years before his death:

“Some people think they hear a ‘Latin’ sound in our music… It only comes from the instrumentation, trumpets and so on. Maybe they are thinking of the horns. But the horns only play the vocal parts in our natural singing style. The melody follows the tonality of Lingala, the guitar parts are African and so is the rumba rhythm. Where is the Latin? Zairian music does not copy Cuban music. Some Cubans say it does, but we say their music follows ours. You know, our people went from Congo to Cuba long before we ever heard their music”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s