Arts, Culture & Media

Global hit

Our Global Hit takes us to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The African nation has many great musicians. But only a handful achieve name recognition outside the African continent. Wendo Kolosoy was a singer and songwriter whose fame was unfortunately limited to Congo and a few other African countries.

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But IN Congo he was huge. Kolosoy died earlier this week in Kinshasa. He was 82. The World's Marco Werman has this appreciation of the man known as the "father of Congolese rumba."

"Marie Louise" was the hit that made Wendo Kolosoy. The singer of his generation in Congo.

It came out in 1948. Kolosoy's story is the subject of a just-released documentary called "On The Rumba River."

The film's director Jacques Sarasin realized just how revered the singer was in Congo while filming Kolosoy on a boat along the Congo River.

�We were on a small riverboat for 10 or 12 hours and the people on the shore were shouting his name. And when we went to the village where he was born you had maybe 100,000 people waiting for him. He was always surrounded by 500 to 600 people, even at night, people were always around him.�

To really appreciate what made Wendo Kolosoy so special, you need to start with this music.

It's not from Congo. It's from Cuba. It's the Sexteto Habanero. RCA Victor recorded them in Camden, New Jersey in 1925.

That recording was part of a series of Cuban music that Victor released in the 20s and 30s. The 78 records were known as the G-V Series -- or zhay-vay as they said in francophone Congo. Bob White is a music writer and an anthropologist at the University of Montreal.

�Everyone from that generation, in other words from the early to middle colonial period, have some familiarity or memory of the GV series. And so Wendo and his friends were listening to these recordings that were actually Afro-Cuban son montuno recordings. And so Wendo tells great stories as do most people of his age about how their parents would play these records, and how they would be like the center of social activity in the living room on a Sunday afternoon. But when you talk to Wendo and his colleagues from that period, they explained to me that they had a strange kind of wonderful relationship with these recordings because they knew that they were foreign, and that they were not African. But at the same time, they heard something of Africa in them. But they always come back to G-V. "Ah GV, ca c'est la bonne musique!"

Wendo Kolosoy was a tough urbanite from Kinshasa. He actually began his professional life as a boxer. But that all changed with his rumba hit "Marie-Louise."

Catholic missionaries in Congo considered the song to be the work of the devil. And church officials actually got Kolosoy imprisoned briefly for the song. That's mostly because Marie-Louise had a sensuality not expected from a phonograph record.

But the hit and the jail time made Kolosoy a hero in Congo. Here's Bob White again.

�He became so iconic for the generation, that that first generation of musicians is actually referred to as "the time of the Wendos." Literally in Lingala, the term that is used is "tangwi a ba wendo." Which means the time of the Wendos. He resurfaces in almost every generation. First in the 40s, then again in the 70s, and then his career is dormant for a number of years until the 1990s, and then he makes another huge comeback.�

In 1999, Wendo Kolosoy recorded a fresh version of Marie Louise, along with other new songs. It was his way of reminding the younger generation of Congolese musicians how their rumba used to be made. Bob White remembers that Kolosoy was always nostalgic for those early days.

�He said this thing to me that was really interesting where we were talking about the way Kinshasa had become a difficult city. It used to be a really beautiful city, and the way the music had changed. And he said, you know, the music today isn't like the way that we were when we were kids. He said, you know, we used to play music without sweating. Now it's all just dust .�

That's not to say Wendo Kolosoy can't create that commotion.

It's expected that the upcoming funeral ceremonies in Kinshasa for Kolosoy will be among the biggest the city has ever seen.

For The World, I'm Marco Werman.

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