Rhumba vs. Soukous

topic posted Fri, November 4, 2005 - 8:56 PM by  jeffura
I've been following the thread at where you say:

"As a still early-stage soukous guitarist, I have also learned to my chagrin that it's easier to play slower pieces than fast ones (duhh!), so I intend to force myself to play rhumbas for a while just as a learning tool....(gagg!)(...ahem)... god knows I won't enjoy the music I am playing, but I'm told many musicians have to suffer this indignity, so I may as well get used to it."

I can tell you from experience that the fast-paced soukous is actually much easier to play than a groovin' slow rhumba. One of the complaints that many experienced Congolese musicians have about much of the new music (Werra Son, JB Mpiana etc.) is that many of the musicians never bothered to learn to play rhumba. The western parallel would be a young contemporary musician who lists someone like Michael Jackson as a primary influence. Michael probably listened to classic Motown/R&B as a young artist, and many of the classic Motown artists were heavily influenced by original blues and jazz artists. If you never tap into the source, it's much harder for your music to have real roots.

At its essence, soukous is just rhumba sped way up. Many of the same licks and progressions are used in both types of music, the drum beat is essentially the same, etc. However, when things are cruising along at 120 beats per minute, while the guitarist has to think and move faster, the music is much more forgiving than on a rhumba at 88 bpm when a single misplaced note or clumsy phrase is much more noticeable.

Like you, Scott, I am attracted to the fast, nimble guitar work of Nené, Popolipo, Huit-Kilos and Dally on the upbeat, fast dance tracks, but have learned to respect and appreciate the more subtle and melodic phrasing of good rhumba.

Just my 2 cents

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  • This post was deleted by Scott
  • Re: Rhumba vs. Soukous

    Sat, November 5, 2005 - 11:55 AM
    Jeff -- thanks for this. How interesting... Yes, I can imagine that once I have the right-hand speed developed (which I don't, yet), it would be easier to simply maintain that speed than to have to slow it down, speed it up, slow it down, vary it this way and that, use a variety of intonations, etc. Makes total sense.

    I also very much appreciate how you position the guitar work of rhumba as in a sense the predecessor to the guitar work of the soukous, making it thus wise to learn the rhumba guitar method first -- as most of the great soukous guitarists of the '70s, '80s, and '90s probably did, given when they were born, where they were raised, and what they were listening to on the radio when they started out.

    I’m going to take your advice and try to ‘start at the beginning.’

    I’m not surprised to learn that many of today's younger Congolese guitar players started out without ever bothering to learn the old rhumba sound and techniques, much to the chagrin of the more seasoned talents in search of good back-up musicians. You may be surprised to learn that the same problem exists in the world capital of country music, Nashville, Tennessee. Listen to this story:

    lWhile in Nashville recently I happened to meet a couple outstanding country music guitarists who regularly find themselves on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry backing up artists like Vince Gill -- but who have never heard of a lot of the 1960s country songs and who really don't know how to play the very, very simple stylings of the earlier era.

    I was so shocked when I met these guys.... I thought they were joking me when they told me they'd never heard of "Talk Back, Trembling Lips" and other country classics.

    My surprise was double because, after all, we were standing at the time on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry itself, where I was chairing the entertainment portion of a business conference. These fellows appear frequently playing guitar on the Opry -- but they don't know the old Opry stars or their songs at all. I just couldn't believe it!

    Sitting nearby, tuning his instrument, was the long-timer steel guitarist for Conway Twitty and member of the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame John Hughey, who I had actually met in the 1960s! We’d been chatting earlier about John’s long-ago appearances in my hometown of Milwaukee, where I was a teen-aged DJ and onstage host of the country shows our radio station brought to town from Nashville. John overheard my conversation with the young guitarists...

    He called me over to whisper to me that what I heard them say is not at all unusual; many of today's top young studio guitarists in Nashville, even some of the best of them who are working with top Nashville stars, were simply born too late to relate to the old songs.

    To most of them the old monaural recordings just sound "bad." They don't know the old stuff, didn't grow up playing it, and couldn't care less about it.

    If they do like the older sounds, they keep it to themselves. They’d be embarrassed to admit their interest to their peers.

    Sounds like a similar attitude may be at work among some young Congolese guitarists...?
    • Re: Rhumba vs. Soukous

      Sun, November 6, 2005 - 9:00 AM
      Baninga ( friends)

      It was the sebène that seduced you, but soon you will start to dig Rhumba and find out it is the ultimate acquired taste: full of sensual passion.

      I agree with Jeffura that learning to play Congolese guitar means starting with rhumba. I sincerely believe one can only play beautiful rhumba if one really loves it.

      Lately I have read some threads on Africambiance about the secrets of Congolese guitar: some were creating far fetched theories about out of tune guitars, or about the one back-up for Congolese bands, but no one ever seems to come to the point. What is it about Congolese music, and guitars in particular that is attracting us?

      Congolese players are natural talents for technique, but technique is something everyone can learn.
      If you ask me it is all about 'phrasing'.
      Listen to Banning Eyre playing his guitar lessons. He has the notes, but has not got the phrasing right. Much respect to the man for his accomplishments, especially on Westafrican music, but he hasn't got his moves right on Congolese music.

      If one wants to phrase with those real Congolese colours, one will have to learn to love rhumba, then learn to dance to it ( imperative), then let the rhumba flow true your guitar.

      Jeffura's remark on younger Congolese musicians who do not like or have never learned rhumba seems quite hard to believe. I have never met a Zaïrian who only likes sebène.
      There are Congolese who do not like Congolese music at all, but to like only what you call soukous? I do not think so, unless you are talking about other Africans, or world music lovers.

      However listening to the newer generation of Congolese guitar players, one can see that the classical style of playing has evolved. Not so many young players have the knowedge of using sixths or tenths anymore, f.i.
      But, apart from that they all master the phrasing of rhumba.

      Something else now.
      Would you be interested to start sharing Congolese guitar tabs? If yes, what is the best way to write the tabs with six strings? Can it be done in word?

      I will be glad to share some great sebènes. Jeffura, what about you?


      • Re: Rhumba vs. Soukous

        Sun, November 6, 2005 - 2:18 PM
        I use Guitar TAB X for Macintosh, it's shareware, here's the scoop:

        I'm sure there are free or cheap programs for Windoze as well.

        Are you talking about transcribing sebenes from actual songs or posting your own?

        Also, my comments on younger musicians are based on conversations with some older, experienced musicians who lament the fact that much of the new "ndombolo" musicians don't or can't play rhumba. Not just guitarists but drummers, percussionists, bassists etc. They learn to play wenge-style or whatever and garner a following without a real grounding or interest in older, classic Congolese styles.
        • Re: Rhumba vs. Soukous

          Mon, November 7, 2005 - 11:30 AM
          Jeffura, does Affro-Muzika play any rhumbas in their live shows? Do they do "Mario"? In 2000 as Soukous Stars they were adding that one but now have they added some more, or maybe some original rhumbas?
          • Re: Rhumba vs. Soukous

            Mon, November 7, 2005 - 6:17 PM
            We play "Mario" and "Afrika Mokili Mobimba" regularly, as well as "Felicité" When Huit-Kilos was filling in for Nené he would call some Tabu Ley pieces and show me the basic chords and rhythm before the set. Most of the shows here in CA are dance events with long, extended sebenes on more upbeat tunes from Shimita's repertoire. Shimita is working on a new CD with some very interesting non-soukous songs, sort of modern rhumba.
        • Re: Rhumba vs. Soukous

          Tue, November 8, 2005 - 1:43 PM
          After installing a tab composer I send you guys a first lick:

          This is the guitar intro from the sébène from Zaïko's hit Muvaro: it is in G and I hope you know the tune, as it is essential to grasp the phrase.
          The phrase shown below is repeated several times. Note how it starts with an octave, then a tenth, another octave and another tenth, ... I notice the positions of the first 4 notes are written too closely, but they are 8, 12, 10 and 13 and the diatonic note is right under it.


          Shall I put some OK Jazz or Afrisa licks in tabs next time?
          Do send me some of whatever you like.


  • Re: Rhumba vs. Soukous

    Thu, April 27, 2006 - 10:25 AM
    As we have a new member who is asking about the definition of soukous I thought I would re-awaken this thread from last year, even though "rumba" is mis-spelled in the subject line - ! (I guess I could change that but it's kind of historic!!)

    BT, you will find that the music of Guinea is quite different from Soukous. Totally, absolutely, utterly different. In fact the type of Djembe drum that a master drummer from Guinea uses is never found at all in soukous bands. So it will be interesting to hear what your group comes up with. "African" can mean a whole lot of different things, especially in music.

    Soukous means Congolese music 1940s-to-the-present, which includes as much variation as rock-'n'-roll during that same period. A lot of older people insist on calling the older stuff "rumba" (not "rhumba!" and "rumba" is pronounced like the alcoholic drink: RUM-ba). Oldsters say 'rumba' and not 'soukous' because the word "soukous" had come to refer mainly to the '90s sound of Nene, Caen Madoka, Diblo, Dally Kimoko &c which achieved enormous popularity in Northwestern Europe in the '90s : fast, dancing music from start to finish, with no slow part at the beginning.

    The rumba fans did not like that 'trend' in Congolese they feel that that trend has negatively affected the word "soukous" and they will become upset to hear songs like "Rosa" called soukous -- even though older publications do indeed call such music soukous.

    I came to this music through the 1980s sounds of Lita Bembo, originally (I was in Zaire at the time) - which counts as a predecessor to '90s-style soukous more than as a successor to rumba. I have never been interested in rumba, because the long slow opening parts with lots of poetry and truumpets and saxophones just don't interest me. But now I have discovered some exceptions to that rule, and also found that some of the most creative Congolese guitar is in the sebenes of the earlier period -- such as the work of Huit Kilos (who lives in LA, by the way), Listen to the clips at:
    As I remarked in a radio broadcast on this some years ago, the older Congolese music is often like two songs in one: The sebene can sound like it is from a completely different planet from the rest of the song.

    I'm also going crazy over the very LATIN sounding early soukous of Dr. Nico...I'm learning Ngonga Ebeti right now, in fact, and loving it.

    Today, Congolese music has gone beyond both of those genres. Newer styles are called "Ndombolo" and other names that I honestly don't know - I've just been too busy getting to know the older music. The slower beat has returned, with younger artists singing some rather soulful stuff - ! To the delight of the older rumba fans, as you might imagine. It's a little bit like Frank Sinatra coming back from the dead, but wearing a weird costume (see Felix Wazekwa on my YouTube postings). Dance still dominates the show, as it has ever since the '80s (Tabu Ley Rochereau started that: The older rumba bands did not have dancers).

    Soukous ('90s-style) is, as one prominent commentator puts it, "Flat on its ass." But he is a guy who passionately hates the fast soukous and likes ONLY old rumba, so... But he's right that 'speed soukous' has seen better days. Yes, at the moment it's pretty dead. Even the Soukous Stars have reverted mainly to rumba for their shows -- although of course they can play anything, those guys. They played the '90s soukous...they played the rumbas before that -- they played it ALL. And they wrote it all!! And if you ask them they are not shy about saying that although they "did it" -- they prefer the older rumba. "Soukous was a breeze that blew through Congolese music" says Shiko. Gone, and not mourned, by Shiko or Lokassa.

    To my mind, the '90s style soukous is the most appealing across cultural lines and still has the greatest potential. I believe it will be back. For today's remnant of speed soukous, buy CDs by Alain N'Kounkou, also spelled Alain Kounkou.

    My personal all time favorites are Nene Tchakou in "Soto" by Aurlus Mabele and Caen Madoka in "Generation Wachiwa" also by Aurlus Mabele. This music, everyone agrees, is soukous with a capital "S" -- and sometimes (in France) spelled with two "s"s at the end: Soukouss

    So everything's clear now, right? HA! IF you want to be totally confused pick up a copy of "Rumba on the RIver" -- the definitive book on the topic.

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