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Papa Noel

Bel Ami
Stern's Africa

photo ©2001 Alan Graves

The stately double-scoop rumba ruled Congolese music from the 1950's until the seventies. It was a seductive groove, spinning out long-breathed, intricate vocal lines before speeding up into a sebene, an extended coda where the guitarists took over and rocked the house. By the mid-eighties, it was largely superseded by speed soukous (more Carvel than Haagen-Daaz), a club-friendly groove that skipped the build-up and cut to the chase. As exemplified by the get-out-of-Dodge antics of Loketo, Pepe Kalle, Kass Kass, Soukous Stars, Kanda Bongo Man and other Paris-based touring outfits, it filled dance floors, but usually didn't have a serious thought in its pretty little head.

cd cover Like singer Sam Mangwana (with whom he has recorded) Papa Noel exemplifies the old guard's knack for encompassing both style and content. Now sixty years old, he began hiring out as a professional guitarist during his teens, passing through the ranks of Les Bantous and Orchestre African Jazz before joining T.P. O.K. Jazz, where he played second guitar for Franco, the great guitarist-composer-bandleader who dominated Congolese music for decades. Papa Noel's bell-like tone set off Franco's more robust touch to perfection and he got to play lead and compose for the band.

The selections on Bel Ami were culled from two of Papa Noels' solo releases. "Bon Samaritain" dates from while he was still in O.K. Jazz, which caused a temporary falling out with his employer, who reportedly went ballistic when his players freelanced; while "Haute Tension" was recorded after Franco's death. Papa Noel overdubs all of the guitar parts, and his playing is never less than ingenious and technically flawless. The legendary falsetto Carlito Lasso, who was a front-line vocalist with O.K Jazz, sings his heart out, in gorgeous solos and in duets with Celestin "Celio" Kouka on some tracks or Wuta Mayi of Quatre Etoiles fame on others. The style is resolutely and reliably classic and the selections from the two sources work well together. The tunes from the earlier sessions are looser and dryer, with rattling drums, hissing high-hat riffs, and fervent brass charts, the latter contributed by anonymous members of the Congolese Army band. The later songs have a slightly more precise tonal lilt, probably due to a thankfully discreet use of synthesizer. Overall, the sound is sweet, stately and mellow but a bit low on electricity and charisma. That being said, the good stuff is all present and accounted for. Rumba fans will love coming home to it. - Christina Roden

Photo of Papa Noel by Alan Graves, WOMAD Reading, 2000

Available at cdRoots

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