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Ry-Co Jazz
'Rumba 'Round Africa' (RETRO10CD)

Congo/Latin hits of the 1960s [Congo-Zaire]

For thousands of people who enjoyed and danced to them in West Africa, France and the Caribbean, Ry-Co Jazz embodied the guitar-based rumba known to most of Africa as Congo music. When the new, six-member band joined a Congo River steamer in 1958 bound for Oubangui-Chari (now the Central African Republic) the musicians could not have guessed that some of them would spend the whole of the 1960s on the road. They had no name and had barely rehearsed but they were talented and enthusiastic and they had a leader of great stature named Henri Bowane (see RETRO6CD).

A guitar stylist, composer, arranger and singer, Bowane had been instrumental in setting up the Loningisa and Esongo studios in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) and in the formation of OK Jazz (see RETRO2XCD) and Rock-a-Mambo. By 1958, however, Bowane was devoting his energies to management and promotion. At the year's end he shepherded his young charges up the river for Christmas and New Year shows in Bangui. They rehearsed on board ship and after some discussion named the band Ry-Co Jazz (from Rythme Congolais, and pronounced Rico).

The original line-up included a mix of musicians from the French Congo-Brazzaville and from Congo Belge (Leopoldville): singers Freddie Nkounkou and Mbilia Casino; guitarist Pierre N'Dinga; bassist Panda Gracia; Fidel Bateke on clarinet and Pierrot on congas. Early in 1959 Jerry Malekani, a guitarist from Leopoldville who was also a pupil of Bowane's, joined the band in Bangui.

Bowane and his team spent more than one year touring together through Central Africa. In Cameroon the line-up had expanded to a 15-piece orchestra, but mounting tensions produced a split in 1960 with Bowane and most of the musicians going their separate ways.

A core group of four musicians - Freddy, Jerry, Casino and Gracia - headed on together through Nigeria and beyond to earn the reputation and acclaim that followed Ry-Co Jazz. Freddy became known as Freddy Mars. Jerry was inexplicably given the name Bécaud in Sierra Leone. From early 1960 until the latter part of 1964 the four-man group packed the bars and nightclubs of most West African countries, attracting patrons with their flashy presentation and the excitement of Congo music. They stayed and played in Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Gambia. In Ghana they stayed in the house of ET Mensah the King of Highlife. The quartet eventually based themselves in Dakar, Senegal, where they recorded in the radio studio for a French producer who distributed the records through the Vogue label in Paris.

As a four-piece, Ry-Co produced a sound vaguely reminiscent of early OK Jazz. Jerry carried the guitar parts, with Casino on congas and vocals, Gracia on bass and Freddy singing and playing maracas. In the studio the group was sometimes reinforced with the Ivorian saxophonist Maurice Isyaka. Plying all together under one microphone suspended from the ceiling, they recorded songs in a single take with a fresh, spontaneous, earthy feel. Rumbas, cha cha chas and cara caras were the order of the day, and the group rendered them with aplomb. Songs such as Bana Ry-Co, Mambo Ry-Co, Gariophona, Caramba da ma Vida spread the band's fame even further. Most of the tracks on this album are drawn from those sessions. Each musician contributed songs to the repertoire and they also covered hits from bands back home. Most were sung in Lingala but a few were recorded in French, Spanish or Swahili. For songs such as My Zainatu, Give Me Bombolo and Baby Technical they employed broken English. The musicians listened to broadcasts from the BBC and Voice of America to keep up with international trends such as soul and rock'n'roll. The 1962 recording Twist With The Docteur gives a surprising taste of Afro-rockabilly. In Dakar, Gracia fell in love and decided to give up life on the road. He was replaced for a time by a Cameroonian, Sammy Ndami, and then another Congolese, Serge Mavogo. Jeannot Dikoto Madengue, who went on to work with Osibisa and M'Pongo Love among others, also played a short stint on bass.

In September 1964 Ry-Co Jazz arrived in Paris, where they played live shows and cut records, also making occasional tours of Africa. The saxophonist, Jean Serge Essous, a founder of both OK Jazz and Brazzaville's Bantous de la Capitale, played on some sessions, including clarinet on Baby Technical. He later became a full member of the band. In December 1967 Ry-Co travelled to the Caribbean, contracted to play for the Christmas holidays at a Congolese-owned bar in Martinique called the Bantou. On the strength of these performamnces they signed a one-year deal to play at the Bakoua, a tourist hotel across the bay from Martinique's capital Fort de France. Producer Henri Debs invited the band to record at his studio in Guadeloupe and soon Ry-Co Jazz records flooded the Caribbean. The groups' personnel had now increased to seven, with Freddy, Jerry and Essous at the core and a variety of Fench and Antilleans, including Chico Gelman on keyboards. Ry-Co Jazz competed with large bands from Haiti which dominated French Caribbean music at the time. As their one-year stay grew to more than four they were booked on cruise ships and in clubs around the islands - in Puerto Rico, Greneda, Barbados and even Guyana and Venezuela on the South American mainland.

The Congolse rumba gradually adapted itself to the revved up biguine of the islands. It was a time of cultural exchange: Africans and the descendents of Africa stirred the elements of musical transformation in a process that eventually gave birth to the zouk music of the French Antilles. Jean Claude Naimro of Kassav has acknowledged the influence of Ry-Co Jazz and he even recorded an album with them at the time. Essous' compositions Sapo Pepo and Si I Bon, Di I Bon come from this period.

Back in Paris in 1972 the group started to come apart. Essous returned home to Les Bantous de la Capitale and Ry-Co wound up their epic career in high style with Manu Dibango sitting in on sax for a three-month tour of Algeria. At the end everyone wanted to explore new possibilities: Jerry joined Dibango where he has enjoyed more than 20 years beside the Makossa Man. Freddy eventually left the business although he, Jerry and Essous did revive the name in 1994 with a nostalgic reunion album Yo La!.

Nothing works like the originals, however, and Rumba'round Africa bears witness to the work of a talented band that helped spread the joyful energy of Congo music across Africa and half way round the world.

Notes by Gary Stewart, author of Rumba On The River - A History of the Popular Music of the Two Congos (Verso, 2000)

Ry-Co Jazz
'Rumba 'Round Africa' (RETRO10CD)


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