4.05.2009

Pamelo Mounk'a, Samantha

Samantha_front by you.

As a youngster, Yves Andre M’Bemba spent more time than was probably good for him hanging around Léopoldville’s Kongo Bar. Like a lot of kids gripped by music’s unholy thrall, he wrote songs instead of doing homework. And he could sing.

The saxophonist Jean Serge Essous, co-founder of both OK Jazz and Les Bantous de la Capitale first hired Yves, a mere teenager, in 1963; the youngest singer in what was then known as Orchestre Bantou (or Bantous Jazz) was re-christened Pablito. He would leave and rejoin Les Bantous throughout his adult career. By then he was known by an altogether more familiar name, Pamelo Mounk’a.

Having left the fold, then returning, Pablito enjoyed a three year reunion with Les Bantous. His relations with the group soured once more, at which point Pamelo followed Sam Mangwana – the latter having accrued considerable success in the ‘70s - to the Third World’s Nashville, that being Paris. There, in 1981, Pamelo reunited with Eddy Gustave, a saxophonist from Guadeloupe. Gustave had become a record producer of significance; Pamelo had first met Gustave a few years before during one of the latter’s scouting trips to Paris. Gustave’s label, Eddy’son, subsequently had packaged a compilation of Les Bantous’ most popular tunes.

(Incidentally, Pamelo added the stage surname Mounk’a, a Bateke name meaning ‘glory,’ at some point prior to prior to his debut as solo artist. He had previously used the word in a song – ‘Alléluia Mounk’a’ – with Trio Cepakos.)

Having decided to break Pamelo as a solo act, producer Gustave convened the cream of expatriate Congolese musicians then living in Paris. The guitarist Master Mwana Congo (originally known to his mom as Ignace Nkounkou) was the lynchpin element of Gustave’s studio players. Pablo Lubadika Porthos provided the mi-solo guitar, being the muted, continuous arpeggio parts that are the spine of any soukous arrangement. Lea Lignazi from Cameroons sang backing vocals, keening and silvery, colored perfectly to complement M. Mounka’s own honeyed voice. Also color-coordinated to the lead singer’s timbre was the horn section, feigning and darting like the fists of Ali the Greatest, with Jimmy N’vondo playing sax in unison with trumpeter Fredo ‘Tete Fredo’ Ngando. Together, they generated in short order the eponymous Eddy’son debut of Pamelo Mounk’a, followed by today’s featured album, Samantha.

On the strength of these two releases, Pamelo Mounk’a and Eddy Gustave became leading figures of the rapidly developing African music scene in Paris during the first half of the '80s. Jane Kramer, cousin to art photographer Stephen Shore, wrote a detailed account of that scene (“Letter From Europe”) in the May 19, 1986 issue of The New Yorker.

I'd love to tell you that I was on the scene as all of the above took place, were it either in Kinshasa or in Paris. Truth be told, I gleaned this breadbasket of fun facts by the same means available to any sensible person: I bought a copy of Gary Stewart's defining monograph on Congolese music, Rumba On The River. Soon as Bezos's elves figure how to squeeze this most valuable tome into my iPhone's Kindle app, I'll probably buy it again. (Stewart's book contains an anecdote, related by Pamelo himself, about the car pictured above. The story will make most people laugh. Those among our number who have been signed to a record company may respond differently.)

I have spent enough column inches in earlier posts exalting the glories of Pamelo’s voice and the wonderful songs that he wrote, each and every one an evergreen item in my library. The songwriters Gamble & Huff put it best: "If you don't know me by now..." I’d hazard that there's never been a time like the present for this album, a balm for dispirited ears amidst our ongoing gloomy Sunday. The four songs contained here play as extended vamps, rolling toward the horizon with no apparent need to conclude; any one of them easily trumps potassium or pig candy for beating depression. Liquid, sexy, congenial in the extreme, tapered at the cuffs and perpetually arriving, Samantha is the genuine article.

SAMANTHA