The Congolese musician Simaro Lutumba, who died in March, was known simply as the Poet.
When the Congolese musician Franco died of an illness believed to be AIDS, in October of 1989, the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko declared four days of national mourning. Many of the members of Franco’s wildly popular band, T.P.O.K. Jazz, had been living abroad, and they didn’t return to what was then Zaire for his funeral. Their fans were angry at them for betraying the memory of one of their country’s greatest musicians. As the writer Gary Stewart recounts in his authoritative history of Congolese soukous music, “Rumba on the River,” the wounds were healed only when the band reformed a couple of months later to play at the Palais du Peuple, in Kinshasa. It was fronted by the guitarist Simaro Lutumba—a tall, bespectacled, almost academic-looking character. Simaro had been Franco’s longtime collaborator, and he was the antithesis of the exuberant, occasionally irascible bandleader whom he replaced.
This past March, Simaro passed away, marking the end of an era. It’s hard to overstate the impact that Franco, Simaro, and their bands had on Congolese music. They recorded hundreds of albums in Europe and in Africa and are widely seen by the Congolese public as the most important progenitors of the ebullient rhythms, staccato beats, and quicksilver chord progressions that pour forth from sound systems in bars and on street corners around the country. Yes, hip-hop and other international genres can be heard on Congolese radio, but an ever-evolving field of local bands and styles still predominate. After leaving Congo, it takes days to get the noise of dancing drums and singing guitars out of your head.
When I arrived in Kinshasa, the whole city was in mourning for Simaro, who was known simply as Poet. Posters around town showed his face superimposed on a guitar. His funeral was held inside the concrete heft of the Palais du Peuple, with politicians and generals crammed into the front row (his popularity with the masses also made him popular with people in power). Priests in white led a solemn requiem mass in Latin. At the back of the room, police in riot gear pushed against a swollen crowd of people trying to enter, all of them looking to pay their final respects to their hero.
In 1961, Simaro left a group called Congo Jazz to join Franco, who was planning to make a trip to Belgium to record an album. The “O.K.” in the name of Franco’s band stood for “Orchestre Kinshasa,” referencing the capital city of the country, which was then known as the Republic of the Congo. (The band would later add the letters “T.P.” for “tout puissant,” or “all powerful,” to the beginning of its name; the Republic of the Congo would become Zaire and then the Democratic Republic of Congo.) Congo had thrown off the yoke of Belgian colonialism a year earlier, and it was going through a boom of rumba music that was spearheaded by O.K. Jazz and Franco, who was known as the “sorcerer of the guitar.”
In the seventies, the band was coöpted by Mobutu as he tried to rid the nation of colonial influence, and O.K. Jazz performed propaganda songs around the country while wearing army uniforms. Franco and his musicians were obligated by the regime to sing, but they were also happy to participate in Mobutu’s back-to-roots cultural campaign. “Tradition is a great influence in my music,” Franco told the New York Times’s Jon Pareles when the band made its New York début, in 1983. “My soul is a traditional one, because I was born in a family that respected tradition. My mother was always singing traditional songs.”
In 1974, Simaro penned “Mabele” (“The Earth”), perhaps his greatest hit, and the one that confirmed his sobriquet of Poet. “Mabele” is a hymn about birth, life, and death. The song cascades through a rumba rhythm and various saxophone interjections as the singer Sam Mangwana sighs Simaro’s poignant line, “the boat perishes, but the port remains,” continuing:
The white man has made cannons to destroy the world.
But to destroy the truth,
The white man has not been able.
Oh, the earth.
At the end of the decade, Franco, Simaro, and other band members were imprisoned, ostensibly for immorality. (Stewart points out that the imprisonment was seen by some as “punishment for stretching the boundaries of public criticism of Zaire’s ruling class.”). Their conviction, however, lasted only three weeks, after which Mobutu, who is said to have loved the group, personally pardoned them.
My favorite of Simaro’s songs is “Maya,” which he wrote in 1984. On the record, the vocalist Lassa Ndombasi, known as Carlito, sings the lament of a man who has been deserted by his wife, Maya (“like a person bitten by a snake / I’m afraid of even a simple lizard”). Despite the song’s topic, the music is joyful, light, as Carlito adjures Maya in Lingala, the language of Kinshasa and its environs:
Listen to a voice calling you in the middle of the night.
Listen to the drums at the end of the village.
Think, you are a person,
I become like a taste of water next to the river, Maya!
When Franco heard “Maya,” he fell out with Simaro. He had been in Europe on an extended tour; Simaro had crossed the Congo River to record the song in Congo-Brazzaville, Zaire’s northern neighbor, without T.P.O.K. Jazz. Franco was apparently jealous of Simaro’s skill and annoyed that he had struck out on his own. The song was an instant success across Congo and East Africa and was voted the Zairean song of the year. Franco and Simaro soon patched things up.
After Franco’s death, Simaro captained T.P.O.K. Jazz for four years. In 1993, a disagreement between the band and Franco’s family over money finally brought an end to the group, which had been playing for thirty-seven years. Simaro formed a new orchestra, Bana O.K., and recorded beautiful, poetic albums during a period of strife and conflict for his home country: “Procès,” from 2004, and “Encore & Toujours,” from 2013.
After Simaro’s funeral, I visited Yahwe-Solo Pitshou, a guitarist who had worked with Simaro. We sat in the courtyard of Pitshou’s house, in Lingwala, a middle-class neighborhood of Kinshasa that has been called the “artistic heart” of the capital. It is the place where Simaro lived when he was in Congo. “He was a great guitarist, known on the world stage, who chose to live in Lingwala,” Pitshou told me. “The death of Papa Lutumba is very sad, but I’m also proud, because he was already old, and the weight of age had made him feeble, but I’m really proud because he inspired a lot of youths of Lingwala to take up music and continue his style of music.” I also spoke to Aimé Mulenda, one of the Poet’s orchestra heads. Mulenda worked on Simaro’s later albums, including the unreleased “Ma Prière” (“It’s coming out very soon,” he told me). Mulenda told me that, despite Simaro’s death, Bana O.K. would continue to exist. “There’s no one who can replace him at his level of poetry,” he said. “But maybe in the future someone will be able to replace him.”