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photo credit: Michael G. Stewart 2011 (14)

Samba Mapangala & Orchestre Virunga

East African rumba, soukous, and benga East Africa by way of Maryland
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Photo Credit: Michael G. Stewart
photo credit: Michael G. Stewart 2011 (14)

Despite having made his home in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. for nearly two decades, Samba Mapangala retains the title of “East Africa’s most beloved singer.” With an astonishing high tenor voice that has been described as “melting in the ears,” Mapangala offers trenchant and uplifting commentaries on daily life in East Africa and beyond, while the rich melodies and undeniable rhythms of his legendary band Orchestra Virunga beckon dancers to the floor.

Samba Mapangala was born in Matadi, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), and sang as a youth in his church choir. Moving to the capital city in the early 1970s to attend secondary school, he soon became a part of Kinshasa’s vibrant music scene. In 1977, Mapangala and his first band, Les Kinois, moved to Nairobi, Kenya. His fame grew quickly, and in 1981 he founded Orchestra Virunga, named after a mountain chain that includes Africa’s two most active volcanoes.

The raw musical materials from which Mapangala shaped his sound reflect ways in which African music incorporated global influences in the 20th century. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Congolese musicians mixed sounds from South America and the Caribbean, especially Afro-Cuban and Haitian elements, with traditional Congolese music. The result was African rumba, later called soukous, which spread across the continent in the 1970s. Benga is an earthier style of dance music that emerged in the 1950s in Kenya as performers adapted the lilting dance rhythms of the Luo people to Western electric instruments. Composing and singing in both Lingala and Swahili, Mapangala created an innovative musical mix of these Congolese and Kenyan styles.

Orchestra Virunga’s fame spread worldwide in 1984 with the release of their album Malako. The CD reissue of this classic album, under the new title Virunga Volcano, was named one of the “100 Essential World Music CDs” by the Rough Guides reference series. Since relocating to the U.S. in 1997, Samba has continued to perform around the world. He also continues to produce acclaimed—and eminently danceable—recordings, the latest being 2011’s Maisha ni Matamu (Life is Sweet). Eschewing politics, Samba Mapangala employs his gorgeous music to promote peace and unity, whether through his work as a World Wildlife Fund Goodwill Ambassador, through topical songs like his most recent single “Chagua Chagua,” which urges peaceful elections—or by uniting audiences on the dance floor.

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