Rigo Star: A Rumba maestro who made Mbilia Bel shine

Rigobert ‘Rigo Star’ Bamundele was a multitalented Congolese Rumba and Soukous musician. PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Rigo’s is a music story he had arranged and produced on his own terms. All he needed were the instruments and accompaniments.

They say death is a marketer. On the morning of October 26, it went into overdrive to market Rigobert ‘Rigo Star’ Bamundele, a multitalented Congolese Rumba and Soukous musician it had just taken at the age of 68.

Rigo Star succumbed to complications related to a stroke in Paris, France, where he had lived since 1981. But his story cannot be told by death alone. Rigo’s is a music story he had arranged and produced on his own terms. All he needed were the instruments and accompaniments.

And no accompaniment in Rigo’s life story came bigger than Mbilia Bel. For a man who helped Madilu with hugely successful hits such as Nzele and Ya Jean, lifted Tshala Muana in Nasi Nabali and gave Awilo Longomba wings in his breakthrough Moto Pamba album, it is for his works with Mbilia in 1988 that he is most celebrated for.

Mbilia’s dramatic fallout with Tabu Ley Rochereau, a mentor, lover and father of her daughter Melody, had been coming. Ley had resigned to fate.

“She became a success,” he would say when Mbilia walked out on Afrisa Internationale in December 1987, adding, “I think she felt that she had arrived, that she could do good work alone – I couldn’t force her to stay.”

Arriving in Paris in early 1988, the woman born Marie-Claire Mboyo Moseka set out to look for someone to write songs with her and arrange her music. She was told Rigo was the man.

“I said, ‘No, no, no! He’s very young, he can’t do it’,” she would tell Gary Stewart, author of Rumba on the River.

Sometimes a woman’s no is a yes. Mbilia contacted the young man anyway. And, by April, they were in a studio. Mbilia was not just here to sing but to belt her heart out, to tell the world what she and Ley had pretended to hide.

Rigo helped her bring it all out in a six-track album, Phénomène. He composed most of the songs with Mbilia’s heartstrings dotted all over them.

Credit to the two though, they had avoided delivering songs radically different from what Mbilia’s public was used to.

“Instead of plunging into the realm of Paris soukous, Phénomène stuck close to the mellower Kinshasa sound,” Stewart wrote.

“I owe my fame to Afrisa,” Mbilia would tell Manda Tchebwa of Tele-Zaire, adding, “For now, I’m still working on the Afrisa model, because many people are used to listening to me in that style. An abrupt change would perhaps have shocked my fans.”

 A woman scorned

Asuman Bisiika, a Ugandan of Congolese heritage and columnist with Monitor, once explained how music in Congo was the “repository (or depository) of the national conscience.” For emphasis, he added that “everything was captured in music.”

Rigo and Mbilia punctuated this thoroughly in Phénomène. The album’s title track had the ring of an autobiography. She had composed it herself, the rest Rigo.

A woman who calls herself Phénomène leaves an abusive man to her rival. The rival, she warns, must be strong to endure what she went through. That rival is Kishila Ngoyi, aka Faya Tess, a 19-year-old Ley had introduced as Mbilia’s understudy in 1987.

“Mbilia sings with conviction as if the story is hers. She is the phenomenon,” Stewart added.

In a recent interview while on a tour in Kenya, Mbilia revealed that Manzil Manzil was composed in Ley’s mother tongue, Yansi.

Manzil Manzil is sweetly provocative, the Mutuashi beats taking you to another world. It’s amazing how Rigo was able to bring out the intention of the song as Mbilia pours out her frustrations of waiting in love for a man who is nowhere to be seen.

Mobutu Sese Seko had named her Queen Cleopatra. That prime Mbilia was a beauty who left captivated and left the audience in a trance.

Rigo gets Mbilia to unleash her soul, from vocals to her looks and finally, the package that is seductiveness – the ideal Mutuashi. Manzil just serves it all, allowing Mbilia to dance to the audience’s fill.

To watch the prime Mbilia perform this song was to get more than one bargained for.

Manzil takes her back to the village for a Bayanzi folk song, with Lokassa riffing the rhythm like a likembe from the hinterland.

Then Mbilia croons the romantic Cher Ami (dear friend) with irresistible sweetness as Rigo’s sebene kisses the saxophone into a lovely counter-melody. Tika-Bazuwa (stop being jealous) just about completes Phénomène.

But not before the best of it all, Mayaval. While Boya Ye, Nadina, Nakei Nairobi, Eswi yo Wapi, Faux Pas and Yamba Ngai have been acclaimed as Mbilia’s greatest works, Mayaval does throw a hat in there.

Mbilia talks about that girl you bring to your home, feed her, give her your bilamba (clothing), only for her to seduce your man. Mayaval has a faster tempo with one of the sweetest leads in the album as Mbilia mournfully asks why her friend Mayaval has betrayed her.

It is probably the Phénomène album that Ley hit back with C’est Comme ca la Vie (that is the way life is) in 1989 to tell Mbilia that when a woman neglects the small things in life, her man looks at the next skirt around.

Phénomène was a hit from its first day on the street. Mbilia was voted the best musician that year.

The pair would return with the Desolé album in 1991. Rigo wrote all the songs, played nearly all the instruments, and sang backing vocals in a one-man-band approach. He had overdone it. He probably died wanting to forget this album. Ironie in 1993 fared better.

Versatile player

Born on August 28, 1955, in Kinshasa, Rigobert ‘Rigo Star’ Bamundele, the boy with a constant smile, was aged seven when he first picked up his uncle’s guitar to start out.

He worked with smaller bands in an era in which the Three Musketeers of Franco, Ley and Verckys connived to frustrate all competitors in the music business.

After briefly working with Ley’s Afrisa, Rigo was good enough to join Papa Wemba’s Viva la Musica by 1977, becoming a lead guitarist and helping shape its evolving sound.

Dino Vangu, who played the lead at Afrisa, called Rigo a “passionate collaborator” who had etched his name in the history of Congolese music through the “swaying notes” of his guitar in Ngambo Moko and Pink Lip. In 1981, with Viva on tour in Europe, Rigo dropped out to join the growing colony of Congolese musicians in Paris. He became a sessional musician, contributing lead or rhythm guitar lines to albums by Pamelo Mounk’a, Théo Blaise Kounkou, and Kosmos, among others.

In 1985, Rigo worked on Kanda Bongo Man’s sensational Malinga and Abeti’s ‘Je Suis Fâché’albums. He also played lead and bass on Koffi Olomide’s Tcha Tcho (Rue d’Amour) and lead on Sam Mangwana’s Aladji.

In New York, in 1989, he played guitar for Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints. In California, he recorded Yalowa (1996) with Mbilia and newcomer Vivick Matou.

He would abandon rumba altogether on a second California date that produced Got the Feeling (1997) where he went Jazz.

When the California label went bankrupt, Rigo packed his bags back to Paris from where he teamed up with Bumba Massa, Loko Massengo, Wuta Mayi, Syran M’Benza, and Nyboma Mwan Dido as Kékélé. They released the Congo Life album in 2003.

And he truly lived the Congo Life.