Something shook the Congolese rumba roots in 1968. A teenage prodigy, barely a year into music, won the Grand Prize of Culture and Arts.
Etienne Chantal Kazadi, then aged just 17, was feted not just as best newcomer but as best musician. This was an award for established musicians, not a boy, a newcomer. Subtle offers poured in. Cars, recording heaven, money… anything. But Chantal opted to stay loyal to the man who had prized his music career: Nicolas ‘Docteur Nico’ Kasanda of African Fiesta Sukisa.
In late 1967, Dr Nico took in teenagers Valentin Sangana and Kazadi after a quick audition. They were to back up lead vocalists Dominique ‘Apôtre’ Dionga, Paul Mizele and Lambert ‘Vigny’ Kolamoy. But Kazadi quickly established himself as a rare gem.
His ability to grasp concepts and lyrics at the blink of an eye were unreal and his exhilarating high vocals breezed fresh vigour in Dr Nico’s fretboard mastery.
By mid-1968, Sukisa was the rave in Kinshasa. Dr Nico cut an enviable partnership with Kazadi.
Kazadi was born in 1951 in Luba Village, Matonge, a suburb in Kalamu region in northern Kinshasa. He struggled academically but was a joy to children, singing and playing improvised music instruments at his leisure.
At the age of 14, he abandoned the last dregs of pretense of going to Kalina Athenaeum School, and beat about the streets looking for a way to get himself into music. A struggling band, Super Elegance, took him in and, after releasing his first song, Bougie ya Motema (Light of my heart), he auditioned for African Fiesta Sukisa.
“We’ve waited a long time to hear such a tenor, such a rare bird,” Dr Nico exclaimed upon reviewing Kazadi’s vocals.
Gilbert Aonga Ebolu, a Congolese author and researcher based in Switzerland, recalls that many musicians he spoke to while researching about the life and tragic end of Kazadi could not stop praising the teenage singer’s voice.
Ebolu published results of his investigation into the mysterious death of Kazadi in a book, L’Histoire de Chantal Kazadi (The Story of Chantal Kazadi) in 2018. The author of two other books told Saturday Monitor that he spoke to Kazadi’s parents, uncle and former friends in the music circles to understand what happened that year in 1971.
Kazadi and Dr Nico were Baluba from Kasai region, and that attachment appeared to draw them together into an explosive musical matchup. Nico became so lively with the emergence of Kazadi and picked up a rare choppy picking style on the frets.
“Kazadi, that boy could really sing. He had a golden voice and he is easily one of the greatest singers rumba Congolaise has had,” said Kenyan rumba researcher Jerome Ogola, who claims that Kazadi was good enough to share the microphone with great Congolese vocalists such as Tabu Ley, Grand Kalle, Nyboma Mwandindo and Sam Mangwana.
What was unique about Kazadi was not only his brilliant repertoire, but his technique; that ability to sing in a range of different lead voices. But tragedy does not know about talent. It struck fast and cold, in 1971.
The official version of his death is robbery, but speculation points to rivalry within the music circles and rumours of dating a powerful man’s love. Ebolu says he had to immerse himself into it all to try and underpin just what happened.
Kazadi’s arrival was the boon that Dr Nico and African Fiesta Sukisa were never prepared to lose. His three years at Sukisa saw the band enjoy immense success; who would lose such a gem?
Kazadi was a staple for the youth, and his good looks and athletic build left women drooling as much as his voice ran sensations down the hearts of Congo. His feminine style, from dressing to the strange choice of stage name, all worked up the fans.
Kazadi’s second song, Mbandaka, was a massive hit. Bana (children of) Kinshasa must have thought humming was invented for them. Then in 1967, his love story, Doris, was released. You could feel love oozing in his voice as he says Doris ti na nsuka ya liwa (till death do us part). He brought out realism, like he was acting.
In 1968, Kazadi’s talent won him the Grand Prize of Culture and Arts. Then Sukisa liwa na ngai – about a woman telling another that it is her nagging that keeps her husband away – was top of the charts.
Kazadi was riding high. He started grumbling over pay in 1969. The other musicians also complained, accused their boss of undercutting them. Kazadi infuriated Dr Nico by demanding accountability.
After making losses from a tour of Congo Brazzaville, Dr Nico blamed the musicians for zizanerie (craziness). He fired five. Kazadi walked away to start African Soul.
“Nico railed against Kazadi in the media, calling him a traitor. Kazadi took things cool, thanked his former boss for establishing his career, but said he could not go on being exploited,” Ebolu writes in his book.
Kazadi cited money issues, as well as the fact that Dr Nico had subtly exploited his naivety to claim credit for the hit, Mbandaka.
“The media sided with Kazadi, while Dr Nico continued to lose the plot in interview after interview, ranting about conspiracies and evil forces out to get him.”
The Robbery theory
African Soul did not have music equipment, yet Kazadi’s prodigious talent had earned them a recording contract. They had to scrape for money by singing in bars. It was on one such concerts in Kananga that the band members waited for Kazadi in vain.
Some have speculated that Kazadi, like many young musicians driven by lifestyle pressure into crime, had bet his life on making quick money for buying equipment by engaging in robbery.
Kananga was infamous for shady deals, loose diamonds and inviting women. A town that breezed crime. But Ebolu contends that Kazadi was running late for the show when he decided to hitch a ride, only to find himself at a military roadblock. The five men in the van were robbers.
“Kazadi pleaded that he did not know the others,” Ebolu writes.
Desperate for salvation, he claimed he was a member of African Fiesta Sukisa.
“An officer was sent to confirm with Dr Nico, who was still furious having seen his greatest asset walk away. He said Kazadi was not a member of his band.”
The robbers had killed a wealthy trader. Kazadi was dumped in the dungeons of Camp Kokolo. Speculation has often rained that Dr Nico sold out Kazadi because his departure turned off the life support machine of Sukisa (the band died in 1974). But others maintain he was not aware of the circumstances.
Kazadi’s uncle, Kaleka Kazadi, initially suspected as much, but when the tragedy itself unfolded, he realised that there was an invisible hand in the story.
Congolese blogger Mbuyi Kayembe claimed to have chanced on a confession by a fisherman he identified as Tambwe in Katanga, who allegedly confessed to have been an officer in Maniema when his superior, Lt Ingila, was ordered to execute robbers and ensure their bodies were never found again.
“They were put in sacks with big stones tied to them. The sacks were tipped over a bridge into River Lulua at midnight,” Kayemba quotes Tambwe as saying.
This angle is quite like what Kaleka believes happened to his nephew. That the order came from higher up in Kinshasa made for a numbing silence.
According to Ebolu, Gen Léopold Massiala, then one of the most powerful military officers in Congo, gave the orders to settle an account with the young man who had made one of his mistresses pay less attention to him.
“Officially, Kazadi was executed for complicity with armed robberies. Unofficially, for snatching Gen Massiala’s girlfriend,” Ebolu told Saturday Monitor when asked to draw a marker on what his investigations unravelled.