What you need to know:
- From Langa Langa Stars and Soukous Stars to individual musicians such as Alain Kounkou, Nimon Toki Lala, Koffi Olomide and Kanda Bongo Man, Nene’s guitar lived up to its name. And that name was Nene’s stage one too.
Nene Mbendi Mandosa passed away on January 28 but it took nearly a day before his close friend Lukombo Nzambe, aka Shimita el Diego, confirmed the sad news. Not that Nene was not popular enough in the Congolese music circles but it was all down to how he chose to live his life – he was like a candle burning so quietly but whose light illuminated the room.
That room was Soukous music, and his candle was the guitar – the pulse of Congolese rumba melody. Nene played all the three guitars of lead, (typically called solo), rhythm and bass, composed songs and excelled in arrangement. But his real staple was the lead.
From Langa Langa Stars and Soukous Stars to individual musicians such as Alain Kounkou, Nimon Toki Lala, Koffi Olomide and Kanda Bongo Man, Nene’s guitar lived up to its name. And that name was Nene’s stage one too. Tchakou, they called him at Langa Langa Stars, for making his guitar talk like a parrot.
For a lead guitarist who toured the world with some of the best rumba musicians, a man whose sensual touch of the seventh chord produced the bluesy and much softer melodies that sounded almost as good as violins, Nene Tchakou surprisingly remained inconspicuously in the backdrops of the limelight.
It is as though he was deeply introverted although Chantal Loial swears the guitarist she toured the world with while dancing for Kanda Bongo Man was not as reserved as his appearance tended to portray.
“Not shy at all, he was funny and liked to make jokes,” the Guadeloupe dancer and choreographer tells Daily Monitor of Nene.
“We laughed a lot with him.”
Chantal gained global attention when she joined Kanda Bongo Man’s zing-zong (sessional band) where Nene had become the lead guitarist after Diblo Dibala had left and teamed up with Aurlus Mabele to form Loketo.
Nene had already done enough in Kanda’s 1991 album, ‘Zing Zong’, for the melodies in songs such as Freres Soki, Isambe, Iyonde, and Yezu Kristu to warrant his place at the table of Soukous lead guitar maestros. Yet he was still in the shadow of Diblo Dibala and Dally Kimoko.
Then Kanda released ‘Sana’ album in 1992. The biggest hit on the album was ‘Muchana,’ a zouk love in which Kanda urges his Kenyan fans to stop crying from dawn to dusk over his expulsion and banishment from the East African nation.
Muchana is short in lyrical package but massive in melody, thanks to Nene. Muchana would have sold even without the video, but still it is to the credit of the video that it outdid the sensuality in ‘Wahito’, or the symphonic execution in the gospel ‘Nzambe.’
The Muchana video had magic. Kanda let his team of Djena Mandako and Abby Odette Surya on lead vocals, with guitarist Nene and dancer Chantal waxing to their fill. Yet the strangest bit about it all is that many rumba listeners still believe the captivating lead fretwork is by Dally Kimoko.
In 2015, Sean Solomon Oseku, then a radio journalist, declared Nene the “best ever soloist” when convinced that Alain Kounkou’s ‘Massapa,’ ‘RAS’ and ‘Dassenz’, among others, were all hits due to the efforts of Nene, who played both lead and rhythm guitars as well as arranging the songs.
This is despite Alain Kounkou throwing mabanga (praise) for Nene in some of his songs. “Tchakou Tchakou Tchakou mama, Tchakou mama, wooo! Oh” the former Wenge Musica keyboardist would belt out.
The same can be said of Lutchiana Mobulu with hits like ‘Lutchiana 100%’, ‘Junior’ and ‘Ewa’ all “given” to Dally and Diblo. Even the most obvious such as ‘Nairobi Night’ and ‘Lagos Night’ productions of Soukous Stars, Nene still got lost in the well-deserved credit.
It takes a lot of convincing for this reality to hit many. And such was Nene’s fate that because he left his works to speak for themselves compared to Diblo and Dally who almost always had their names shouted in songs in which they played, his credit was largely watered down.
Take for instance the never ending debate about who of Dally Kimoko, Diblo Dibala and Nene Tchakou was the best Soukous lead guitarist. A few years ago, this debate surfaced on a social media, drawing fans of Congolese music.
A one Rodgers Mukasa, while explaining why he believed Dally was better than Nene, said: “There is this song in which Dally converts the solo guitar into a violin. Strumming repeatedly it comes out as a fiddle, no clear notes just a seamless swim of his fingers.”
The song Mukasa was preening for as having Dally’s fretwork was ‘Amour’ from Ngouma Lokito’s 1992 album, Wabi. The lead guitarist here is Nene Tchakou.
“The best lead in the whole world according to me… Papa Melody! He was simply the best,” says Robert Kalumba, a rumba addict.
The KCCA communication officer has always been biased toward Nene of the three Amigos. And it is easy to see why. Yancomba ‘Diblo’ Dibala, Dally Germain Ndala Kimoko, and Nene all used the Felix Manuaku Waku’s school of guitar. But it was the latter who was truly Manuaku Waku’s disciple.
The solo in Soukous
Congolese rumba have been founded on three schools of guitar excluding the early days of Henry Bowane in the 1940s. There was Nico Kasanda, aka Docteur Nico school, Franco Luambo Makiadi school, and Manuaku Waku school.
While Docteur Nico played smooth, flowing improvisations that rarely were heard twice, Franco’s style – known as odemba – was rougher, more repetitive and rooted in rhythms that moved the hips of dancers at Kinshasa’s hottest clubs, notes Morgan Greenstreet in “Seben Heaven: The Roots of Soukous.”
Manuaku Waku’s last recognizable school of guitar emphasized stretched solo sections used for dancing with no singing except where an animator shouts praises and whatever else comes into their mind. The style was also much softer in sound by relying on the major seventh chord, often giving melodies that replicated lyrics itself.
Diblo, Dally and Nene excelled in this and are largely considered to be apart from the rest, including Beniko Popolipo, Syran Mbenza, Saladin, Caen Madoka, and Huit Kilo.
Diblo was nicknamed ‘Machine Gun’ for how fast and effectively he played solo. Dally is called ‘Guitare ezanga likwanza’ (guitar without scratches or the seamless guitar). And Nene the ‘Tchakou’ (parrot) for making the guitar talk so sweetly.
From Diblo’s speed to Dally’s versatility and short guitar portions that enabled ascending or descending with the rhythm of the song, Soukous got blessed with Nene’s long guitar distortion portions but more than this, his sensual touch.
A graduate of Manuaku Waku from his time with the Langa Langa Stars and later Zaiko Wawa, Nene barely caressed the strings and his fretwork was like an imitation, giving out riffs that made it hard to tell apart from synthenthic production, for instance.
But any of the other lead guitarists could do as well. Diblo, for instance, flaunted his mastery of the art in ‘Ok Madame’ to such a level that the melody mimicked the vocals.
Editor Victor Coelho, in “The Cambridge Companion to the Guitar,” notes that the light, quick flat picking of Soukous lead offers a striking balance of melodic inventiveness and rhythmic repetition.
While many will be quick to tell you that Dally Kimoko could effortlessly play the traditional rumba lead like Franco or Docteur Nico, this view tends to ignore the fact that Nene himself started with Langa Langa Stars and left some good marks in Koffi Olomide’s ‘Haut De Gamme-Koweit, Rive Gauche’ album, popularly known as Papa Bonheur.
Nene not only played the lead but also handled the arrangement for the entire 1992 release. This talent of Nene defined most of his contribution to rumba as he mostly played as a session artiste.
He was handy in the solo career of Alain Kounkou for most of whose songs Nene played lead and did the arrangement, as did for others like Togolese songstress Nimon Toki Lala, Lutchiana Mobulu, Shimita el Diego, Nene Tuty and Aurlus Mabele.
Nene Tchakou was almost everywhere; Damien Aziwa, Wenge Musica Aile Paris, 3015 Code Niawu, Pierre Belkos, Tchico Tchicaya, Lumbumbashi Stars, Ngouma Lokito, Shimita...
A successful quiet career
Nene Mbendi Mandosa was born in 1957 in Bas Congo region. His music career started as soon as he had clocked 13 when started playing with a group of youngsters whose parents were working with the army.
In the mid 1970s, he joined Kanako Shiripe Bango. This group also featured virtuoso Beniko Popolipo.
With Bella Nigrita, Nene produced his first album, Alila, in 1978. The album did well and set the the guitarist on a pedestal to success. By 1981, Nene had rolled up his sleeves and was ready to strum with the big boys. He joined Langa Langa Stars where he got his stage name ‘Tchakou.’
However, when Manuaku Waku left to form Zaiko Wawa in 1983, he carried with him Nene, who went on to produce his second album, Bbongo.
He went solo in 1987 and produced the single, Niger. Shortly after, Nene moved to Paris in 1988 where he worked with musicians like Koffi Olomide, joined in the formation of Soukous Stars where he arranged, and Shi Loving (Nigeria).
In 2002, Nene moved to Stockton, California, in the US with Soukous Stars where they recorded and produced one album which was released in 2001. He then formed Affro Muzika group with Shimita before joining Rowa Records as a resident artiste and producer where was also writing and arranging for other ‘cultural’ musicians.
Quiet passing of a quiet man
Ahead of Kanda Bongo Man’s last show in Kampala on New Year’s Eve of 2019, one of the lingering questions was whether Nene would come along. The two had toured the world together for decades since teaming up in 1991.
But at 59, it was too big a wish. Yet that was not the reality. Nene had been receiving treatment in the US for years after suffering a stroke.
On January 28, Nene Mbendi Mandosa passed on from the US. He had lived a quiet life doing his things from the background and even a quieter one once he was in illness-enforced semi-retirement. So it was no surprise that news of his death was hardly covered.
In the Soukous era that produced the three Amigos, Nene’s contribution will continue to quietly occupy a seat at the top table while hardly being noticed for the wizard behind them.