Simaro Lutumba was perhaps the greatest poet among the composers of Franco’s great TPOK Jazz. He joined the band in 1961, and later became the band’s long term vice president.
His melancholy 1974 hit “Mabele,” sung by Sam Mangwana, was a landmark in OK Jazz’s “authenticite” era releases. And cemented Simaro’s reputation as “Poet.”
In the late ’70s, he was one of the musicians jailed at Makala prison; during Franco’s most serious run in with the authorities, a clash over two songs deemed obscene.
Simaro operated the band during Franco’s long absences in Europe during the 1980s. This interview took place at Simaro’s home.
𝐁𝐀𝐍𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐄𝐘𝐑𝐄: Tell me the story of this band, Bana OK, after the death of Franco in 1989.
𝐒𝐈𝐌𝐀𝐑𝐎: After the death of Franco, I led the band TPOK Jazz for four years. When Franco died, the inheritors–that is to say;
After the death of Franco
The children – we gathered ourselves around a table to understand how we were going to work. I said to Luambo’s (Franco’s) family that I would take only the musicians under my wing.
All the rest, the administration and technical people, that would all belong to them. So then the sister who represented the family, asked for a few days to think about it.
We arranged a meeting, myself and the musicians who stayed with me. And we asked this question: How are we going to work now?
Proposed an idea
I proposed an idea. I would take 60% of the receipts, and I would pass 40% to the sister, that is, for the technical team and the administration and all that.
The sister said, “No, listen. Me, I am not used to working with artists. They are too complicated. No, I will give you 70%. I will take just 30% of the receipts.”
Okay, we agreed, and we got right to work.
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The first tour
On the first tour after the death of Franco, we did Tanzania, and then Kenya. Then we came back. It was very difficult after Franco’s death.
There was nothing in the bank. We had to work very hard. And then the politics of our country started to become spoiled.
It was really difficult. But we worked. I led the band right up until 1994. We had some real success. One year, we had the best song of the year.
Madilu was the best singer of that year. So everything was going very well. Then suddenly, I don’t know what happened. Suddenly, there was a flood of letters and articles in the papers.
“Simaro is running the band OK Jazz as if it was his own. He is giving just scraps to the children of Franco.”
I didn’t know what was happening.
But I am patient by nature, maybe too patient. I waited. These articles kept pouring into the papers. Then one night, a certain letter came.
The letter said that I must return all the instruments to the house in Limite upon receiving this letter. I didn’t know why, because we were just near the end of the weekend.
I said, “No, we can’t just stop like that. Listen, things can’t end just like that.”
𝐁𝐀𝐍𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐄𝐘𝐑𝐄: What year was that?
𝐒𝐈𝐌𝐀𝐑𝐎: That was the end of 1993. I said, “No, we’ll finish out the weekend. On Monday, we will sit around a table. I will bring the instruments and we will try to figure out what is happening, and what is not happening.”
Then on Sunday, I saw on television a lawyer who was defending the Luambo foundation. He told the announcer that I was no longer the president of the band TPOK Jazz.
That I had to give that place to someone younger because I was the oldest person in the band. It was not right that I should leave the presidency.
I was the only one who was with Franco right up to the end. I joined OK Jazz in 1961. Since ’61, I was at Franco’s side.
Me, I found Femi Joss, I made Kwamy, I made Zak, made Musekiwa, I made Defao, I made Albino Colombo. I am almost the only survivor.
Everyone else had left. So I said, “Listen, this won’t work. I must be happy too.” It was Sunday and we had a concert.
There was a good market there. So I called the RTNC team together, with the cameras and all that. They didn’t know what I was going to say. It was my decision. Then I explained that I was no longer in TPOK Jazz.
You can follow on the television what has happened. People cried, even the artists. Even me. I cried too because I had spent almost my whole life next to Franco and all my know-how was with him.
That was the birth of Bana OK. I did not ask any of the musicians to follow me. I simply said we should meet the next day at the Zenith bar and work out the details. Everyone was with me.
They said, “You are the president. We don’t know where we’d go. You who worked with Franco. What are we going to do now?”
So that was the birth of Bana OK. Everyone was with me. It was now 1994, the 4th of January. Bana OK, rehearsal.
𝐁𝐀𝐍𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐄𝐘𝐑𝐄: And who were the singers at that time?
Josky and Ndombe Opetum
𝐒𝐈𝐌𝐀𝐑𝐎: At the time, it was still Josky, and Ndombe Opetum. Madilu was no longer with us. Because he was at the base of all that happened.
𝐁𝐀𝐍𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐄𝐘𝐑𝐄: Tell me about the current work of Bana OK.
𝐒𝐈𝐌𝐀𝐑𝐎: The newest recent single is not out yet. We have a tour in the works, but we are not in complete agreement with our producer.
But we have a CD with three songs, Interpellation, which you can find anywhere in town. Bana OK, there are lots. There was Tonere Show, and there was one we did with Pepe Kalle, Trahison.
Then there was Ingratitude. We have at least four or five albums. And then there are the shows. We play almost every Sunday, and it’s usually full, full, full!
𝐁𝐀𝐍𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐄𝐘𝐑𝐄: How long have you been playing at the Baobob Club?
Performances at the Baobab Club
𝐒𝐈𝐌𝐀𝐑𝐎: Just since last year. Maybe two years. That’s the place you find us now. It’s through Bana OK that you find OK Jazz. And everything that made Franco’s music OK Jazz’s music work, you find it with us.
𝐁𝐀𝐍𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐄𝐘𝐑𝐄: You still play his repertoire?
𝐒𝐈𝐌𝐀𝐑𝐎: Why not? Everyone is still with me.
𝐁𝐀𝐍𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐄𝐘𝐑𝐄: How many are in the group now?
𝐒𝐈𝐌𝐀𝐑𝐎: Twenty-two or twenty-three. Then with four dancers, we are twenty-six. It’s difficult at the moment, with all that’s going on in the country.
𝐁𝐀𝐍𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐄𝐘𝐑𝐄: It’s a very tough time.
Politics and Music
𝐒𝐈𝐌𝐀𝐑𝐎: But we’re still attracting people.
𝐁𝐀𝐍𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐄𝐘𝐑𝐄: I’m interested in the parallel histories of politics and music here. Tell me about the 1960s. The time when there were two great schools in Congolese music.
African Jazz and OK Jazz. Apart from the different styles, what was the difference between the two audiences?
Epoch of Wendo
𝐒𝐈𝐌𝐀𝐑𝐎: Before that, you had the epoch of Wendo, but Wendo was not alone. There were other great artists too who made that a great epoch.
There were lots of artists at Studio Ngoma. But Wendo has been lucky enough to survive up to this day. He’s had a long life, and he still has his voice.
But those two schools were born because we had these two guitarists. Here, we were lucky around 1958 and 59 because a guitarist came here named Bill Alexandre.
I think he was Belgian. I’m not sure about his origin, but this M. Bill Alexandre played the guitar with a flat pick. Nico was still in school, and Franco, like me, hadn’t done much at school.
We can say that Franco was an artist of the street. He was with everyone in the street. When there was a little party, he’d play. It was that kind of music, purely Bantu music, almost folklore.
But M. Bill Alexander when he came, he brought a different style that all the guitarists wanted to know. Everyone wanted to learn how to play with a pick.
Nico was already very good. Franco was not so discreet. He came at first with the music we called at the time Watama, the music of the “indubules,” a little like the cheque (street kids) today.
But at the time the indubules were not exactly like the cheque. The chegue today are really, let’s say, delinquents.
Our Kinshasa correspondent KAVLO WADIGESILA emailed us this note of explanation: The “indubules” were former sportsmen gangsters of the years the 60s and 70s.
Sportsmen gangsters of the years 60’s and ’70s
Some of their activities included providing protection to musicians, backing up musicians, etc. They used to go into bars and other recreational facilities to boss people there around.
They spent much time drinking and gambling. They would take customers’ wives roughly out of the bars for sexual union, a night, or even for months without their husband’s resistance.
They would behave and dress exactly as they saw in movies called horse operas (Westerns by famous actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood …)
Received movie stars names like Django, Pekos, Buffalo bulls, Wallace, Bouda, Thomas, Sinatra, Godjila, Bingema, Soto. Just think of all the names of cowboys, sheriffs, rustlers, and red indians to get the idea.
The indubules had names that were a bit bizarre like Django, Boss, all that. This interested everybody. They were into sports, body building all that. Franco was from that school. He even smoked a little “chamvre.”
𝐁𝐀𝐍𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐄𝐘𝐑𝐄: Coming back to politics, I know that Franco had a special relationship with Mobutu. What can you tell me about that?
𝐒𝐈𝐌𝐀𝐑𝐎: I will tell you a little about the person who was Mobutu. He was a fanatic for Franco, above everything. He was a fanatic for our team, even before he was president.
I found Mobutu at Franco’s side when I came in 1961. At all the parties that happened at Mobutu’s home, when they hired a band, it was we who played.
Baptisms of children, birthdays, all that. Mobutu was a fanatic for Franco as an artist.
𝐁𝐀𝐍𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐄𝐘𝐑𝐄: So it was Mobutu who chose, not Franco.
𝐒𝐈𝐌𝐀𝐑𝐎: It was he who chose, frankly. When Mobutu rose to power, it was 1965. In ’66, we were in Brazza, making a little tour. And Mobutu asked Franco and his band to come back to Kinshasa to play.
So we stopped and went back directly with Franco to Ndolo. Ndolo was a small prison in town that was reserved for the military. After a day or two, we went to Franco. The president had told him to stay at his side.
“With me in power, you will go far. I will have need of you.” So that’s how it started. In any case, as I said, as far as the relationship between President Mobutu and Franco, from the start;
Mobutu was a fanatic for Franco. And with time, as he became president, he was president of all the artists, not just Franco.
Those who were lucky enough to play for President Mobutu, received his small gifts that the president gave them. It was not only Franco.
Publicity and propaganda
So, when President Mobutu had need of a little publicity, or even propaganda, he would call Franco secretly. But he gave opportunities to many artists.
It was Mobutu who decided. He had a whole community. “We’ll do it like this. He will speak and tell people to listen. Simaro will make a song. Another will make a song.
We’ll record them and I’ll listen and decide which is the best song.” That’s how it worked. When Franco was very sick, near the end, Mobutu did something for him.
Franco’s ill health and death
Even when he was dead, the band found him in Europe, and President Mobutu paid all the bills, the hotels and everything.
He asked all the artists to return. He sent a special plane that brought the body with all the artists.
𝐁𝐀𝐍𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐄𝐘𝐑𝐄: What a story.
Small library of the OK Jazz
𝐒𝐈𝐌𝐀𝐑𝐎: Yes, it’s a long story. I am a small library of the story of OK Jazz, because I saw many things with Franco. God has given me 40 years on the scene.
In our generation, I am the only one who has continued to play. Maybe I will soon be abandoned. I’ve worked a lot. I’ve composed a lot. I will be 64 on the 19th of March.
𝐁𝐀𝐍𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐄𝐘𝐑𝐄: Congratulations.
Happenings in Congo music now
𝐒𝐈𝐌𝐀𝐑𝐎: Thank you.
𝐁𝐀𝐍𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐄𝐘𝐑𝐄: Finally, tell me a bit about what is happening in Congo music now. I understand that the competition between artists has become severe.
Maybe the whole tone of the music is more tough now. What do you think about all that?
Two schools of music in the 1960’s
𝐒𝐈𝐌𝐀𝐑𝐎: Unfortunate. Unfortunate. When we began our conversation, you asked me a question about the two schools of music in the ’60s. You might say that you can have two twins, but each has his own name.
What is happening today in music, I am not against it. I am their father. They have brought something to the music, youth and new blood. Yes, this is true. But, I must tell you that there is too much monotony.
You can’t even tell whether this is one band or another, even on the television, if you see the dancing, the way they sing, even the guitarists, their way of playing what they call seben.
There is a broadcast that comes on here with this guy Gaspar, it’s called Studio Maximum. I was hearing a song from Werra [Son], and yet it was J.B. who is dancing. It’s new. I didn’t know what was happening.
And afterwards, it was a song by J.B. playing, but they are showing Werra, dancing very hard during this song. For the people who follow this show, this puts an idea in their head: you can’t tell the difference!
Now with us and O.K. Jazz, Franco was a great composer. I came to join him and I brought my style. Josky arrived, and he had his style.
Ndombe, Papa Wemba and Kofi Olomide
Ndombe came, and he brought his style. We were all in O.K. Jazz. It was Franco’s guitar that prevailed in the sound. This is what I have to ask our young artists. When Papa Wemba sings, I know: this is Papa Wemba.
He has his style. And my young brother who I like a lot, Kofi, a great lyricist, a great poet. I like him because he brought another way of doing things.
Zaiko with Nyoko Longa remained Zaiko, with his style, the part that made people dance, the seben. Zaiko stayed Zaiko. This is what I have to say, if they will hear me, to the Wenge clan.
To the Wenge Clan
When you separate, you must distinguish yourselves also. The style must change. There are great singers among them. And great composers. Even great arrangers.
They are lucky to work in Europe with such great quality. We started out in studios with just a single track. For a song, you were ten musicians. If one of you made a mistake, you all started again.
𝐁𝐀𝐍𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐄𝐘𝐑𝐄: You had to be real musicians then.
𝐒𝐈𝐌𝐀𝐑𝐎: We were real musicians. The singer presented the song. He memorized the song for two or three days until it stayed in his head.
He was called on to sing in those days. I’m not talking about Papa Wemba now; that was another epoch. I’m talking about the epoch of Vicky Longomba, of Mujos, and of Kabaselle.
If you were a singer, you had to sing everything, European songs, American songs. If someone said, “Sing tango,” you sang tango.
If someone wanted waltz, you sang a waltz. But ask this of our young singers today? No. And with the guitarists, it was the same thing. We had great guitarists, Papa Noel, Tino Baroza, even Franco.
He wanted to play everything. But today, if you ask a question of a young guitarist in any of these groups in our country today, “Do you know the guitarist who was called Tino Baroza?” “Ah, no.”
“And Nico Kassanda?” “Oh, but no.” There are records. They could listen. In my band, I have a young player. He is 20. I call him Olivier. I called on him last week, I sent him out with my little suitcase of albums, to listen.
Young song writers
At that time, we already played like that. This is how one studies. Yesterday, he asked me about this song. Was it Tino Baroza? Or was it Rochereau?
𝐁𝐀𝐍𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐄𝐘𝐑𝐄: So he’s getting interested now.
𝐒𝐈𝐌𝐀𝐑𝐎: Yes. And he’s got the touch. It’s very rare to find young people who are interested in international music, like jazz. Even the words. I am a great lyricist. Rochereau also.
Rocherea, Franco and Simaro
All our young songwriters must pass by Rochereau, by Franco, and by Simaro. One of our words always ends up in our songs. They don’t say so, but that’s how it is. We are not jealous. We are proud of our children.
They follow our path. But, there are some who sing just anything. There are songs where you can find 200 names of people. They call that “mabanga.” But you haven’t searched, really searched in your head.
There are songs where they talk about, “Oh, Freddy. How are you?” This is a form of mabanga also. It’s a way to please a fanatical fan. I heard one song. In every space, there was a name. I asked, “What is that?” He said, “That pays well.”
We composers must compose. You must be able to write a song about, for example, this flower. Sing to me about this flower. How did God create it? What do you find in this flower?
I want to show you how you can be inspired, and what this flower can represent in a society, in the life of a person. Not necessarily to say, “Antoine, look at this flower! Hey Mama Djili!”
What does the name of Mama Djili tell us about the conception of this flower? That is it. Our composers must do that. Myself, they call me today the great poet, the great monument of my country.
This is because I have put my smile into my work. So look, these young children have arrived. They have discovered good technology.
They have money, because they have fanatic fans, and now there is commerce and marketing. There are now lots of television stations. When we started, there was no television. Television came and found us.
I Simaro was already Simaro before our republic bought a television station. We had only radio, just a single radio station. So when you composed, for your song to be a success, you had to do good work.
Soki Dianzenza and Soki Vangu
In our time, we had a family that gave us two artists, Soki Dianzenza and Soki Vangu. They worked hard and they arrived at a different style. And Nyboma, a great tenor who arrived with something very particular.
And we haven’t even talked about Pepe Kalle. This was again another school. Today, Pepe Kalle is dead. Grand Kalle is dead. Kwamy, all, all, all gone. There is Carlito, who arrived with a timbre.
And there is Papa Wemba who has a style particular to himself. You can’t find that anywhere else. This is the thing. We have good singers in the young bands today. I’m not talking about Werra or J.B.
Ferre, Alain Mpela and Lacosta
I’m talking about their musicians. Ferre sings very well. And Alain Mpela, and Lacosta has a beautiful voice. But having a nice voice is one thing. Knowing how to master it is something else.
As a composer, I am very severe with my singers. Because I don’t sing myself. To make make Alain Mpela, Didier Lacosta, and Ferre, I want to give them one Simaro song to sing.
People will be astonished.
𝐁𝐀𝐍𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐄𝐘𝐑𝐄: Great idea.
𝐒𝐈𝐌𝐀𝐑𝐎: Yes. But how will they meet? This one is from this camp. That one is from that. There are three different camp. The others will all scream. In our time, it was not like that.
I am the only one who made almost all the singers in OK Jazz sing. We sang with Papa Wemba in my song “Telegram.” I made Pepe Kalle sing, Mbilia Bel, Mpongo Love. I always have this idea of giving them this love.
Because I love them a lot. We must be together to make things better. This is my idea. But at the moment, it is very difficult.
𝐁𝐀𝐍𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐄𝐘𝐑𝐄: Thanks so much, Simaro.