Quite a few days have passed since I read - on the Mbokamosika blog - about the death of yet another Great of Congolese music. On Sunday January 29, 2012, less than a year and a half after his brother in music, Jean Serge Essous, Jean Dieudonné Malapet, better known as Nino Malapet has died in the military hospital in Brazzaville, - according to the Mbokamosika blog and other sources after a prolonged illness.
I do not intend to write a biography of this great artist. You can find some biographical details in this Mbokamosika post and more in this hommage on the same blog. I especially recommend the video on the bottom of the first of these two posts, which gives a good idea of the cheerful personality Nino Malapet was.
Instead I would like to focus on his musical heritage.
There have been some misunderstandings about the start of Nino Malapet's musical career. Although several sources claim that he worked - for a short while - at the Loningisa label, and it is possible that he recorded with the Franco*, he was certainly never a member of the O.K. Jazz, - unlike Essous and Saturnin Pandi, who both composed (and are named in) several songs. According to Lutumba Simaro Essous was even the first chef d'orchestre.
Nino stayed with the orchestra which had joined a few years before: Negro Jazz.
But Nino firmly stamped his mark on the music scene with the start of the Esengo label, on January 1, 1957. One of the big names of the Loningisa label, Henri Bowane, had persuaded Greek businessman Constantin Antonopoulos to finance a new record label and had subsequently recruited musicians from Loningisa, including two of the big boys from the O.K. Jazz (which had only been formed a few months earlier), singer Philippe Lando a.k.a. Rossignol and clarinetist Essous. The latter and conga player Pandi persuaded their longtime friend Nino Malapet to join them, and that was the start of one of the hottest orchestras in the history of Congolese music: Rock-a-Mambo. The very first two tracks to come out off this marriage of talents were "Les Voyous" and "Mi Cancion", composed and arranged by Nino Malapet.
Remarkably the first of these was an instrumental track, but an instrumental track that must have hit home hard with the Leopoldville scene. It was the first of many recordings by one of the legendary duos of Congolese music: the duo Essous (clarinet) - Malapet (sax). The second was what was to become the archetypical Malapet composition: a cha cha cha sung in spanish (and relatively good spanish too!!). It also, by the way, put the spotlight on another great legend of Congolese music: guitarist Tino Baroza.
In the - unfortunately - few years of Rock-a-Mambo's existence the combination Nino and Rock-a-Mambo was like a quality mark. It stood for a superb danceable tune and musical excellence.
I have collected some of Nino's compositions with Rock-a-Mambo. These are just of few of the many.
And that to me is one of the major mysteries in Congolese music: that so very little of the Esengo catalogue has been reproduced and reissued. A few songs have been re-released on Pathé lp's and on one or two anthologies. But a systematic and/or organised re-release of the great tunes by the great orchestras of the Esengo label, African Jazz, Rock-a-Mambo and the combination of the two, Rock-Africa, or even of the other orchestras - like Dewayon's Conga Jazz, the Negro Band, Kongo Jazz and Elegance Jazz - has never been produced! Going by the relatively few tracks that I have heard (some of these I have combined in this podcast), this can only be described as a disaster.
Nino Malapet et l'orchestre Rock-a-Mambo (Esengo 1957 - 1961)
I can understand Nino's reluctance to let go of a good thing, when in 1959 Essous and others moved back across the river to Brazzaville and formed Bantou Jazz. He stayed on with Rock-a-Mambo for almost another two years, until the orchestra disbanded. After a short attempt at studying law Nino was drawn back into music and rejoined his friend Essous at Les Bantous. Soon he went back to arranging and composing those typical Nino songs: "Oiga Mambo" (a song originally recorded and released with Rock-a-Mambo), "Tu Silencio", "Destino", "Ritmo Bantou" and many more.
Songs which, beside the distinct latin-congolese touch, share a neatness and love of music which makes Nino Malapet one of the alltime Greats of African music.
Collecting the songs from Malapet's - extensive - period with Les Bantous was actually easier than gathering those from his days with Rock-a-Mambo. His 'output' was less prolific, I suppose as a result of his changed position within the orchestra (he became the leader of the orchestra when Essous left in 1966) and the changing times (which demanded other music styles). He adapted well and now and then surprised with some absolute marvels. Personal favourites are "Suzy", from the "El Manicero" album which brought stardom to young singer Tchico, and "Gigi", a monumental composition with a brilliant buildup from the heyday of Les Bantous.
Nino Malapet will be sadly missed.
Nino Malapet et Les Bantous
* This must have been recordings made between the end of 1955 and June 1956, because between June 1956 (when the O.K. Jazz was founded) and January 1, 1957 (the start of the Esengo label) there are simply no recordings featuring a sax.