November 30, 2009

In Memoriam Jean-Serge Essous

Another monument of African music has passed away. Jean-Serge Essous (born January 15, 1935) has died in Brazzaville on November 25, 2009. He was present at the foundation of the O.K. Jazz, of Rock-a-Mambo, and of 'his own' orchestre Bantous and Ryco Jazz. His music and his orchestras have had a huge influence on African music, and maybe even on the music outside of his continent.

During his stay in France earlier this year he was taken seriously ill and had to be hospitalised. Unfortunately he was not insured and was forced to return to Brazzaville, where he died in the Hôpital des Armées.

Essous started his musical career in 1951 as a flutist, but after a few years switched to the instrument which brought him fame: the clarinet. As a clarinetist he soon made a name for himself and joined a band called Negro Jazz. With this band he crossed the river to play in Leopoldville and was 'discovered' by Henri Bowane, who in 1955 invited him to record at the Loningisa label. Essous subsequently played on a series of tracks recorded in 1956, and was present when the O.K. Jazz was founded in June. Unconfirmed legend has it that he signed the first contract for the creation of the O.K. Jazz in place of the then under age Franco.
But persuaded again by Bowane, he soon decided to join singer Rossignol and other Loningisa artists in their move - on January 1, 1957 - to a completely new record label: Esengo.

At Esengo Essous played with the stars of the former Opika label (which had closed down in 1956), Kabasélé (le Grand Kallé), guitarists Nico, Dechaud and Tino Baroza, and female star Lucie Eyenga. Initially the names of these 'ensembles' varied depending on who were present at the recording sessions, but soon the 'nuclei' of these sessions took on a more permanent form. Essous was the leader of one of these: orchestre Rock-a-Mambo. With the huge composing talents of a sax player, who had come over from the Ngoma label, Nino Malapet, and with Rossignol as principal vocalist, Rock-a-Mambo churned out hit after hit, offering a stiff competition for the O.K. Jazz who were doing the same at Loningisa.

As examples of these glorious days, I would like to share nine tracks with you from the Esengo label.
The first two of these, "Jalousie" and "Amigo", are from the beginning of the label, and were composed by Nino Malapet. The songs feature not only the typical Rock-a-Mambo combination of Essous (clarinet) and Nino (sax), but also the great Tino Baroza on guitar, plus Kabasélé and Rossignol on vocals!
On the second record, with two compositions by Essous called "Bolingo Na Ngai Gigi" and "Bolingo Etumbu", the orchestre is named as "African Rock". Playing guitar is Nico, and singing are Kabasélé with Lucie Eyenga (on "..Gigi"), and Rossignol backed modestly by Kabasélé (on ".. Etumbu").
The third record is from a slightly later date (probably 1958). Again the compositions are by Essous, who on "Calu Wa Essous" plays flute, and on "Mi Paralitico" is the lead singer. This is one of the first examples I know of of the typical Essous singing style. I am not sure about the other singers or the guitarist on these tracks (apart from Rossignol).
The last of the Esengo tracks is another example of those superior and timeless Nino compositions: "Comité Rock-a-Mambo". In my opinion Essous is especially great in this track.

Essous on Esengo

With the political unrest of 1959 which would eventually lead to the independence of the Belgian Congo, the musicians from Brazzaville decided that it would be better to 'regroup' on the other side of the river. Thus Essous and drummer Pandi (who also had a history with the Loningisa label) founded an orchestra which was named "Bantou Jazz", but soon changed its name to Les Bantous de la Capitale. Their first public concert back in Brazza was on August 15, 1959.

It is impossible to write down Essous' complete biography in this post. I am sure there are other sites where you can read a more concise overview of his impressive career.
I can promise you, however, I will come back with more Bantous in a later post.
For now, I would like to give you an example of the brilliance that was Bantous with the great Jean-Serge Essous, in the form of this record from 1963, released on the Stenco label. I advise you to read the description on the back of the sleeve of this record (the scan quality is unfortunately rather poor; but you can find the same information on this sleeve).

Stenco B 25421

May his soul rest in peace.

PS: In the photo at the top of this post Essous is the one with the white shirt (and the tell-tale clarinet in his hand...).


reservatory said...

Thanks for more of the usual astoundingly rare treasure. I feel greatly privileged to be exposed to this, that and the other. THANKS!

Jonah said...

the circumstances of this great musician's death sound so sadly familiar. is there some sort of fund for the retired musicians of the congo? -- as they aren't likely getting any royalties from the wonderful older recordings that have given us so much pleasure.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the picture and the great songs
may he rest in peace

wuod k

Anonymous said...

Essous was such an important and inspirational musician - a great horn player and bandleader. It's sad to think of him and other musical pioneers spending their last years unrewarded for the pleasure they gave to generations. Thanks for sharing these recordings which help us remember and appreciate him...

poltroon said...

wonderful post, Stefan. Yours is the top blog, by a mile.


Joe said...

Wonderfult o ehar these recordings--thank you.

I think it's indisputable that Essous' orchestras had influence outside Africa--Ry-Co Jazz spent a year in Martinique and Guadeloupe, where they had a huge impact on the local music.

Pieter said...

Hoping Congo gives him a state funeral. A national (and African) treasure is gone.