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Dec 04, 2022
S.O.S. Salsa is the only band in the Republic of Congo that fuses Cuban music with Congolese culture into an infectious, danceable sound. We meet the members in Brazzaville, where it started decades ago.
— by Victoire Douniama in the Republic of Congo
Music has always been at the cultural heart of the Republic of Congo. In August 1995, in the Mfilou neighborhood of Brazzaville, the country’s artistic hub, a new musical fusion was created: the marriage of Congolese (“la rumba Congolaise”) and Cuban sounds.
The band that did this, S.O.S. Salsa, incorporates a mix of Spanish and Central African languages into their songs. They have continued creating their lively, rhythmic and deliciously danceable sounds ever since. And, decades later, they are still the only band in the Republic of Congo to combine the Cuban music genre with Congolese culture.
In December 2021, 25 years after S.O.S. Salsa was born, Congolese rumba was recognized by UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, acknowledging the efforts of Congolese rumba musicians like the well-known Les Bantu de la Capitale and singer-songwriter Casimir Zoba (better known as Zao).
We met with the members of S.O.S. Salsa to talk about their music and what it means to them and the Congolese people.
S.O.S Salsa was founded by Romain Gardon (above), who also plays keyboard and writes lyrics for the band. Romain has enjoyed creating music since the tender age of 12, when he first moved to Cuba in the 1980s on a bursary program for Congolese students. There, Romain became friends with future bandmate Kelili lazar Dorkens, also from Brazzaville and who had also received a scholarship.
After 11 years of living and studying in Cuba, Romain returned to Congo in 1995 with a degree in chemical engineering — and an appreciation of and passion for Cuban culture. This inspired him to create S.O.S Salsa. However, he hesitated at first because there are such differences between Congolese and Cuba cultures.
“I thought if I had created the kind of music I did in Cuba people might not like it, but then I came across a group that was performing salsa in Congo. They were not Congolese, but the crowd loved their music so I thought why not do the same?” Romain recalls.
The idea for the name S.O.S Salsa stemmed from efforts to bring fresh and revitalized salsa music to the Republic of Congo. “What makes our music different and unique in Congo and within the central African countries is, first of all, the arrangement, meaning the way we execute our music, the musical expressions, meaning our way of playing instruments or singing and our incorporation of singing and dancing, including a mixture of Spanish and Congolese languages such as Lingala, Kituba and Kikongo.”
Kelili, who plays a güiro instrument that he crafted from an electrical pipe, became a member of the group in 2000 after returning from Cuba, where he had lived and studied for 16 years.
Kelili describes their music as “a monument of salsa.” He explains that salsa has been in Congo for a long time, adding that “Les Bantous de la Capitale used to sing charanga-inspired songs and cha-cha-chá.” Charanga is a type of Cuban dance music and cha-cha-cha is a Latin-American ballroom dance.
“We have many artists that made salsa music, but S.O.S. Salsa revolutionized salsa music and made it much more engaging through dance.”
Serge Edgar started playing drums aged about 10 for a church organization. Fast forward a couple of years and he was asked to join a group called “Tele Music,” where he learned to play the tumba, a conga drum. During his career as an instrumentalist, Serge had the opportunity to perform in different corners of the world before joining S.O.S. Salsa in 2004. He’s worked as an instrumentalist for popular musicians in France, specializing in soukous music, and has performed in tours in various parts of the U.S.
“Creating music is not easy,” Serge says. One issue is the cost — tumba drums are expensive and that has been an obstacle to him in the past. The other challenge is emotional in nature: “We are transmitting a message and bringing back a lost memory through the songs we create.”
“Salsa is an emanation of slavery. It is an ancestral music with routes linked to different countries such as Haii, and the African continent,” Serge explains. “The lost memory is about the origins of this music.”
What he likes about salsa is that it helps people relax, and it can even be therapeutic.
Bass guitarist Maloumbi joined S.O.S. Salsa in 2005. “I had a great passion for salsa music since my childhood,” he recounts. “Then a friend told me about S.O.S. Salsa and that they were looking for members, so I joined the group and I was fascinated to learn about salsa music. Because Mr. Romain was coming from Cuba, I knew I could learn a lot from him.”
Maloumbi’s father played bass guitar during the 1990s. Maloumbi explains that he was exposed to salsa and rumba music from a young age, and never missed any of his father’s performances. But, he says, “the salsa music that we create in S.O.S. Salsa is pure salsa music inspired from Cuban artists.”
But salsa isn’t Maloumbi’s only musical love. “I embrace different kinds of music because I envision my future in my musical career. I want to elevate my culture through the music I create. So one day I might play for a reggae group and another day I might play for a salsa group.”
Musical versatility is a key element in the band. It helps to differentiate the S.O.S. Salsa sound from other salsa music in Congo. “Within our group we have vocalists and musicians that play for other groups,” Maloumbi explains. “So it is much easier for us to incorporate a touch of those other music genres we play outside of S.O.S. Salsa.”
“I embrace the challenges that I face as an artist,” he says. “I was on tour in Cameroon in January playing amongst other artists and I brought a different touch. Music is universal. S.O.S. Salsa has a great role in Congo because we are the only group that uniquely sings salsa so we definitely add something extra special within the Republic of Congo's culture.”
Arsen Matsudo learned to play the trumpet at a young age. As he got older, he developed a love of salsa music, which was very different from the music he played at church, he recalls. After he saw a performance by S.O.S. Salsa, he started playing salsa. “I learned a lot about how to play the trumpet in Cuban style,” Matsudo says. “Salsa is highly valued in the Republic of Congo … Salsa in particular is different and appreciated by the locals.
He had the opportunity to join S.O.S. Salsa in 1999. Today, the band consists of eight members.
In their 27 years together, S.O.S. Salsa has performed regularly in Brazzaville — mainly in restaurants and at local events — and throughout the Republic of Congo and other African countries. However, they “aim to be recognized internationally as well,” Romain says. During their time together they’ve released two albums and two singles. Meanwhile, the band continues to be recognized as the “main ambassador of Afro-Cuban culture,” Romain says.
“We brought something special. We are often described as the most popular and spectacular orchestra in Central Africa,” says Kelili.
The group has over 25 songs, but “the most danced and appreciated by the Congolese public was ‘Taba Mobague,’” Romain says, “because it is sung in Lingala and the message transmitted through the song is relatable to most people in Congo.”
The song is about a retired man with debts and regrets about what he didn’t achieve in his life, Romain explains. “He realizes that even the house he was building was not completed yet.”
“This is a common issue in Congo, where people do not save or invest, then comes retirement and then they realize that they did not take the necessary measures for a peaceful retirement."
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