VERCKYS KIAMANGWANA MATETA
Updated: Oct 19
THE STAR WHO FOUGHT FOR THE LIKES OF KIAMBUSTA, MESSIAH ONDETO, JOHANNA OWALO AND APOSTLE ALPHAYO ODONGO MANGO
The whispers of a lone guitar leads the listener into Verckys thoughts. A saxophone's plain song gently draws the singer out; his words overflow in tones of measured bitterness. It was a masterpiece in word and melody. The indisputable equal of the best of Nico, Franco and Rochearau.
The Battle Lines....
The policy of authenticity mandated all Congolese to revert to their tribal African names. Authenticity directive by the government of President Mobutu pitted a mortal combat between a left bank of western influences and a right bank of cultural values from traditional Africa. The Catholic Church which had baptised more than half of the population opposed this new direction. Congolese Cardinal Joseph Malula fled to the Vatican to intensify the battle with vigour from the bunkers.
Enter Verckys Kiamangwana Mateta.
Verckys as he was known in his previous names took the battle to the Vatican armed with nothing but a saxophone and terse lyrics. Verckys battled the Catholic Church on all fronts. From the hills of the Congo basin to the river banks of the Congo. From the mining shafts of Katanga to alleys and pews of the Vatican. Even the keepers of the dark evil records of King Leopold was under attack.
Nakomitunaka (I ask myself) directly answered the catholic church's objections to authenticity with a beautifully constructed meditation on the nature of western-style Christianity and its appropriateness for Africa and the black man.
The Vatican retreated and apologised for the misconception. Cardinal Malula returned. The burning embers of authenticity is scattered all over Africa and includes the de-solemnised Christian gospel singing that is trendy in Africa today especially during church weddings.
The “general” who took the fight deep into opponent’s territory behind enemy lines is Verckys Kiamangwana Mateta a.k.a. Wazo la Mbongo.
The Early Years
Verckys was born Georges Kiamangwana in Kisantu in DRC on 19th May 1944 and flirted with stage name of King Curtis an afro American superstar saxophonist because as francophones he heard Curtis as Verckys over the radio. In the wave of Mohammed Ali’s visit to Kinshasa he again flirted with “urban Islam” even changing his name to Omar. But deep inside he was always listening to his maverick and revolutionary spirits. This is the group of revolutionary artists such as Congolese Franklin Boukaka, Nigerian Fela, Trio Madjesi type of musicians who question things around them. They did not just live for weekend of party after party. If you follow this trend then you will see why Verckys found favour with a much derided sect in a way a Kenyan local musician would be found palling with Kenyan Legio Maria, Dini ya Masumbwi, Akorino. Can you imagine an Ohangla singer following a sect so derided? But that was the choice of wild spirit like Verckys to follow the teachings of Kiambusta or Kenyan Messiah Ondetto, Aphayo Odongo Mango, Johanna Owallo, Mumbo or Masinde in asserting the position of the black man.
Wazo la Mbongo (Akili ya pesa)
It is his wild spirit that even followed him to the stage in the way he played and dominated. That he chose a saxophone an instrument that is prohibited by revolutionaries to lead a revolution against the Vatican was puzzling. But then he was consistent enough to make music for money to earn the name wazo la mbongo (brains of money).
First he tried side business to produce music away from his boss, the Rumba King Franco Luambo Makiadi. When this path was blocked, he left the high fashion industry of Ok Jazz in 1969 and mass produced a new style of youthful music called Cavacha by literally diluting the Kinshasa scene with salvo after salvo of sleek fast high intensity bands answering to himself or chained to his business network.
To achieve this, he “borrowed” capital from the very derided sect (no dirty money) to fund this venture. Some say he controlled the importation of peroxide, the skin lightening cream in DRC that is very coveted in Kinshasa by then and as it is coveted now. In any case he built the best recording studio in Kinshasa and now controlled bands that ran away from him.
Then Akili ya Pesa found out that numbers were not adding up. 2+2 was not giving four. In money terms it was adding to 3. In records 2+2 =7. Someone was leaking record pressing in Kinshasa. And it was not the only pressing establishment in Lagos. In any case Lagos was too pre occupied by Kenyan music (Gabriel Omolo and Peter Owino Rachar). Then he found the records and sales were leaking in Nairobi, Kenya.
In 1974 Verckys and his V V band (pronounced veve) raided Nairobi, did one show at Kenya Polytechnic halls and took with him briefcases of royalties and pressed records leaving behind stern warning to Kenyan bootleggers to stop that monkey business with his records. The Nairobi show was a tense stage show because Wazo la Mbongo was not laughing with Kenyan hyenas.
With spare parts dwindling in Zaire and President Mobutu’s failed economic policies biting, the “General” released his bands in mid 1970s and did only minor works in early 1980s. In any case the other musicians also discovered the Kenyan pressing route. Now he concentrated on making music whenever he liked. It is only then that Tabu ley and Franco regained their foothold in the market. In fact, Tabu Ley chose the path of concert and elaborate stage shows fashioned by a fast paced Lake Victoria Benga beat fronted by singsation Mbilia Bel. Franco went for the moneyed Diaspora in western Europe and rest of the world (Afro Europeans Tours) in tours and selling loads of albums after albums in rapid succession churned out by a tag team of veteran singer composers.
Wazo la Mbongo had always been a deep thinking person and setting aside music as a side thing was not a big problem. He did not live for the weekends or the bright lights. But the revolutionary path tended to follow him even when he did not want and that is why I have nicknamed him the general.
You recall his encounter with the Vatican when he joined the Congolese sects preaching to reclaim Mobutu’s authenticity with the song Nakomitunaka. Apparently this cultural revolution was not his last revolution that he influenced as is his seen in his approach to music as a career. But there is another side to his revolution.
His fast paced Cavacha was very different from the conventional Congolese music of Kalle, Franco and Tabu ley. In fact, the 3 never flirted with Cavacha at all. I have never heard Cavacha beat from these three. Not even the drumming. The sound of Cavacha came after President Mobutu banned all foreign music whether personal or not. For 10 years the whole country listened to local music. It was quite a revolution. President Mobutu then commissioned Ray Lema as Director of music to find the true Congolese national sound. Even though no Congolese national sound was found, Ray came up with many insightful discoveries that impacted on music all over Africa and now the world. Even the Kenya National Anthem reduced the bias for the brass for a bias on heavy percussion of deep African drum when President Moi (a Mobutu pal) took over and visted Kamanyola the music and dance cultural centre with Boniface Maganga of Muungano Choir (It is ironic that our equivalent the innovative Bomas Of Kenya of "Gerr-man" Hillary Ocholla was bypassed in that visit when the Bomas state venture was even hailed by President Leopold Sedar Senghore of Senegal). In that discovery came the cavacha percussion filled music. The cavacha dance was an accident discovery by musicians on tour on the cross country train trying to balance the standing room only occupation shifting the weight from one foot to the other. And some musicians carried the kidology on to the stage. And presto, we have a dance to go with the sound. And Verckys milked it.
And we of my generation in East Africa, we also milked it when Nouvelle generation by Lipua Lipua arrived. To be accurate, the first Cavacha song I heard was Houlex Houlex, by Bella Bella of Soki Brothers (Vangu and Dianzenza) who were by then employees of Verckys. It was on Reel-to-Reel tape in the mint Buru Buru estate Original (now phase I) . My cuz Vinco Andedo was the only black person I know to have owned a such a sophisticated upscale tape. To make a long story short, get yourself a 60-year old to walk you through the evolution from stylus gramophone breakable discs, singles unbreakable disks, 45s, Lps, cassette tapes, reel-2-reel tapes, 8-Track tapes, piped music, compact cassette tapes, CDs, pen drives and back to vinyl and now the Spotify cloud music. I have seen it all because Verckys recorded in all of them.
Cavacha was the sound in High schools and everywhere from 1974 to 1979. Up to now if you play it my generation from Mombasa to Lome, Togo recall the high school innings. If you were in Homa Bay School or South Nyanza schools, then Ahero, Asumbi, Ogande, Nyakach, Nyabururu etc. would be on your mind. The old Congolese stars bar Tabu Ley was non-existent up to 1976 when they started rearing their head again. Agreed Franco was in self isolation mourning his brother.
Revolutionary Sounds in Uganda liberation
And being a revolutionary sound of the youth, Verckys efforts produced a revolutionary theme for the young. In 1979, the people who started dancing to these songs were 5years older and were the ones flying jets and running platoons or leading operations. In Uganda I am talking of later Blasio Okello, later Vice President Paulo Muwanga, later life President Yoweri Museveni, Sandhurst graduate and Israeli trained and later Chief of Defence staff General Oyite Ojok, now Amb Olarra Otunnu, Chris Rwakasisi, later president Tito Okello who were all at the head of military operation to drive out dictator Idi Amin out of Uganda.
I was taking a long break deep in Ugenya after my professional Exams when Tanzania combined forces were advancing towards Kampala to topple Idi Amin. And we looked up to the young Turks in Uganda. I can even recall the last days of skirmishes. There was this radio station that you could catch from Ukwala. I liked it because it played a lot of popular music in the mould of Good Morning Viet Nam movie, just to keep the morale of the fighters. I was getting live update can remember the day a Libyan Jet carrying a battalion of reinforcements of Libyan trained commandos that landed to beef up dictator Idi Amin's forces touched the ground and on realising that the airfield was now enemy territory continued to taxi to try and get away. And the TZ army just shelled the living lights of the Libyan jet at lift off stage. And with it was blown the Libyan plane-full of commandos. That is how coalition of liberators kicked Ass backed by Verckys sound as we all listened to revolutionary music of Verckys. And as the army marched to Kampala Verckys music was doing what Americans call, Kicking Ass on this radio station. And true youthful music was Kicking Ass. Lipua Lipua was kicking Ass.
Kiam was Kicking Ass,
Shama Shama was Kicking Ass,
Fuga Fuga was Kicking Ass.
Mopero was Kicking Ass.
Lemba Lemba was Kicking Ass
Bella Bella was Kicking Ass.
Everywhere you turned the new sound of allies of Verckys Kiamangwana Mateta Wazo la Mbongo, aka Omar aka Georges was Kicking Ass by one band or another.
1982 Air force Flare up (Hezekiah Ochuka).
And the Kenyan airwaves the Ass kicking did not just stop either. No radio presentation ended without a Verckys allied sound. Sometimes DJ Ali Salim Manga would be scorching the ears on National service VoK with Okomi Kolangwa, Temperature, Afinda Moni or KizengeZenge. And at the same time on the General Service the liberalised un-sheng would be interchanging between Mwana Mburu and Bassala Hot or Hi Joe.
And it was like that until after rude brutal stop. Ironically another revolution killed the Verckys revolution on Kenyan airwaves. On the morning of 1st August 1982, the Kenyan Air Force led a military takeover and we woke up to short one liner of 'every one to stay at home and policemen to stay as civilians'. This was followed by long plays of Verckys allied popular sounds on the airwaves. This can be explained very easily.
The initial Kenya Airforce recruitment was reserved for one tribe in order to provide a million shillings’ free aviators tuition to one community. On completion of the basic 7 year service they would then continue to commercially fly jets all over the world at insanely lucrative pilot salaries. Even when they allowed a Lakeside person in the Kenya Airforce pre Moi years it would be in some high risk areas like flight engineers etc. Hiyo wachia wazungu waliobaki was the coded message for too much technical know how work. But they kept the back bacon areas for sons of the mountain. My compatriots from the mountain are very clever. What they can see sitting down, other Kenyans cannot see even when climbing on trees. Anyhow after the Kenyatta/Moi change of guard in 1978, this had to stop. And the Air force opened its doors to many of my school year mates from all over the country. These were the Cavacha generation or the new Verckys sound generation. Many of my school mates from Homa Bay like Nyagol Ojey, Leftie, late Otieno Slick Watts, Oyebi, Okello Brown, Moreira, Monsioma, late Benson Masinde aka Mercedes Benz, late Omburumbembe, late Kebago, late jaAlego Mogurmach ended up in the Kenya Air force. At least 4 got court martialled in the aftermath of the failed coup but were freed because they were in the company of the right tribe. The others I cannot say here because many of my brethren got caught up in a game of betrayal, gamesmanship and night of long knives while trying to save Kenya 'again'. As much as the sound of Verckys has other memories, to me it also carries that betrayal by the outsider who always keeps on weeping more than the real bereaved Kenyans.
Naturally during the takeover of the VoK station one of the Verckys generations in Kenya Air force mutiny must have been manning the radio stations of VoK. And he played the music Verckys after Verckys after Verckys. When Hezekiah Ochuka’s reign was brought to an abrupt end at about 11.00am, the government decided to erase everything that can remind them of the tragedy. VoK was renamed KBC. Even the name Kenya Air Force was changed to a mouthful Moi 82 Air Base. And that is how revolutionary Verckys Kiamangwana sound was obliterated from Kenya airwaves.
From a maverick boy Verckys touched so many lives directly or indirectly, changed the music, helped so many artists and was an example to how to run a business and how to stop without incurring losses. He was revolutionary in many ways. In my world he was a major general from the time he forced the Vatican to accept our names, our music and our dances.
The next time you see a traditional wedding or a non-solemn singing in a church, say a prayer to the soul of Verckys Kiamangwana Mateta. Say a prayer for his soul because he dared ask “why”. Next time you hear Nyakach-wa lang’o or pass by Nyakach plateau also say a prayer for his soul.
Farewell Verckys. More than any other musician you touched our lives. Forget the over romanticised Congolese musicians. Your music was not just an anaesthesia while we are being abused by bad governance and world intrigues. It was also a music to not only open our eyes but to show us how resourceful we can be when left on our own. Farewell Verckys. Nind gi kwe jathum ma jadhum.
PS. Ahh Wazo la Mbongo, Don’t forget to ask God, Nokomitunaka. Even if we don’t get to hear the answer.