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African Legends

Remmy Ongala

By Tom Pryor
Published November 21, 2006

Remmy Ongala is one of East Africa’s true superstars. He and his band Super Matimila blend elements of Congolese soukous with Kenya’s guitar-heavy benga music into heady brew he calls ubongo.

Ongala was born in the Kivu region of the Congo in 1947, not far from the Tanzanian border, and he was drawn to both the music of his homeland and the music heard on the radio from over the border. But unlike a lot of his more famous countrymen, Ongala wasn’t always able to make a living on music alone, and for years he worked hard as a laborer by day, and musician by night. He played in small bars and hotels in the Congo (then known as Zaire), and also Uganda, before accepting his uncle’s invitation to join his band in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania in 1978.

When Makassy relocated to Kenya, Ongala stayed behind and joined Orchestre Matimila, eventually becoming its leader and renaming it Super Matimila. The band’s big horn section and three-guitar attack swept the local scene, and by the early ’80s Super Matimila was the hottest sound in Dar Es Salaam, and he began recording profusely (and getting pirated even more profusely).

Singing in Swahili and other languages, Ongala continued to speak out against poverty, economic exploitation and, inevitably, AIDS and music piracy. In 1988 he was invited to perform on the WOMAD tour, and his success outside of Africa led to a contract with Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld Label. Ongala recorded two albums for the label, 1988’s Songs For The Poor Man and 1991’s Mambo, both of which cemented Ongala’s international reputation.

These days Ongala continues to live and work in Dar Es Salaam, continuing to record and occasionally tour with Super Matimila, and enjoying his hard-earned reputation as one of Tanzania’s most original and outspoken voices.

Recommended Recordings

Songs For The Poor Man (RealWorld)
Mambo (RealWorld)
Sema (Womad Select)