Nene Mbendi Mandosa died on January 28 but it took nearly a day before his close friend Lukombo Nzambe, aka Shimita el Diego, confirmed the sad news. Not that Nene wasn’t popular enough in Congolese musical circles, but it all depended on how he chose to live his life – he was like a candle that burned so softly but whose light lit up the room.
This piece was the music of Soukous, and its candle was the guitar – the pulse of Congolese rumba melody. Nene played all three lead (usually called lead), rhythm and bass guitars, composed songs and excelled in arranging. But his real staple was lead.
From Langa Langa Stars and Soukous Stars to individual musicians such as Alain Kounkou, Nimon Toki Lala, Koffi Olomide and Kanda Bongo Man, Nene’s guitar lives up to its name. And this name was also Nene’s first step. Tchakou, we called him at Langa Langa Stars, for having made his guitar talk like a parrot.
For a lead guitarist who toured the world with some of rumba’s finest musicians, a man whose sultry seventh chord touch produced bluesy, much softer melodies that sounded almost as good as violins, Nene Tchakou surprisingly kept a low profile in the limelight sets.
It’s as if he was deeply introverted even if Chantal Loial swears that the guitarist with whom she danced around the world for Kanda Bongo Man was not as reserved as his appearance suggested.
“Not shy at all, he was funny and liked to make jokes,” the Guadeloupean dancer and choreographer told Nene’s Daily Monitor.
“We laughed a lot with him.
Chantal gained worldwide attention when she joined Kanda Bongo Man’s zing-zong (session band) where Nene had become the lead guitarist after Diblo Dibala’s departure and teamed up with Aurlus Mabele to form Loketo.
Nene had already done enough in Kanda’s 1991 album “Zing Zong” for the melodies of songs such as Freres Soki, Isambe, Iyonde and Yezu Kristu to earn his place on the table of lead guitar maestros. Soukous. Yet he was still in the shadow of Diblo Dibala and Dally Kimoko.
Then Kanda released the album “Sana” in 1992. The album’s biggest hit was “Muchana”, a love zouk in which Kanda urges his Kenyan fans to stop crying from dawn to dusk because of his deportation and banishment from the East African nation.
Muchana is short in the lyrical package but massive in the melody, thanks to Nene. Muchana would have sold even without the video, but it’s still the video’s credit that she surpassed the sensuality in ‘Wahito’, or the symphonic execution in the gospel ‘Nzambe’.
Muchana’s video had magic. Kanda let her team of Djena Mandako and Abby Odette Surya on lead vocals, with guitarist Nene and dancer Chantal flourish. Yet, the weirdest thing about it all is that many rumba listeners still believe that the captivating lead fretwork is by Dally Kimoko.
In 2015, Sean Solomon Oseku, then a radio journalist, declared Nene the “greatest soloist of all time” when he was convinced that “Massapa”, “RAS” and “Dassenz” by Alain Kounkou, among others, were all hits through the efforts of Nene, who played both lead and rhythm guitar and arranged the songs.
This despite the fact that Alain Kounkou launched mabanga (praise) for Nene in some of his songs. “Tchakou Tchakou Tchakou mom, Tchakou mom, wooo! Oh”, exclaimed the former keyboardist of Wenge Musica.
The same can be said of Lutchiana Mobulu with hits like “Lutchiana 100%”, “Junior” and “Ewa”, all “given” to Dally and Diblo. Even the most obvious productions such as “Nairobi Night” and “Lagos Night” by Soukous Stars, Nene has always lost herself in well-deserved credit.
It takes a lot of conviction for this reality to strike a chord. And such was Nene’s fate that because he let his works speak for themselves compared to Diblo and Dally who almost always had their names shouted out in the songs they starred in, his credit was watered down a lot.
Take for example the endless debate over which of Dally Kimoko, Diblo Dibala and Nene Tchakou was the best guitarist in Soukous. A few years ago, this debate resurfaced on social networks, attracting fans of Congolese music.
A certain Rodgers Mukasa, while explaining why he thought Dally was better than Nene, said, “There’s this song in which Dally converts the lead guitar into a violin. Strumming repeatedly, he comes out like a fiddle, no clear notes, just a continuous swim of his fingers.
The song Mukasa was looking to have Dally chanting was “Love” from Ngouma Lokito’s 1992 album Wabi. The lead guitarist here is Nene Tchakou.
“The best lead in the whole world in my opinion… Papa Melody! He was simply the best,” says Robert Kalumba, a rumba addict.
KCCA’s communications officer has always had a bias towards Nene of the Three Amigos. And it’s easy to see why. Yancomba ‘Diblo’ Dibala, Dally Germain Ndala Kimoko and Nene all used the guitar school of Felix Manuaku Waku. But it was the latter who was truly Manuaku Waku’s disciple.
Congolese rumba was founded on three guitar schools except for the beginnings of Henry Bowane in the 1940s. There was Nico Kasanda, aka the Doctor Nico school, the Franco Luambo Makiadi school and the Manuaku school Waku.
While Doctor Nico played smooth, flowing improvisations that were rarely heard twice, Franco’s style – known as odemba – was rougher, more repetitive and rooted in rhythms that made the hips of club dancers move. the trendiest in Kinshasa, notes Morgan Greenstreet in “Seben Heaven: The Roots of Soukous.
Manuaku Waku’s later recognizable school of guitar emphasized stretched solo sections used to dance without singing except when a host shouts praises and whatever else comes into his or her head. The style was also much smoother in sound relying on the major seventh chord, often resulting in melodies that replicated the lyrics themselves.
Diblo, Dally and Nene have excelled in this area and are widely regarded as apart from the rest, including Beniko Popolipo, Syran Mbenza, Saladin, Caen Madoka and Eight Kilo.
Diblo was nicknamed “Machine Gun” for the speed and efficiency with which he played solo. Dally is called ‘Guitar ezanga likwanza’ (scratchless guitar or seamless guitar). And Nene the ‘Tchakou’ (parrot) for making the guitar speak so nicely.
From Diblo’s speed to Dally’s versatility and short guitar parts that allowed to rise or fall with the beat of the song, Soukous was blessed with Nene’s long guitar distortion parts but more than that, his sensual touch.
A graduate of Manuaku Waku from his time with the Langa Langa Stars and later Zaiko Wawa, Nene barely caressed the strings and his fretwork sounded like a knockoff, delivering riffs that made him hard to distinguish from synthetic production, for example.
But any of the other lead guitarists could do just as well. Diblo, for example, flaunted his mastery of the art in “Ok Madame” to such a degree that the melody mimicked the voice.
Editor Victor Coelho, in “The Cambridge Companion to the Guitar”, notes that Soukous’s light and fast flat picking of the lead provides a striking balance between melodic inventiveness and rhythmic repetition.
While many will be quick to tell you that Dally Kimoko could effortlessly take on the lead role in traditional rumba like Franco or Doctor Nico, this opinion tends to ignore the fact that Nene himself started with Langa Langa Stars and has left good notes in ‘Haut De Gamme-Kuweit, Rive Gauche album, better known as Papa Bonheur.
Nene not only played the lead role but also handled the arrangement for the entire 1992 release. This talent of Nene defined most of his contribution to rumba as he mainly performed as a session artist .
He was useful in Alain Kounkou’s solo career for most of the songs for which Nene played the main role and did the arrangement, as well as for others like the Togolese singer Nimon Toki Lala, Lutchiana Mobulu, Shimita el Diego, Nene Tuty and Aurlus Mabele.
Nene Tchakou was almost everywhere; Damien Aziwa, Wenge Musica Aile Paris, 3015 Code Niawu, Pierre Belkos, Tchico Tchicaya, Lumbumbashi Stars, Ngouma Lokito, Shimita…
A successful quiet career
Nene Mbendi Mandosa was born in 1957 in the Bas Congo region. His musical career started as soon as he was 13 when he started playing with a group of youngsters whose parents worked in the military.
In the mid-1970s, he joined Kanako Shiripe Bango. This group also included the virtuoso Beniko Popolipo.
With Bella Nigrita, Nene produced his first album, Alila, in 1978. The album did well and put the guitarist on a pedestal of success. By 1981, Nene had rolled up her sleeves and was ready to scratch with the big boys. He joined Langa Langa Stars where he got his stage name “Tchakou”.
However, when Manuaku Waku left to form Zaiko Wawa in 1983, he took Nene with him, who went on to produce his second album, Bbongo.
He went solo in 1987 and produced the single Niger. Shortly after, Nene moved to Paris in 1988 where he worked with musicians like Koffi Olomide, joined the formation of Soukous Stars where he arranged, and Shi Loving (Nigeria).
In 2002 Nene moved to Stockton, California, USA with Soukous Stars where they recorded and produced an album which was released in 2001. He then formed the band Affro Muzika with Shimita before joining Rowa Records as a resident artist and producer where he was also writing and arranging for other ‘cultural’ musicians.
Quiet Death of a Quiet Man
Ahead of Kanda Bongo Man’s final show in Kampala on New Year’s Eve 2019, one of the lingering questions was whether Nene would come. The two had toured the world together for decades since their association in 1991.
But at 59, that was too big a wish. However, this was not the reality. Nene had been receiving treatment in the United States for years after suffering a stroke.
On January 28, Nene Mbendi Mandosa died from the United States. He had lived a quiet life doing his business in the background and even quieter once he was in semi-retirement due to illness. So it’s no surprise that news of his death was barely covered.
In the Soukous era that produced all three Amigos, Nene’s contribution will continue to quietly occupy a place at the top table while barely noticed by the wizard behind them.