The man many Kenyan fans of Lingala music fondly remember by the nickname “Sauti ya Simba” is no more.
Lessa Lassan, whose vocal prowess gave him the name, died on New Year’s Day in Nairobi, a city he has called home since the 1970s. He was buried on Thursday at Langata Cemetery.
In the 1980s, the burly musician spotted the then popular curly hairstyle.
It was Lassan who popularised the then Cantina Club, near Wilson Airport off Langata Road in Nairobi with his catchy rumba music.
With his Orchestra Popolipo band, Lassan also performed at Motherland Club near Adam’s Arcade on Ngong Road.
Kenyans in their mid-40s to 50s would remember some of Lassan’s hits, which included Margaret Margy, which enjoyed wide airplay on the state owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation’s Kiswahili station.
Before coming to Kenya, Lassan performed with the African Fiesta band in Congo DR, where he is credited with songs like Kiri Kiri-Mabina ya Sika (Kiri kiri the new dance), Echantillion ya Pamba , Asala Malekoum, Pauline, and Limbisa Ngai.
In the group, he also teamed up with former TP OK Jazz vocalist Josky Kiambukuta and Dechaud, ‘Dr’ Nico’s brother.
Other popular songs by Lassan include Sababu Yako, Tobias Oduor, Ujanja wa mwanamke, Mwana wa Mberi and Zuria (in praise of his daughter).
Lassan a multi-talented musician, was also a sociable character, who attracted radio and club deejays, who often played his music. Veteran radio presenters Elizabeth Obege and Fred Obachi Machoka recalled with fond memories how the Cantina Club was “more or less a must-stop place for any Lingala music fan in Nairobi in the 80s and 90s”.
As Orch Super Mazembe band leader Kasongo wa Kanema noted, “his singing style was inspiring to many of us who were his counterparts in music.”
In these crowds were people who loved to hear their names mentioned in the Lingala songs, whose meanings they did not even understand, but who just loved the tunes.
Lassan was among the Congolese musicians who left their country to journey eastwards in search of greener pastures.
He first came to Kenya alongside former TPOK Jazz solo guitarist Michelino Mavatiku Visi in the late 1970s, when they did songs like Masamba with the Makfe International Band.
They came after Les Mangelepa, the group that broke away from Baba National Illunga wa Ilunga, had made a name for themselves playing at the Inn on the Park and later at Garden Square Restaurant. They rocked Nairobi with their “Sindano ya Moto” style.
There were other Congolese outfits at the time, including the Samba Mapangala-led Les Kinois, which also played at the same venues. Others included Super Mazembe, of Longwa Didos, Boma Liwanza, and much later, Vundumuna of Frantal Tabu.
This period saw cut-throat competition between the Congolese bands, and also with Tanzanian outfits such as Les Wanyika of Professor Omar Shaban and later John Ngereza and the Peter brothers, Wilson and George, in Simba wa Nyika. The Kenyan bands that tried to measure up to the challenge included the Langata Barracks-based Maroon Commandos, then led by Habel Kifoto.
But the wizardry of Lassan was evident not only in his recordings that enjoyed immense play on radio and in clubs, but also his live concerts, which saw invitations pouring in from other towns and even the rural areas for the band to perform.
The death of Lasaan marks yet another end of an era in the recording of Congolese music with a Kenyan touch.
Other greats in the Congo-Kenya stable, who have since died, include Lovi Longomba, a son of Vicky Longomba, who was an associate of the great Franco Luambo Luanzo in the 1960s.
Lovi was the half-brother of techno-soukous star Awilo Longomba. Super Mazembe leader Longwa Didos also died, leaving the band to Kasongo wa Kanema.
There was also the singing maestro Moreno Batamba “Aye Mabe,” alongside others former Orch Super Mazembe musicians like Atia Jo, Rapok Kayembe, Songo Ley, Bukalos wa Bukasa, who also died and were buried in Kenya.