It seems appropriate that the late lamented guitar hero Mose Fan Fan passed his last days in Nairobi, the city he loved, where he had recorded some innovative material and from where he had launched his European career, before returning in later years to reconnect with his African audience.
Fan Fan was a Congolese musician from the French-speaking west of the country, the Bana Mayi, and he first made his name in Kinshasa, although his greatest success and lasting fame were gained in East Africa. Born Ferdinand Mose in 1944 in Leopoldville, Belgian Congo (now Kinshasa, DRC) the eventual guitar hero was the fifth of the nine children of Diamuini Dianpetelo Emanuel, a chef, and his wife Madelene.
When the despotic President Mobutu Sese Seko enforced a change to “African” names, he re-emerged as Mose Se Sengo. The nickname Fan Fan came from the swashbuckling French film character Fanfan La Tulipe, and referred to Mose’s prowess in mock battles with neighbourhood kids, including Sam Mangwana and Verckys Kiamuangana, both of whom went on to become illustrious members of OK Jazz and big time solo stars.
The Congo (Zaire/DRC) was a wonderland of big dance bands, dreamy poetic vocals and guitar magicians, and the most prominent of those was the legendary Franco Luambo Makiadi, who was to become Fan Fan’s boss as well as his inspiration. The repertoire of the OK Jazz school had evolved from the melding of popular Afro/Latin rhythms with the Congolese palm wine-style maringa, and agbwaya, an early version of Congo rock’ n’ roll. This was rebel, teenage music and the young delinquents were known as ‘Watama’, an identity that is at the root of the OK Jazz style.
Fan Fan had access to a guitar at home and at boarding school in Boma, and he made his debut as a youth with Rickem Jazz. He later played with the Jazz Barons (an after-hours jamming group with Franco’s brother Bavon Marie-Marie) and Orchestre Revolution, with Kwamy, Mujos and Brazzos from OK Jazz. Despite many defections, OK Jazz remained the top band in the country, and in 1967 Fan Fan was recruited as second lead guitarist and deputy for Franco, the “Congo Colossus” whose music informed and excited many African countries.
Fan Fan had the uncanny ability to replicate the hard, metallic attack of Franco’s guitar, and he became the boss’s deputy, taking the solo when Franco was offstage chatting or doing business, leading at rehearsals and sometimes playing solo parts together. With the full force of the band behind him, he inevitably attracted his own crowd of fans with the unrelenting drive of his compositions and arrangements. Franco acknowledged his importance in 1972 in the song “Testament”, coupled on record with Fan Fan’s own hit song “Djemelasi”. When Franco appeared to lose interest in the band, Fan Fan became acting bandleader and was tipped to take over the operation. Instead, inspired by the success of his record, he decided to cut out on his own and seek his fortune independently.
His first formation of Somo Somo included OK Jazz colleagues Youlou Mabiala, Kwamy (vocals), and Francis ‘Celi’ Bitchoumanu (bass). The name, which translates roughly as “Double Trouble”, was a catchphrase popularised in “Djemelasi”. That first line-up was short-lived, as the other musicians were tempted back to OK Jazz. Fan Fan’s pride and principles ensured he went his own way. He briefly joined Vicky Longomba’s Lovy du Zaire but could not get on with Vicky and soon quit.
Going against the advice of friends and colleagues, in 1975 he embarked on his solo travels. With a passport arranged by Kabasele, the godfather of Congolese music, he took the Somo Somo name and inspiration east to Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya and, eventually, Europe. In Lusaka he spent almost a year promoting his records and establishing a lasting reputation there before continuing his journey to Tanzania. Originally performing as a solo artiste at the New Africa Hotel in Dar es Salaam, Fan Fan went on to become bandleader of Orchestre Makassy, who recorded several hits and later Orchestre Maquis. He then founded Orchestre Matimila, where he was joined by the eventual leader Remmy Ongala ‘Sura Mbaya’. Compositions included “Chama Cha Mapinduzi”, in praise of the Tanzanian independence party, with lyrics based on the words of the country’s first president, Julius Nyerere. During that period he was obliged to learn the rudiments of English and Swahili.
In search of a recording deal, he moved in the early 1980s to Kenya, where there was a functioning record business. There he recorded a series of singles and albums for AIT, which reflected his travels and his response to changing cultures.
A collaboration in Nairobi with the English pop star Robin Scott led to an EP disc titled “Crazy Zulu”, with vocals by the South African female group Shikisha. He also made a cracking version of the Pamelo Mounka song “Mbongo Se Mbongo” (“Argent Appelle Argent”). Scott gave Fan Fan the opportunity to travel to London in 1983. Reunited with Shikisha’s Doreen Webster, he recruited the first line-up for the “multiracial” version of Somo Somo. There was a small, but enthusiastic market and the fledgling London label Stern’s released his first UK album. The band was competent but they just did not have the shared experience necessary, and neither did the English instrumentalists understand the African “system”.
For his second European record, he travelled to France in 1986 and hooked up with fellow francophone musicians to record an underrated album, “Paris”, which had high production values, and was also more authentically Zairean.
Fan Fan was deeply moved by the death of Franco in 1989. He had visited the Grand Maitre on his death bed in Belgium, touching base after 15 years with a man of whom he said “even if he wasn’t always a nice guy, everybody loved him”.
In Belgium he re-established contact with old colleagues and produced an album by Bana OK (the OK Boys). Following Franco’s death, a core of musicians had stayed on in Europe, including saxophonist Rondot Kasongo, guitarists Thierry and Petit Pierre and Franco’s female discovery Baniel Bambou, joined by Malage de Lugendo. The veteran guitarist Papa Noel was also recruited and the album paid homage to their late, inspirational leader.
In 1993 Sam Mangwana toured England with Les Quatres Etoiles (Four Stars) and he invited his old friend to play with them. Surprisingly, it was the first time Sam and Fan Fan had shared a stage, having been members of OK Jazz at different times. This reunion inspired the musicians to work together again, and the collaboration led eventually to the Paris recording sessions for “Hello, Hello”.
Fan Fan dedicated this new incarnation of Somo Somo to: “Those past Congo-Zairean musicians who endured and resisted the colonial mentality and culture — especially Paul Kamba, Francois Bosele, Antoine Mundanda, Adou Elenga, Henri Bowane, Paul Dewayon and Wendo Kalosoy, the last survivor of a generation. Not forgetting the Grand Maitre, Luambo Makiadi ‘Franco’. Their past work continues to inspire the future of Congolese rumba music through the spirit of Somo Somo Ngobila.” Ngobila was a native of Kinshasa, a great warrior and player of the ngoma talking drum.
In 1995, Fan Fan also renewed his connection with Tanzania when he played with Shikamoo Jazz. He was signed up to motivate the band of veterans as a member of the East African Legends tour of Britain with Fundi Konde and Bi Kidude. The mutual respect that flowed between him and the musicians of Shikamoo provided another morale boost. Also, for the first time since leaving Africa, he was able to play a long three-hour performance at the Womad festival. He returned in 2000, performing an acoustic set with his fellow Congolese guitar legend Papa Noel. As Fan Fan’s style began to mellow he recorded several more melodic albums for independent labels, including the comfortably relaxed Congo Acoustic and a couple of releases under his own brand, LLA.
During the mid-2010s, his long-time associate, the guitarist Fiston Lusambo, was touring in Kenya and recognised the song “Papa Lolo”, being played by club DJs, as one of Fan Fan’s compositions from his 2004 album “Bayekekeye”. This led to a return visit to Nairobi after many years away, and a follow-up tour in 2018.
His final visit this April and May was to have included a recording session in Arusha with several up-and-coming artistes.
By all accounts Fan Fan was basking in the adulation of Kenyan musicians and public alike and must have died happy to realise that he was a still a star on his home continent. The Intrepid. The Immortal.
Graeme Ewens is the author of Congo Colossus: The Life and Legacy of Franco and OK Jazz.