Simaro: The unsung poet who kept TPOK band fire burning

Saturday April 13 2019

Poet Lumumba Simaro. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Poet Lumumba Simaro. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

AMOS NGAIRA
By AMOS NGAIRA
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With Kinshasa preparing for the funeral of rhumba musician Lutumba Simaro Massiya, his ardent fans in Kenya, including doctors, radio broadcasters, scholars and a seasoned trade unionist, have been paying tributes to their idol.

The fans are yet to come to terms with the death of a man who was the longest-serving vice-president of the great TPOK Jazz band, which was led by Franco. TPOK Jazz was founded in 1956 and was for close to three decades in the forefront of musical entertainment in the DR Congo.

Though many did not understand the message in the lyrics in the Lingala language, they listened, danced and sang to the genius of his compositions. The band master, who was popularly known as Le Poete (the poet), wowed and carried fans along for many decades.

His vast discography, ranging from the 1960s through to the 1990s, is one that rhumba fans cherish.

Fellow veteran Congolese musician Kiamuangana Mateta Verckys told the Saturday Nation that several artistes and government officials from Kinshasa would travel to Paris to ferry the body home for a state burial. His burial date is yet to be confirmed.

A remarkable feat by Simaro, who died at 81 on March 30, 2019, was his choice of commanding solo voices in some of his most popular compositions. Some of the most notable songs featuring lone vocalists were “Mabele” (Sam Mangwana), “Kadima” (Djo Mpoyi), “Ebale ya Zaire” (Sam Mangwana), “Faute Ya Commercant”, (Sam Mangwana), “Maya” (Carlito Lassa), “Testament ya Bowule” (Malage Lugendo), “Mandola” (Djo Mpoyi), “Mbongo” (Djo Mpoyi), “Dati Petrole” (Madilu System) and “Mobali ya Bato” (Mbilia Bel).

Aids researcher and consultant psychiatrist Dr Sobbie Mulindi deeply cherishes his moments with Simaro, whom he first met in Kinshasa and later Nairobi in the early 1980s.

“My first encounter with Simaro was at a club in Kinshasa and later at the Memling Hotel in Kinshasa, where we had dinner,” he said.

TPOK BAND

In TPOK, Simaro was a close confidant of Franco and was seen as the silent hand behind the running of the band. Being fluent in French, Dr Mulindi found it easy to get around in Kinshasa.

Simaro was never fond of travelling outside Kinshasa. In his last trip to Europe, he was forced to travel to France for a medical check-up and treatment.

“During live shows, I watched him quietly strumming his guitar as the rest of the band members danced,” Dr Mulindi said.

He also met Simaro when the band toured Kenya in 1983 and he was flanked by Kenyan twist legend Daudi Kabaka. His favourite songs by Simaro are “Bisalela” and “Mbongo” and the rhumba ballad “Gege Yoka”.

London-based veteran Congolese guitarist Mose Fan Fan, of the “Papa Lolo” hit song fame, earlier this week recalled that when he joined TPOK Jazz in 1968, Simaro and Franco were the key guitarists.

“I was invited to join the band as a lead guitarist through the encouragement of Simaro, who was very kind to me throughout my stay in the group,” Mose said.

He performed alongside immensely talented guitarist Celi Bishou, who composed the “Infidilte Mado”. Other notable band members were Vicky Longomba, Youlou Mabiala and Lola Checain. Mose was recognised as amongst those by then able to play the solo guitar with Franco’s deft touch.

Unknown to most fans, it was Mabiala who took part in the initial solo vocals of “Mabele” before Sam Mangwana arrived. Then, Mabiala had briefly left the band alongside Mose and Bishou.

Simaro joined TPOK Jazz in 1961, when he replaced Bholen, who had joined the rival Negro Success band. One of Simaro’s classics in the 1960s was “Ma Hele”. Mose Fan Fan is expected in Kenya later this month for a private visit.

Also nostalgic about Simaro is Dr Reuben Lubanga, a Kenyan consultant neurosurgeon, who says he grew up listening to TPOK Jazz music.

“As a youngster, I knew about Kwamy, Mujos, Vicky Longomba and Simaro,” he said.

“The tracks “Ebale ya Zaire” and “Mabele” (sang by Sam Mangwana), “Maya” (by Carlito Lassa) and later on “Testament ya Bowule” (Malage de Lugendo) are an illustration of his rare talent as an instrumentalist and composer,” Dr Lubanga said.

PILLAR

Veteran radio broadcaster Fred Obachi Machoka, who is planning to attend Simaro’s burial, said he will always remember him as the TPOK pillar.

“He always showed kindness and was willing to groom and write songs for any artist,” Machoka said.

His last interview with Simaro was during the funeral of another TPOK great, Pepe Ndombe, in May 2012. “He had a lot of archived material and I felt humbled to share in,” Machoka said.

The host of the “Roga Roga” music shows on Citizen Radio and TV also attended Tabu Ley’s funeral in 2013 and Papa Wemba’s in 2016. His favourite songs by Simaro are “Maya”, “Cedou” and “Testament ya Bowule”.

Cotu secretary-general Francis Atwoli is among the Kenyan rhumba fans planning to attend the burial. Mr Atwoli said he remembers Simaro as a team leader.

“Simaro was a key mediator in administrative disputes in the band besides excelling with his melodious compositions,” he said.

Also eulogising Simaro is another veteran broadcaster, Mwalimu James Onyango Joel (JOJ), who recalls interviewing him during Franco’s burial in Kinshasa in October 1989.

“Simaro was very welcoming and invited me to his house at Linguala in Kinshasa,” Mr Onyango said. It was during this visit, he recalled, that Franco’s mother, Mama Mbonga Makiesse, blessed Simaro by placing a hand on his forehead as a sign of taking over the leadership of the TPOK Jazz band.

For the past two weeks, Mr Onyango has been dedicating his “Zilizopendwa” show on KBC Radio to music by the Bana OK band, which Simaro led after a split in TPOK Jazz. Another Nairobi-based rhumba fan, Dan Ochieng, remembers Simaro as having been “not only loyal to his boss, Franco, but above all loyal to his guitar.”

Mr Ochieng, of BeePee Lounge on Trance Towers in Nairobi South B, added: “This was one musician who always had his guitar at his side, which he used to compose the soothing songs we have listened to and danced to for several decades.”

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