Samba Ngo
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Samba Ngo

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The best kept secret in music



Between songs, Samba Ngo exhorts his audiences with his bandstand mantra: "Let's dance now, for tomorrow who knows?"

The live-in-the-moment philosophy flows from his sunny personality, as irrepressible and optimistic as the rippling Congolese soukous grooves that he lays down with his chrome-plated guitar.

His music is so joyous and dance-inducing that it's easy to ignore the darker implications of his catchphrase.

Ngo's music has been shaped by his dizzying, picaresque life, a journey that has taken him from Central Africa's anti-colonial struggles and Cold War- fomented strife to revolutionary Paris in 1968. Adopted by a French aristocrat, he ended up as music director for a leading Parisian fashion house. Tomorrow who knows, indeed.

"I feel like I have lived many lives," says Ngo, who plays Friday at Slim's, his first major nightclub gig in San Francisco since settling in Santa Cruz almost two decades ago. He also plays June 12 at San Jose's Espresso Garden Cafe and June 26 at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz.

A major force in popularizing Congolese music in Europe in the 1970s and '80s, Ngo (pronounced En-go) has released 18 albums with various groups. At his forthcoming concerts he's focusing on music from his latest CD, last year's critically successful, self-produced "Ndoto," on which he sings in French, English, Kikongo and Lingala. His band is a pan-African melange featuring Mandjou Kone, a vocalist from Burkina Faso; Ron Van Leeuwaarde, a guitarist from Surinam; Senegalese percussionist Mbor Faye; Oakland electric bassist Dennis Smith; and trap drummer Lemi Barrow, whose family hails from Liberia.

Ngo honed his guitar sound by mimicking the cadences of traditional African instruments such as the nsambi, kalimba and kora, and his music is built upon sebene, the rolling, layered two-guitar interplay that defines much Congolese music. ("I never studied the guitar listening to Jimi Hendrix or Wes Montgomery," Ngo says.) But his band's sound embraces many influences, including funk, jazz and rock.

"I'm a modern man, that means I'm also rock," Ngo says. "When you look at rock, blues, jazz, the contribution of African music is inside, and that is why I'm not a stranger to those styles. The thing I look for is the sincerity of the sound."

Ngo learned about the power of music from his father, an herbal healer, or nganga, who used chants, songs and incantations in his rituals. He often traveled into the countryside to gather herbs with his father, participating in the ceremonies by playing shakers. "I remember my father being a musician first and an herbalist second," Ngo says. "For him the music was the foundation of life itself. Everything living is music. We are music and rhythm. And if you know the music, it can cure. It's medicine."

Ngo's family was buffeted between the two Central African nations known as Congo. They originally hailed from the French colony now known as the Republic of Congo, which is north of and much smaller than the gigantic Belgian colony that became Zaire after independence and is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo.

When the smaller Congo became the first African nation to adopt a Marxist system in 1964, Zaire was aligned with the United States and expelled thousands of Congolese citizens in retaliation, including the teenage Ngo and his family.

Settling in Brazzaville, Ngo started playing with other young Congolese musicians in the band Echo Noire, a group led by Titos Sompa, who went on to introduce Congolese dance to the United States several years later. After taking first place in a contest, the band won a trip to Paris, and when the group arrived, student strikes were picking up steam and the city was in chaos. "It was really revolution," Ngo says. "I was born in the hot seat and came to France in the hot seat."

In 1970, Ngo formed his first band, African Rhythms, which gained considerable attention, but it was his group M'Bamina, which he founded the following year, that turned him into one of France's leading African musicians. He toured internationally, appeared frequently on French TV and recorded nine albums with the band. By the early '80s he was music director for Paco Rabanne, arranging and producing sessions by up-and-coming musicians for the designer's label.

Looking for more studio experience, he decided to spend some time in the United States, intending to move back to Congo. He spent the first six months in Sonoma and then at the urging of his old bandmate Sompa settled in Santa Cruz, forming the Ngoma Players.

Love changed his plans, and he settled in California with his wife, Elizabeth, with whom he now has two sons. He released his first solo album in 1990, "Introspection" (Elingo), and followed it up with 1998's beautifully produced "Metamorphosis" (Compass), but he has yet to attain the same level of recognition in America that he enjoyed in Europe.

Perhaps that will change with "Ndoto," an album that resonates with his captivating melodies and epigrammatic wisdom. While his themes are often universal, Ngo isn't afraid to take a stand. On "Bima" he sings, "Because of the politician, the village is dead/ The African intellectuals have failed." It's the kind of message that hasn't endeared him to Congo's government, and when his mother died last year it was too dangerous for him to return for the funeral. He could play it safe and avoid politics, but for Ngo music is a calling, a responsibility that he takes as seriously as life itself.

"I don't like the sounds to be corrupted by me," Ngo says. "I'm not saying I don't want to be rich. If that will come, good. But I am first a musician. My experience shows me that in both difficult and good moments, I'm first a musician. I love to communicate, and I love whatever people give to me. When we perform, it's a big exchange of vital energy."

Andy Gilbert is a freelance writer.
- San Francisco Chronicle

"KPFA Radio"

Besides being an inspired songwriter, Samba Ngo delivers his songs in a softly seductive voice that convinces the listener that everything is going to work out. His music just feels so right, so full of love and compassion. And one can sense that woven into the sweetness of the lilting rhythms of his new cd "Ndoto," thee is a direct connection to the ancient healing role of music that Samba learned firsthand from his father in his rural Congolese boyhood home. We are indeed fortunate to have Samba sharing his music with the rest of the world. - Larry Kelp

"Contra Costa Times"

Samba Ngo has an infectious laugh and smile that can't help but draw one in. The subject matter may be world politics, hunger, or music, but soon you are laughing along with him. It's no surprise, then, that this Congolese-born musician believes in the healing power of words and music. It's a tradition he was raised in and continues on his 18th album, "Ndoto (Dream)."

Ngo brings a band of local musicians to interpret his newest batch of songs to Ashkenaz on Saturday. It's there that you might catch a drift of the healing power of his music.

"My father was a musician and a doctor (nganga, in Ngo's kikongo language). He used to make medicine with plants and used music all the time when doing (healing) ceremonies or making medicine," said Ngo. "That was the way I grew up --music is medicine."

Growing up in war-torn Congo was rife with difficulty, and Ngo pauses and adds, "if not for music, a long time ago I (would have) killed myself. The Congo is deeply sad -- a very rich country, but people (are) living so poor. There's been misery and war for many generations."

Ngo learned the consequences of airing his views through music. The powerful messages of a recent album, "Metamorphosis," were not well-received back in his Central African homeland by the powers that be. Thus, though his mother recently passed away, Ngo did not travel home for her funeral.

The messages on Ndoto are still politically potent, but deal more with the healing power of love. Most of the lyrics are in French; some are in Lingala (the common language of the now Democratic Republic of the Congo) and others in English. "Rendezvous" kicks off with some bottle percussion, courtesy of Samba (he plays conga in addition to singing and playing guitar). The hypnotic groove ends with the line, "Planet Earth, a rendezvous of all lovers, have lovers forgotten?"

"Checher" has a call-and-response vocal line that questions what people are looking for in life: health, love, money, freedom, God. "We are all dreaming something, but not the same thing," the lyric laments. More complex are the African metaphors like "Mpese." In Mpese, "the insect camouflages himself in ash, but the chicken always discovers him." "Bima" is more to the point: "Because of the politician, the village is dead, the African intellectuals have failed." The singer/songwriter admitted, "sometimes, to talk is dangerous."

Those who know African music admire Ngo's abilities. Banning Eyre, the editor of and a guitarist who's traveled through much of Africa, says simply: "Samba Ngo is very cool." Eyre has pointed out in his scholarly work that often African guitarists try to imitate the sound of an existing instrument, and that's true for Ngo.

Samba grew up listening to the wood and palm-fiber-stringed nsambi, and says "I didn't listen to Jimi (Hendrix) or Wes Montgomery, I listened to traditional people (for my sound)." It's still the sound of the nsambi, and also the likembe (thumb piano) that resonate in Samba's guitar work. Lately, he's added acoustic guitar to the mix to get another musical color," he said.

So, after spending most of his life outside his native land, including two decades in music-rich Paris (most notably as musical director for Paco Rabanne and a player/founder of M'bamina), it's still the boyhood roots that Samba turns to for inspiration.

"That is why I'm a musician -- healing!" he said. "In the Congo, people believe we are the sound, and the sound is medicine." But it's a two-way connection. "When I play, I can feel the energy the public gives to me, and what the stage gives to the public."

It's the sebene -- the hallmark of Congolese music that combines layers of guitar, call-and-response vocals, and waves of percussion -- at will wash over the Ashkenaz audience Saturday night. As the singer himself would say, "let's dance now -- who knows tomorrow?" - Brian Kluepfel


1968 C'est un Fantome, Disque Akueson
1969 Kyrie Paean, SM
1970 Bopolichi, Phillips
1971 Taganyka, Barclay
1974 Africa Roll, Barclay
1978 Experimental, Fiesta
1979 Muniengue Muniengue,
Tama Production
1980 Katanga, Paco Rabanne
1980 Attention, Paco Rabanne
1980 Dende, Paco Rabanne
1981 M'Bamina Experimental,
Paco Rabanne
1982 Reflection, Paco Rabanne
1983 Energy, lad Congo
1985 Tam Tam Pour l'Ethiopia, Celluloid
1986 Medicine (Ray Lema), Celluloid
1992 Introspection, Elingo
1999 Metamorphosis, Compass
2002 M’Bamina: Best of du Groupe Mythique, Bayelou Music
2003 Ndoto, Samba Ngo Productions

Ngo sings and plays on two Bill Summers' CDs, Headhunters: Evolution Revolution (Basin Street Records, 2003) and The Essence of Kwanzaa (Monkey Hill, 1997).

Ngo’s song "Sa Ntima (Hope)," from his 1990 album Introspection appears on the compilation Africa (Putumayo, 1999). Sa Ntima also appears on Ashkenaz
Celebrates 30 Years (Ashkenaz, 2003).

Ngo has songs on two compilations: Global Voices: A Vox Set (Music of the World, 1998) and African Heartbeat:
The Essential African Music Collection (Shanachie, 1998).


Feeling a bit camera shy


The music of Samba Ngo exudes a healing power that must be experienced to be understood. Rooted in traditional Congolese sounds, Ngo is a master of sebene - the characteristic element of Congolese music that enchants and entrances listeners with driving layers of guitar, and call-and-response choruses. Between songs, he incites passion with his own brand of encouragement: "C'est bon!" and "Let's dance now, because tomorrow who knows?"

Ngo, the son of an herbal doctor, was born in the tiny village of Dibulu, in the center of what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo. His father, the village's only nganga (doctor), treated the sick (and often insane) with herbs and music in his healing rituals. Ngo learned the natural healing power of music by watching his father, and soon began playing the likembe (also known as a kalimba or thumb piano) and guitar.

At 13, he left his village and moved to Brazzaville, Congo, where he joined a band called Echo Noire, which quickly achieved acclaim in Africa and Europe. He formed his own band, African Rhythms in 1970, and one year later created the group M’Bamina with Nkouka Batenda and Father Christian De La Bretesche. With M’Bamina, Ngo toured worldwide and recorded nine albums. During his 14-year stint with the band, Ngo also worked in Paris as a producer and musical director for Paco Rabanne.

In 1986, he moved to California to begin a solo career. He formed his own band, the Ngoma Players, and released his first solo album, Introspection, in 1990. His 18th album, Metamorphosis, maintains a distinctly African sound, and offers listeners some irresistibly danceable music. His most recent album, Ndoto, showcases his kalimba-like guitar style and expressive voice. Ndoto's lyrics, sung in French, English, Lingala and Kikongo, explore the meaning of love and create an almost spiritual ambiance.

Ngo's music, and the spiritual impetus behind it, makes his sound unique and magical. In a world that's increasingly unpredictable, where greed and violence dominate and differences in culture, race, age and economic status create barriers instead of bridges, Ngo's music restores hope. Ngo's sacred gift, taught by his simple but profoundly wise father, is the healing power of sound and rhythm. His admonishment, "Let's dance today, because tomorrow who knows?" implores us to let the beautiful and rhythmic forces present in his music break down all barriers and find joy in the moment. And that's, as Ngo would say, "C'est bon!"