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Soukous is a fast-paced, guitar-driven form of African dance music that originated in the former sovereign state of Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or Congo-Brazzaville, during the late 1960s. It derives its name from “secouer,” the French word for “shake,” a likely nod to the movement that the rhythmic musical form encourages.

Like many forms of popular African music, soukous is a hybrid of different global sounds: Congolese folk music, American rock ‘n’ roll and soul, and Latin and Caribbean jazz and dance rhythms. Soukous’s global reach extends beyond that of other African dance music styles due to the devoted following in Paris, France, and other European countries, as well as a mix of modern soukous stars, such as Kanda Bongo Man, Rigo Star, and Loketo, featuring guitarist Diblo Dibala and vocalist Aurlus Mabele.

West Africans refer to soukous as “congo music.” In Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, it’s known as “Lingala,” a reference to the Bantu language used for many soukous songs. Some countries, such as Zambia and Zimbabwe, still refer to soukous as Congolese rumba, rumba Lingala, or African rumba: a name given to Afro-Cuban music that Congolese bands in the DRC’s capital city of Kinshasa played in the 1930s and 1940s.


Tabu Ley Rochereau: Pascal-Emmanuel Sinamoyi Tabu, who performed as Tabu Ley Rochereau, was a pioneering figure in soukous, having helped to forge its sound as the leader of African Fiesta. With guitarist Dr. Nico Kasanda, Tabu Ley drew together Afro-Cuban, Caribbean, and Congolese music to create the signature sound of soukous. With African Fiesta, and later African Fiesta National and African Fiesta Flash, he wrote around 3,000 songs and recorded 250 albums. Tabu Ley later served as Vice-Governor of Kinshasa and provincial minister of culture before his death in 2013.

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François Luambo Makiadi: Nicknamed the “sorcerer of the guitar,” François “Franco” Luambo Makiadi is one of the primary architects of soukous music. As the leader of OK Jazz—later renamed TPOK Jazz—for more than three decades, Makiadi helped make the guitar the central element of soukous, which helped draw interest from Western listeners.

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Papa Wemba: A founding member of the influential soukous-rock band Zaiko Langa Langa, Papa Wemba gained greater success as a solo artist in Paris, France, as the leader of Viva La Musica, which served as a sort of training ground for future soukous talent like Rigo Star. Their sound, which mixed soukous with Latin dance, French pop, and many other influences, was a hit among world music fans and made Wemba a global favorite until he died in 2016.

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The history of soukous begins in the 1930s and 1940s when Afro-Cuban music groups that played son Cubano—a form of dance music that blended Spanish and African influences— became popular on radio stations in the Congo and Kinshasa.

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Beginnings of the sound. The similarities between son Cubano and Congolese folk music prompted many musicians to add covers of Afro-Cuban songs to their live performances. Eventually, performers began to write their versions of Afro-Cuban music, which they referred to as “rumba,” despite the music sharing no similarities with that music style. The sound generated several musicians who would create the foundation of soukous, including Antoine Kolosoy, who performed as Papa Wendo, and big bands such as Le Grand Kallé et African Jazz and OK Jazz, which was later renamed TPOK Jazz. OK Jazz lead guitarist Franco, a.k.a. François Luambo Makiadi, was instrumental in making the guitar a prominent instrument in soukous music.

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Musicians fold in elements of US rock. A decade later, many of the musicians who played with TPOK Jazz and l’Africanazz helped hone the soukous sound by adding US rock and soul elements to its polyglot sound. Chief among these players included singer Tabu Ley Rochereau and guitarist Dr. Nico Kasanda, both of whom formed African Fiesta, a band that became among the first to play the new, high-energy sound of Congolese soukous. Others joined to spread the soukous gospel, including a band of students called Zaiko Langa Langa, which featured the expressive vocalist Papa Wemba, l’Africanazz alumnus Pepe Kalle and Empire Bakuba, the band Wenge Musica, and singer Koffi Olomide.

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The Swahili sound is born. Unrest in the DRC during the 1970s sent many soukous bands to neighboring countries such as Kenya and Tanzania. Once there, Congolese music began to influence local sounds, like taarab, and regional music, like highlife from Ghana and Kenya’s benga music, which formed a new hybrid with soukous called “the Swahili sound.” A series of soukous albums that the U.K.-based Virgin Records label produced helped to seed interest among world music listeners, which, in turn, led to the rise of soukous scenes in Paris and other European locations.

The genre continues to produce new variants. Established soukous players, like Papa Wemba, began performing in Europe, while new soukous musicians like Yondo Sister and Mbilia Bel found fame there. Soukous also began to branch out with new variants, like kwassa kwassa, an abbreviated but breezy adaptation that Kanda Bongo Man pioneered. Musicians also drew on the percussive French West Indies sound of zouk to create another more energetic branch of soukous called ndombolo, which found both favor and controversy for its sultry dance moves in Europe and African countries like Mali and Kenya.

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