Songs for the Poor Man
Ongala, Remmy and Orchestre Super Matimila
Passionately Sung Odes to Heal the Soul
Of all the qualities necessary for a healer, compassion is the foundation. This is perhaps why the Zaire-born, Tanzania-based singer Remmy Ongala is known as The Doctor. It's not for his medical skill—he has none—but for songs that speak, with great empathy, about suffering and poverty, trials he knew from personal experience.
Ongala lost his mother when he was nine, and from then on was responsible for the care of his younger siblings. He recalled that, growing up, "I lived in trouble, food was a problem. I picked up bread that others had thrown away. All the songs I sing result from the difficulties I had in the past." His break in music came when an uncle called him to Dar es Salaam to be part of Orchestra Makassy. He later joined the Matimila band, which was "owned" by a local businessman. Eventually he formed his own group, which he called Orchestre Super Matimila.
With the elegies and sorrowful laments of Songs for the Poor Man, Ongala transforms his experiences into music of fierce resolve. Every piece is based on the interlaced guitar arpeggios that define soukous, the shimmery Afro-pop dance style. But where conventional soukous is brisk and almost uptight, Super Matimila broadens the backbeats, slows them down, gives them a processional swagger and a touch of East African funk. The rhythm is entrancing without being overpowering, and that's ideal for Ongala, who in some ways is just singing lullabies. Whether his weathered voice is praising the steadfastness of women, or reckoning with death (the amazing "Kifo"), Ongala sounds like one who knows what it's like to be down, and knows, also, that he will not give up.
Genre: World, Tanzania
Released: 1993, Real World
Key Tracks: "Kifo," "Pamella."
Catalog Choice: Orchestra Makassy: Legends of East Africa
Next Stop: Geoffrey Oryema: Exile
After That: Tabu Ley Rochereau: The Voice of Lightness
Book Page: 564