Thursday, April 1, 2010


Koffi Olomidé

Koffi Olomide, was born on 13 August 1956 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the former Zaire). His parents were staying in the North East of the country at the time, in a town called Stanleyville (now Kisangani). In fact, Koffi's father was on a business trip to Stanleyville at the time of his son's birth, and the family moved back to their current home in the capital, Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), shortly afterwards.

The 13th of August 1956 happened to be a Friday, so, according to the tradition of Sierra Leone (Antoine's father's homeland), his mother called him Koffi (Friday). Unfortunately for Koffi, his birthday not only fell on a Friday, but on a Friday 13th. And this was not the only bad omen hanging over Koffi's birth! When baby Koffi came out of his mother's womb, the midwife discovered that his hand was stuck to the side of his face - a sign, according to African legend, of suffering and melancholy.

Bad omens aside, Koffi's birth was bathed in a general aura of unhappiness. Having gone into labour hundreds of miles from home, his mother felt depressed and isolated, a sensation which was accentuated by the absence of her husband. (In fact, Koffi would find out later in life that his father was seeing another woman at the time, and thinking of abandoning his wife and child to live with her). Given her general state of depression, Koffi's mother was unable to breast-feed her child, so baby Koffi was carted off to a neighbour's. On top of all this, Koffi appeared to be such a weak, sickly baby that nobody actually believed he would live very long.

Koffi was nicknamed "Antoine Malika Mabe" ("Antoine Bad Blood"), but, in spite of his bad health and his childhood traumas, Koffi proved to be a survivor. (Indeed, the tenacity with which Koffi hung onto life in his early years would stay with him, giving him with the determination and vital energy to persevere with his music career). However, Koffi's difficult start in life continued to haunt him and his childhood traumas continued to hang over much of his work, infusing his songs with an air of sadness and melancholy. But, given the pain and suffering of his early childhood, it was hardly surprising that many of the singer's lyrics revolved around the theme of heartbreak and unrequited love.

"Soso Ameli Ngando"

However, Koffi's childhood was not all about pain and suffering. In fact, Koffi grew up in Kinshasa in relatively comfortable, well-off surroundings. Although nothing in his immediate background appeared to predestine him for a music career. "I don't know why, but somehow music must have been in my blood," says Koffi, " My aunt - my father's younger sister - likes to tell this story about how when I was very young, around 6 or 7 years old, I used to go round singing this weird little song all the time : "the cock has swallowed the crocodile!" ("soso ameli ngando"). Apparently, I used to walk around singing this all the time and it soon became my nickname - "soso ameli ngando". I've no idea where the song came from. Maybe I just made it up, maybe it was my own peculiar way of looking at the world at the time".

Later in life Koffi would go on to transform the songs he heard on the radio, adding his own words and even inventing extra melodies. To begin with, Koffi played this game with the work of Tabu Ley Rochereau (a singer whom young Koffi particularly admired). But Koffi would soon go on to look to other artists for inspiration, inventing his own adaptations of songs by Mongali and Zato de Los Nickelos. Koffi's budding songwriting talent and his fascination with the guitar impressed family and friends alike, and one of the family's neighbours soon offered to teach the talented young teenager to play the six-string guitar.

Meanwhile, Koffi proved to be an extremely bright and talented pupil at school. And, after excelling at his grammar school in Kinshasa, Koffi went on to pass his scientific 'baccalauréat' with flying colours. Impressed by his son's academic prowess, Koffi's father agreed to give his son permission to pursue his education overseas and Koffi soon left home to study for a business degree at Bordeaux university in France. (The gifted young student would graduate from the university in 1980).

Yet, in spite of his obvious talent for his studies, Koffi was increasingly attracted to the idea of pursuing a musical career. Around the age of 18 to 20, he began to envisage the possibility of becoming a professional musician. There was only one major problem, however: "My father had been brought up to think that singers and musicians were not 'respectable' people'," recalls Koffi, "Believe me, I had to overcome a lot of hurdles to get where I am today!" Luckily, Koffi's brother was a firm believer in his talent. Indeed, Koffi's brother not only helped him win their father round, he also encouraged his brother to launch a professional career.

"The Most Famous Student in Zaire"

Taking his brother's advice, Koffi did go on to launch a singing career and by the late 70's he had started to make a name for himself on the local Zairean music scene. Koffi was extremely proud of one of his first songs, "Onia", but unfortunately the song did not enjoy any great success at the time. (Koffi would set matters to right more that 15 years later, however, using the melody from the song on his hit single, "Tsiane", taken from the album "Pas de Faux Pas").

Koffi's brother continued to support and encourage him and in 1977 when Koffi returned to Zaire during his university vacation, his brother persuaded him to go into the Veve Studio in Kinshasa and record his first songs, "Asso" and "Princesse Ya Senza" (a song which exalted the virtues of womankind). "It was around this period," Koffi recalls, "that people began referring to me as 'the most famous student in Zaire'. At the time I was writing a lot of material for various African music stars. I didn't actually have my own group back then, but I by that time I'd started working with a lot of singers who had theirs."

It was around this period that Koffi began working with Zaïko Langa Langa, but the thing which would really make Koffi's name on the Zairean music scene was his collaboration with the legendary 'sapeur' Papa Wemba. Wemba invited young Koffi to play guitar with his group Viva La Musica, and the pair went on to perform a duet together on their famous joint single "Anibo". (This song would certainly help launch Koffi's career in style, earning the young singer the award for "Best Zairean Singing Star" in 1978).

Although Koffi's collaboration with Papa Wemba certainly helped Koffi get his career off the ground, it has also proved to be a major source of misunderstanding as far as the music press are concerned. All too often, critics have lumped Koffi Olomide in the same musical category as Papa Wemba, portraying the younger singer as little more than a pale copy of Papa Wemba. This has been a constant source of annoyance for Koffi, who has frequently spoken out on this subject, complaining that while he may have written a lot of material for Papa Wemba and his group, he was never, at any point, a paid-up member of Viva la Musica. While Koffi continues to express his admiration and respect for Papa Wemba, he is adamant that Wemba profited more from his songwriting than he did from Wemba's helping hand at the beginning of his career. However, it would be very wrong to portray Koffi and Papa Wemba's relationship as one of rivalry and enmity. Indeed, in 1996, the pair staged a major reunion to prove their friendship and mutual respect, going into the studio together (more than 20 years after their first collaboration in Kinshasa!) to record a joint album entitled "Wake Up".

No comments:

Post a Comment