NEW YORK — A corner apartment in Harlem: air conditioning on high against the blazing heat outside, African art objects and concert posters on the walls, incense wafting through the living room.
This is the temporary command post of Diblo Dibala, Congolese bandleader and guitarist extraordinaire, as he readies for a one-month North American tour spreading the gospel of soukous, one of the most compelling and contagiously rump-shaking styles of music ever invented, yet one rarely performed in these parts nowadays.
Musicians stop by, make coffee, log on to the computer. Like many Congolese artists, Dibala, who founded iconic groups Loketo in the 1980s and Matchatcha in 1990, has long lived in Paris, where work conditions are vastly better than back home. But he has a parallel crew here, among New York’s large pool of African talent, who back him at his US shows, including Friday night at Boston’s Bastille Day party on Marlborough Street.
One is Ngouma Lokito, superstar bass player from another essential 1980s band, Soukous Stars, now based here. Others come from Cameroon, Nigeria, Kenya. They include the female dancers without whose dexterous moves, heavily focused on hips and rear end, no self-respecting soukous show is complete.
“I might have to settle here,” says Dibala, 58, in French. “People in the US still have fun the right way.”
This contrasts with Europe, where, he says, the economic doldrums have people withdrawing into their shell. Meanwhile the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he made his name as a guitar wizard in the 1970s, is prey to authoritarian rule in the capital, war in the east, poor infrastructure, and a corrupt atmosphere.
“Musicians back home are singing praises of governors and ministers just to get money,” Dibala says. “That isn’t real music!”
Most of all, soukous — in which songs open in rumba tempo, with lyrics in the elegant Lingala language, then accelerate and erupt into dazzling guitar polyrhythms in a section known as the sebene — is itself a victim of changing times.
Twenty years ago it was arguably the dominant African pop music, heard in bars and taxis from Abidjan to Nairobi, and in hip clubs frequented by Africans overseas. Many soukous players of that time are now scattered, often struggling. Younger artists de-emphasize the guitar in favor of bass, synths, and effects. Nigerian hip-hop, Angolan kuduro, Ivorian coupé-décalé are among the blunter new genres with continental sway.
“There aren’t as many people anymore who make soukous,” Dibala says. “And yet it’s one of the greatest styles of music Congo possesses.”
Dibala himself was one of the music’s innovators in his time. With Loketo in the early 1980s, he helped pioneer a style that abbreviated the slow rumba section that the great earlier bands, led by the likes of Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau, so relished.
The new style was to get quickly to the sebene — and keep accelerating. From their base in Paris, Loketo and others had less use for long Lingala lyrics that many in their audience wouldn’t understand. They reduced these and added more “animation” — calls and exhortations to hype the crowd higher and higher.
“I added my stone to the edifice,” Dibala says. “When I solo, it’s faster, higher notes — to touch people and make them dance.”
He’s not insensitive to new tastes: “You have to adapt to the time you live in,” he says. “We have some synths, for example. I change things up a little, but I remain myself. Without my guitar, it wouldn’t be me.”
He has also started playing some folk songs from his home region, Kasai, both in soukous versions and in traditional style.
A conversation with Dibala naturally turns to politics. The stagnation back home exasperates him, as does the endless war for resources in Africa’s Great Lakes region, which has engulfed eastern Congo in a spiral of conflict and atrocities.
Last year’s election that incumbent president Joseph Kabila won was widely seen as flawed. “It wasn’t even an election,” Dibala says. When change comes, he says, he would love to organize a big concert in Kinshasa featuring all the soukous diaspora.
Until then, he’ll keep playing overseas, sharing a sound that, for all its travails, never fails to prove its relevance where it counts: on the dance floor.
“Wherever we go, people acclaim us for this music,” Dibala says. “Soukous is still here.”
Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at Siddharthamitter