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Syran Mbenza

Guitarist Syran M'Benza was born in Kinshasa on May 31, 1950. His artistic career began in 1968, when, still in school, he played in a neighborhood group called La Banita. Following that, he joined other bands: Jamel Jazz, Dynamic Jazz Ewawa de Malph, Somo-Somo and Lovy du Zaire, led by Vicky Longomba. It was after leaving Lovy du Zaire that he decided to become a professional musician, working with a group called Kara in a nightclub of the same name.
An adventurous spirit, Syran decided to explore other musical arenas, leaving Zaire for Togo and Cote d'Ivoire, West Africa, where he encountered Sam Mangwana and Lokassa, and collaborated with them for three years in the African All Stars, and also recorded his first solo album, Kouame.
From West Africa, Syran departed for Europe to continue his solo career. His next album, Ilanga, was produced by Eddy Son, and as his reputation grew, worked with many other producers including Afro-Rythme, Salsa Musique, Africamania, Syllart, Melodie and Buda Musique. His other solo albums were Elisa Dangwa, Sisika, Kelele, Africa: the Golden Years, and Symbiose. Also in great demand over the past 25 years as a studio musician and producer, he has recorded with many of the significant Congolese artists of the era.
In 1982, taking advantage of the presence in Paris of old friends Nyboma Mwan'Dido, Bopol Mansiamina and Wuta Mayi, they formed the Quatre Etoiles du Zaire (Four Stars), releasing their first album on the Afro Rythme label, which opened the path to great success. Five albums followed, and many tours throughout Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, the U.S. and Canada, making the group one of the pillars of the highly popular soukous music of the era. In 1988 he joined forces with Passi Jo and J.P. Ramazani for a side project called Kass Kass, which also recorded several albums of
dance-floor soukous.

photo: © Ethan Bloomberg
Syran during Samba Mapangala's UK tour, 2006

In 2000, producer Ibrahima Sylla approached Syran to propose a new direction for Congolese music that would draw from the early foundation of rumba with acoustic guitars and accordion. The new group, Kekele, featured Syran and veteran guitarist Papa Noel Nedule, and a lineup of four seasoned singers: Loko Massengo, Bumba Massa, Nyboma, Wuta Mayi. The first album, Rumba Congo (2001), was a risky and radical departure from the prevailing ndombolo music from Kinshasa, but it won many converts and began to draw attention to the group. The second recording, Congo Life (2004), solidified the style, which acknowledges the past Congo masters but expands and interprets the music for the 21st century, and received great critical acclaim. Kinavana, the third album, released in 2006, explores the connections between the music of Cuba and the Congo.
Today, Syran M'Benza is widely acknowledged as one of Africa's finest and most accomplished guitarists. The BBC's Andy Kershaw commented in 2005: "Kekele, the cream of rumba veterans from the ... Congo - make the most exquisite music. Eric Clapton isn't fit to tune the strings of their lead guitarist, Syran Mbenza."

© CC Smith, Editor, The Beat Magazine