Sam Mangwana‘s work is a perfect example of music which has universal appeal, but his songs also have a very distinctive touch. ‘The Giant of Congolese Rumba’ is a seasoned traveler who speaks many languages. His family’s upheaval and exile may account for his extraordinary destiny.
Mangwana was born in Kinshasa in 1945. His parents were Angolan immigrants. From a very early age, Sam was affected by his family’s exile, but he knew how to make the most of his misfortune. He therefore developed a real thirst for travel and a genuine interest in other cultures.
«At that time, in Angola» the artist explains, «people were forced to work on the coffee plantations, even children as young as fourteen. My parents resisted colonisation and fled the oppression of the Portuguese administration. »
Mangwana grew up surrounded by music. His father owned a large grocery store in Kinshasa (Belgian Congo), and his mother sang at important events (weddings, funerals, cultural festivals) as part of a social club for Angolan mothers. By listening to Radio Congo Belge, the young boy discovered the music of other countries (Cuba, Spain, Italy and the United States). Sent to boarding school, where he was taught by Salvation Army missionaries,
Samuel Mangwana started off by singing in the Kasangulu church choir (Kasangulu is 40 kilometres from Kinshasa). «It’s almost by accident that I met Tabu Ley and Doctor Nico» says the man who has become a model for generations of budding musicians. «When I was just eighteen, they began to teach me the tricks of the trade». Since then, and despite his father’s disapproval, many bands competed to play with the young prodigy.
His exceptional voice, his musicianship, his charisma and his sense of humour all contributed to his becoming one of the best «ambianceurs» (‘atmosphere creators’) of his generation. «My father finally understood that I was destined to become a singer», explains Mangwana, « maybe it’s your calling, he told me, but never forget to fight for freedom in Angola, never forget to fight for the freedom of Africa». The artist has always remained true to these ideals and has never made any concessions in order to be more successful. He sings in eight different languages (Lingala, Kikongo, Bambara, Swahili, French, English, Portuguese and Spanish). All his songs contain messages for peace and tolerance. They advocate the coming together of different cultures and the respect of other people’s differences.
Mangwana’s first meeting with Tabu Ley Rochereau and African Fiesta was to change his life. His singing talents and musical arrangements were to form the backbone of many an album released by his mentor. Because he spoke Portuguese, Sam sang and played on the band’s «Latino» repertoire. He therefore learnt how to play many hits by Orquesta Aragon, John Pacheco, Harry Belafonte, Trio Maravillas and of course, Tito Puente. The sixties were a golden era for styles such as biguine, merengue, mazurka and calypso. These types of music, which had their roots in Africa, were «Re-Africanised». Congolese rumba became extremely popular. The bands he played in not only appreciated Mangwana’s artistic and linguistic ability, but his organisational skills also came in handy, especially when the musicians signed their first contracts. In 1965, Mangwana, backed by Loubelo de La Lune – a great artist from Pool Malebo (area including Kinshasa and Brazzaville), joined the SACEM (French copyright authorities).
Loubelo was already a member of the SACEM at a time when most of his fellow musicians didn’t think of protecting their work.
In 1968, thanks to funding from an important sponsor – Denis Llosono – Mangwana teamed up with Vangu Guvano, Johnny Bokosa, Mavatiku Michelino, Dizzy Mandjeku and Ntesa Dalienst to form a group called Le Festival des Maquisards. Their aim was to bring something new to Congolese music. In 1970, aged just 25, he created his own label – Sonora, which was distributed in Africa and Europe by Decca France. In 1972, Mangwana teamed up with another legend of Congolese music – the famous guitarist Franco, and the OK JAZZ Band. There was a lot of controversy at that time, because of two radically different approaches to music. On one side, there was OK JAZZ, and on the other, African Jazz led by Joseph Kabasele (Grand Kallé) – a band where Roger Izeidi, Tabu Ley Rochereau and Dr Nico also made a name for themselves.
Undeterred by these unproductive arguments, Mangwana tried his best to select the best elements from all the different musical movements he encountered. «Cuban and Caribbean music have been the biggest influence on my work» states the singer whose voice is instantly recognisable. «There’s a constant exchange of musical ideas from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Slavery brought African rhythms to the Americas. Today, the ‘afro-latino’ sound has come back to Africa, and through Congolese rumba, these rhythms have been carried to the Caribbean once again».
In 1977, Mangwana launched a solo career before moving to Western Africa. That’s where ‘Mangwana-style’ Congolese rumba really took off. As he had fled the turmoil of Central Africa, his music had become a means of struggle against corruption and violence. In the 70s, he scored hit after hit by mixing Caribbean, West African and Central African music with salsa, clad in James Brown style flares and tight shirts. He often played in front of more than 50, 000 people. Mangwana fever spread across the African continent. Mangwana became a legend in West Africa and Central Africa first, but his fame soon spread to East, and even Southern Africa. In 1979, Europe was contaminated, since Mangwana managed to fill Le Bataclan in Paris for four weekends running.
In the early 80s, World Music, and especially African music, began to be successful in France. Mangwana has also been successful in the United States and has attracted considerable media coverage there. His 1998 release Galo Negro was internationally acclaimed and won a ‘Gold Star’ at the Crossroads Awards for World Music, in 1999.
In 2003, Sam Mangwana released Cantos de Esperança a beautiful acoustic production revisiting the music of Central Africa of the 1950s.
In 2004, after the civil war (1975-2002), Sam Mangwana was finally able to return to Angola to work as a musician in his home country. He was welcomed there as the prodigal son by the Angolan cultural authorities who organised 2 big celebrations in his honour to thank him for his actions during the struggle for independence and for having urged Angolans to work together for peace during the civil war that followed liberation.
In 2005 Sam Mangwana also released an album just in Angola, entitled Patria Querida. The record was put on sale in front of the national radio from 8am to 6pm and more than 7,000 copies were sold during the day. Adored at home, he has never stopped giving concerts and galas to the point where he could no longer honour all the invitations he received from abroad.
In 2015, he headlined the first Rumba Festival in Kinshasa, re-launching his international career. In 2016 he released the album Lubamba exclusively in digital format. On the occasion of his return to France and a concert in Paris in February 2021, this album will finally be available in physical format.
On the first track Juventude Actual, written by the Angolan composers Dodo Miranda et Adâo Filipe, Sam is accompanied by another legend of African music, Manu Dibango. A lovely video of the two artists recording the song, shot by Wasis Diop, will be released in January 2021.
Whatever style he plays whether he’s playing with big stars or local musicians, this man never sacrifices quality in the name of fashion. Sam Mangwana is a perfectionist who’s passionate about his music – an art form that cannot lie to its audience.