Verkys, aka George Mateta Kiamuangana, is a name that sits proudly alongside such Congolese luminaries as Franco and Tabu Lay Rochereau. And there were important connections between them in the ever-changing and always competitive Kinshasa music scene. Review by Stephen Williams.
For, as a youngster, Verkys had cut his teeth as a saxophonist, with Franco’s bank, OK Jazz, and – subsequently conquering the technologies of the recording studio – had recorded and produced Rochereau in the studio he set up in the Congolese capital.
But the relationship between Franco and Verkys was always fractious, perhaps because both musicians were ambitious to a fault. Verkys was the son of a successful and fairly prosperous businessman, while Franco’s upbringing was much more humble and, consequently, Franco himself, offstage at least, was almost self-effacing in manner.
The two men fell out in 1967 when Franco instigated legal proceedings against Verkys for failing to show up for a studio recording session. Verkys said that the reason that he did not attend was that Franco had accused him of the theft of musical equipment in Brazzaville, a charge he rigorously denied.
Even if this was resolved without a court appearance, the mutual distrust persisted. This came to a head about a year later, in 1968 when Verkys and Gilbert Youlou released six records on a new label that they co-owned called Vévé. It seems that Verkys had managed to lure a number of musicians from OK Jazz to take part in the recordings (although they were under exclusive contract to OK Jazz). Franco was furious and fired Verkys, but later relented – on condition that he took 40% of the profits of the Vévé recordings.
However, that arrangement did not last long and Verkys quit Franco’s OK Jazz in 1969 to set up Orchestre Vévé at the beginning of 1969. Verkys managed to sign up a number of legendary musicians to his new band including the lead guitarist from Vox Africa, Danyla; Maproco Munange; and a trio of singers: Matadidi Mabele, Marcel Loco and Bonghat Tshekabu. They were also joined by the singer from Dr Nico’s band, Bovic Bondo.
It is said that in the first year of the band’s formation, they recorded no less than 35 records. Here are presented (for the time in a digital format) just 11 of these recordings that demonstrate the full power and majesty of the ensemble. Having launched the band at the famous Vis-à-vis nightclub in Kinshasa, l’Orchestre Vévé and its leader Verkys were an instant hit.
There is some dispute over whether the money that Verkys made was simply down to his musical activities, or whether his frequent travels to Brussels allowed him to amass cash through smuggling (of mercury, an ingredient of skin-lightening creams). Verkys suggests that it was through hard work and the marketing of merchandise such as pin badges in Brazzaville that earned him the cash to become a musical impresario.
Whatever the truth, Verkys proved to be a skilled entrepreneur, taking his recordings to Nairobi for pressing, and sidelining the bootleggers that plagued the music scene at the time, reimporting the vinyl to Zaire for his adoring fans. Soon he had the money to open a modern sound studio and began recording other young artists such as Les Frères Soki, Bella Bella, Orchestre Kiam and others.
Verkys also set up Zaire’s first record pressing plant and thereby kept control of the whole process of recording through to pan-African distribution. With tracks such as ‘Bassala Hot, ‘Cheka Sana’ and ‘Talai Talala’ (all featured on this CD), he enjoyed considerable success across Central and East Africa and became very wealthy.
He went on to open the Vévé Centre in Kinshasa, which housed shops, restaurants, night clubs and private apartments – as well as offices from where he controlled his sprawling musical empire. It was a riposte to Franco’s similar Un-Deux-Trois and Tabu Ley’s Type K establishments. But as his physical empire grew larger, his musical output declined.
Fortunately, we have these recordings to remember one of Africa’s true musical legends, the man James Brown dubbed ‘Mr Dynamite’