Forget everything you thought you knew about African drums. The name itself of Congo’s Les Tambours de Brazza indicates the importance given to the drum (‘tambour’ in French). Nevertheless, their music is far more elaborate than a “traditional percussion dialogue,” as the group leader, Emile Biayenda repeated on many occasions.
“Some people may think that our shows are village feasts with feathers and paintings… Not at all!” explained Biayenda, now in his late 40s, who founded Les Tambours in 1991, together with several other musicians from Congo Brazzaville. Twenty-two years later, they are releasing their fifth album, Sur la route des caravanes. As in their previous works, the drum is still at the core of the 13 tracks. Its role changes from time to time: it might be the lead instrument, or it can provide an accompaniment either to the voice or to other sounds. Biayenda explained that the band’s goal is to go beyond the traditional representation of the drum, “as an instrument for entertainment.”
The band manages to fully express the wide range of musical possibilities provided by their beloved ngoma, the traditional drum of the Bantu kingdoms. It couples with the singer’s voice: neither one prevails on the other, they appear to be ‘intertwined’ and complementary. The same happens with the other instruments which find their place in the songs (including a violin, a bass, a keyboard and even ‘western-style’ drums), and in some cases the sound of the ngoma is unpredictably soft.
As for the themes and the style, both the great number of the band members and of their musical influences has to be taken into account. The title of the album itself, Sur la route des caravanes has multiple meanings. First, it recalls the slave trade, which had a key terminal in Pointe-Noire, in the Tambours’ home country. However, ‘la route’, the road, also means travelling, something that these Congolese musicians often do: apart from touring in four of the five continents, they were even forced to leave Congo because of the civil war. Yet, their two-decades-long career and their musical evolution can be compared to a journey also from a symbolic point of view and this is due to ‘biographical’ reasons as well as to cultural ones.
“Congolese music has always been influenced” by traditions “from all around the world,” Emile Biayenda explained when the band’s latest album was released. Add to this the fact that the different band members and guest stars performing in Sur la route des caravanes have spent their lives listening to the most different musical genres (from hip-hop, to African tunes, reggae, blues, and jazz) and you will have an idea of what the whole album sounds like.
“Blending tradition with modernity” is a phrase that has been used several times in reference to various African artists, obviously including Les Tambours de Brazza. In fact, they show how much musical rhythms, such as hip-hop, owe to the ‘Black continent’. It might be unfair to think of the Congolese band as just another example of the so-called ‘World music’. Looking for other similarities does not seem useful either. Emile Biayenda and his band’s albums have a unique sound. These ngoma virtuosos are just one of the many examples showing that Africa has a musical tradition of its own, which does not follow mainstream patterns, but slightly different ones. It is best to forget stereotypes.