Papa Noel



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Papa Noel - real name Antoine Nedule Monswet - was born on Christmas Day, 1940 in Leopoldville, as the old colonial capital of the Belgian Congo was then called. Yet the first music he heard as a boy was not African but Cuban son, via his motherıs phonograph and the imported 78s they played all day on Radio Congo Belge. When she bought him a guitar at an early age, Papa Noel taught himself to play both his motherıs Cuban favourites and the Congolese rumba then being made popular by the first wave of emerging local stars. The Congolese version of rumba took the imported Cuban rhythms but added distinctively African idioms, elements of tribal folklore and the melodic cadences of the Lingala language to turn it into something uniquely different. But most important of all, the piano, so dominant in Afro-Cuban forms, was replaced by the guitar. Indeed, the guitar soon became THE sound of Congolese rumba, particularly after the introduction of the electric instrument in the 1940s when the traditional strumming method was replaced by an intricate finger-picking style. Soon the most famous musicians in Kinshasa were guitarists. Antoine Wendo, Dewayon and Henri Bowane were all in the first wave. They, in turn, influenced the likes of Franco, Dr Nico and, of course Papa Noel, who between them took the sound to new heights.

Papa Noel made his first recordings in 1957 and subsequently went on to play in a number of bands - Rock-a-Mambo, Les Bantous de la Capitale,Orchestre African Jazz (in which he replaced Dr Nico) and eventually TPOK Jazz, the band led by Franco, perhaps the greatest Congolese musician of them all. By the 1970s Congolese rumba was beginning to be known by another name. "Soukous came from playing Cuban music in an African style," says the guitarist Rigo Star, once again emphasising the musical links. Papa Noel stayed with Franco until the great man's death in 1989. By then he had already recorded his first solo album Bon Samaritain and further solo projects followed. The album Haute Tension appeared in 1994, followed by a retrospective collection, Bel Ami in 2000, on the occasion of his 60th birthday. He also worked with other Congolese stars of similar vintage such as Sam Mangwana and Mose Fan Fan and in 2001, he participated in the super-group Kekele, whose album Rumba Congo brought together seven veterans from the golden age of rumba congolaise to re-explore the enduring vitality of the classic styles, rather like an African version of The Buena Vista Social Club.

2001 also saw the release of a live album Mosala Makasi in duo with Cuban troubador Adan Pedroso. Papi Oviedo is almost an exact contemporary of Papa Noel. Born Gilberto Oviedo La Portilla in Havana in 1937, his father Isaac Oviedo was a famous tres player and by the time he was 15, Papi was playing the tres, too, having received his first instrument (just as Papa Noel had done) from his mother. The conventional guitar is little used in Cuban music but its smaller, close relative the tres is ubiquitous. As its name suggests, the tres has three sets of double strings, two in high octave and the third in a lower range. According to legend, the first models were made from the wood of boxes used to import salted cod and its unusual string configuration creates quite different harmonic and melodic textures from the guitar which give the instrument a more distinctly Latin feel.

Papi Oviedo began to play professionally in the 1950s and over the years has developed a distinctive style which relies on simplicity and space for its effect. Today he is widely regarded as the worldıs leading tres player. Over his long career he has graced various bands including Tipica Habanero, Bolero Enrique Perez, Estrella de Chocolate and groups led by Chapottin Junior and Abelardo Barros. In 1981 he joined the Elio Reve Orquesta and he remained a main stay of the group for 15 years as both a tres player and songwriter. Then in 1997 he launched his solo career with the release of the album, Encuentro entre Soneros, on Tumi Records. El Mayombero, his second solo recording for the label, followed in 2000. He also plays in Omara Portuondoıs international touring band and appeared on Ruben Gonzalezıs platinum-selling album Chanchullo. When Mo Fini of Tumi suggested to Papa Noel and Papi Oviedo that they might collaborate on an album, both men committed themselves to the project enthusiastically.

Apart form the historical connections, there are more recent parallels between the development of Cuban and Congolese music. In Cuba the subtle rhythms of traditional son have given way to a coarser salsa sound, heard at its most hard-edged in the current timba craze. In modern Congolese music the elegant rhythms of rumba have similarly been displaced by harsher soukous beats , often characterised by drum machines and synthesizers. Papa Noel and Papi Oviedo have both resisted this tide and share a profound belief in keeping alive the great traditions of their respective musical cultures. This has given them a common philosophy and shared musical outlook so that the different sonorities of their respective instruments complement each other perfectly. The chemistry between them is remarkable. When Papa Noel visited Havana to record Bana Congo, he said he felt like he was going home. Papi Oviedo, who has lived all his life in Cuba, insists that part of him never really left Africa. The former speaks French, the latter speaks Spanish and they barely understand a word of each otherıs language. But, as you will hear on this record, they found an almost telepathic communication in music.

Taken from Papa Noel's home page on Tumi's website

Papa Noel last toured Ireland with his Bana Congo project in late June 2004, calling at Crawdaddy in Dublin, Trinity Rooms in Limerick and The Half Moon Cork

Papa Noel & Cork uberchef, Seamus O'Connell, sharing a few glasses at The Ivory Tower Cork.
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Last modified: 02/23/11