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World Music Features

Papa Noel

By Robert Nolan
Published March 13, 2006

Papa Noel arrived on the international stage during a 12-year stint as the featured guitarist in the rumba pioneer Franco’s Kinshasa-based band, TPOK Jazz. Since then, he has recorded numerous solo albums.

Legendary Puerto Rican percussionist Roberto Roena once sang that, “To play the rumba you need to have cried/To play the rumba you need to have laughed, you need to have dreamt, to have lived/To play the rumba you need to feel inside sweet emotions that awaken your feelings/If you weren’t born with that feeling, you can’t be a rumba player.”

          Perhaps no living musician fits this description better than Congolese rumba guitarist Papa Noel. Noel, whose namesake is the result of his Christmas Day arrival into this world in 1940, arrived on the international stage during a 12-year stint as the featured guitarist in the rumba pioneer Franco’s Kinshasa-based band, TPOK Jazz. Since then, he has recorded numerous solo albums, and is currently experiencing a revival toward the end of an illustrious career as Congolese rumba’s ambassador-at-large.

          One of Noel’s earliest musical memories is of being awakened by Cuban 78s, played on the family’s prized turntable by his mother, until the day when curiosity overtook the son. “I broke my mother’s turntable with a knife, because I wanted to see the people who were singing inside,” said Noel in a recent interview from his residence in France.

          After 50 years of searching and honing his skills as one of Africa’s premier guitarists, Noel was finally able to see the people inside the record player. Traveling to Cuba to record Bana Congo (Tumi Music), a gentle and melodic collaboration with fellow rumba classicist and Cuban tres player Papi Oviedo, Noel fulfilled his childhood dreams. “I’ve always dreamt of being in Cuba to record, and now I have done it in Havana,” he said triumphantly. “Everything that filled me when I was a kid was in Cuba, from the ambiance to the smells, the colors, everything!”

          The relationship between Congo and Cuba has been maintained for many years through music. African tribal rhythms arrived on the Caribbean island with the nearly 800,000 slaves that were brought from the west coast of Africa since the beginning of the 17th century, many of whom came directly from the Congo region. “Bana Congo is the name of the African ethnic group from Congo that were sold as slaves to America, including Cuba,” said Noel. “The Bana Congos, then, are brothers, who I met some 500 years later in Cuba.”

          Getting to Cuba wasn’t easy for Noel. While the one-time band leader’s subtle style has been revered by longtime fans of African music, his legacy has sometimes been overshadowed by the likes of fellow Congolese guitarists Dr. Nico, and, of course, Franco. After the death of Franco in 1989, Noe