Congolese rhythm guitarist Lokassa ya Mbongo has died, his long-time friend and fellow guitarist Ngouma Lokito has said.
Lokassa, who was 77, died on Tuesday night at a hospital in Nashua in New Hampishire, US, where he had been living since 1996.
Late last month, fellow guitarist Dally Kimoko told the BBC that Lokassa’s health was fragile as he was battling diabetes and complications from a mild stroke he suffered in 2020.
Born Denis Kasiya Lokassa in 1946, the rhythm guitarist, arranger and composer was one of the founders of Soukous Stars alongside fellow guitarists Ngouma Lokito (bass) and Dally Kimoko (lead), and vocalists Yondo Sister, Ballou Canta, Neil Zitany and Shimita.
The band, formed in Paris in 1989, battled for attention during the Soukous explosion of the 1990s with Aurlus Mabele’s Loketo.
Lokassa is reputed for hits such as Bonne Annee, Monica, and Marie-Josse as well as medleys Lagos Night and Nairobi Night – songs that he punctuated with his layered rhythm textures around which Dally Kimoko’s lead hits the octane.
Lokassa, who did not sing, started playing professionally rather late compared to most Congolese musicians of the time. His family refused to let him play music, which was then considered a basement undertaking.
He was 22 in 1968 when he joined Tabu Ley Rochereau’s then African Fiesta Nationale, where he spent 10 years in near obscurity alongside more prominent guitarists such as Attel Mbumba, Mavatiku Visi, and Dino Vangu.
Growing frustrated with himself, Lokassa lost patience and in 1978 broke loose from Tabu Ley during a tour of West Africa.
Alongside guitarist Dizzy Mandjeku and drummer Ringo Moya, he teamed up with singer Sam Mangwana in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to form the African All Stars.
The group’s hit, Suzana Coulibaly, brought out the best in Lokassa with his guitar eruptions coming to full effect in the faster tempo.
West Africa was the getaway to Paris. Having already worked with prominent producers such as Ibrahim Sylla, Lokassa found his way to Paris in 1984 – as a “sans-papiers” (someone with no proper travel documents).
With no residence card, Lokassa was unable to tour or make recording dates outside France.
“I was stuck in Paris. It was really very, very difficult. People needed for me to come to the United States, other continents, even to other countries in Africa. But people couldn’t see me because I didn’t have papers,” Lokassa told James Winders, author of Paris Africain, Rhythms of the African Diaspora.
But everything changed in 1989 when Ngouma Lokito rang him up and suggested his “big brother” put together a group to help them emerge from the status of session performers.
Lokassa worked the phones and Soukous Stars was born later that year.