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Music Notes: two strings and a cloud of dust

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When Mantuila Francois Nyombo was a little boy in what is now Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, he took apart his father's radio. "I wanted to get someone to come out to teach me how to play music," he says. His father, a dean at a Catholic school and a strict disciplinarian, responded by punishing him, a common occurrence: Instead of studying, Nyombo would listen to classical music on the radio until he fell asleep. Sometimes his siblings would wake him up before their father came home, but Nyombo still spent a lot of time restricted to his room on weekends, studying and crying. He fashioned himself a makeshift guitar--two wire strings attached to a board. "The strings were so hard that my fingers would bleed, but I played so much that I developed calluses so I could play even longer."

When Nyombo was ten an uncle in nearby Brazzaville invited him to visit. His newfound freedom was irresistible, and he stayed for two years. All he wanted to do was play guitar, so despite his shyness he hung around with all the bands he could find, studying at the feet of traditional Congolese musicians and imitating the music he heard on the radio. Eventually his father wrote him to come home because his mother was very ill. It was a ruse, but it worked.

Back in Kinshasa Nyombo found a supportive friend, a Swiss math teacher who played piano. The two often listened to jazz and classical music together. Nyombo was still too young to play in clubs, and he didn't last long with bands: "I had my own ambitions. I wanted to meet Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix and play with them."

Word had gotten around about the talented young guitarist. In 1963, when he was 15, Nyombo signed a contract to tour Europe with the legendary Congolese band African Jazz, led by Joseph Kabasele. In Paris he hooked up with a group that played American tunes. "These guys didn't speak any English at all, but mimicked the lyrics of James Brown, Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett. Americans who came to the embassy would bring American records, and the band would reproduce the records, playing like a jukebox."

Nyombo went home in 1968 but soon signed up for another tour of Europe with soukous musician Tabu Ley Rochereau, hoping to find someplace to study classical guitar. The Congolese embassy in Paris, encouraged by Kabasele, found a Cuban musician to sponsor him.When the band returned to Africa, Nyombo stayed behind.

He enrolled at the Conservatoire Internationale de Paris, taking first-place medals in classical guitar, teaching guitar at the American Center, and playing in a jazz orchestra with Ambrose Jackson. He became involved with a woman from Evanston, and his first child, Julia, was born in 1975. A few months later the family moved to New York City, where his daughter Ndona was born in 1977. Nyombo received a scholarship to study jazz at Bennington College, in Vermont, and later taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C. But his relationship with his children's mother broke up; she and the girls moved to Evanston while Nyombo remained at Howard.

In 1988 he returned to Paris to study for his PhD in African music at the Sorbonne. Five years later he was touring the U.S. with Rochereau's band L'Orchestre Afrisa Internationale when his daughters asked him to visit them in Evanston. He came and he's never left. He's supported himself by driving a cab and teaching at the Old Town School, and with the occasional gig playing classical and ethnic music at HotHouse.

Now, for the first time in 31 years, he's going back to Congo. He says he was inspired by his daughter Ndona, who went there recently. She met his parents and the rest of his family--Nyombo is the oldest of 13 children--and even attended the funeral of one of his sisters. His brothers taught her a folk song they used to sing to Nyombo while he ate dinner: "When the king is eating, chase away the flies..."

"Ndona sang that song to me," he says. "The reminder of the song really made me cry, and I thought, 'I have to go see my family.' All the years I traveled around, I never felt the deep urge to return until I heard my daughter sing that song. When my baby daughter calls me 'Daddy,' I think, 'Man, I have a daddy too.'"

He leaves Monday for a six-month stay. While there he'll continue his to do research for his PhD, and he also hopes to work on a project with the musicians who trained him years ago. "I'm trying to build up a repertoire of Congolese music from these guys, who are all 70 to 80 years old now. They still play on the original instruments. I'd like to record them, maybe make a video. I'm looking for sponsors."

One of Nyombo's compositions is called "My Journey"; it blends many of the styles he's learned: soukous, classical, jazz, Spanish, Irish, blues. He's looking forward to playing it for his father: "I have to convince him that what I was doing was valuable."

Nyombo's last show before he leaves is tonight at 10 at Martyrs', 3855 N. Lincoln (773-404-9494). Admission is $5. --Jerome Ludwig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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