African pop music didn't seep into America's mainstream until the 80s, when pop artists like Paul Simon and Talking Heads began borrowing from it and isolated stars like King Sunny Ade and Fela Kuti landed major-label contracts here. But in fact it has a history as deep as American R & B, and its relative obscurity makes the appearance of great Congolese singer Wendo Kolosoy, now in his mid-70s, even more important. Kolosoy was an early practitioner of soukous, or Congolese rumba--a cool, effervescent dance style in which the hypnotic piano patterns of Cuban son were adapted for electric guitar. A handful of Greek traders living in Kinshasa in the 40s recognized the music's growing popularity and started labels to capitalize on it, and Kolosoy signed with one of them, Ngoma Records, in '48. Over the next few years he had a rash of hits, but by the end of the 50s revolution had brought independence from Belgium and his fiercely apolitical music fell out of favor. Then Ngoma's owner, Niki Geronimidis, died, leaving him without promotional support. He took a job as a ship mechanic, and only returned to music in 1992, when he cut Nani Akolela Wendo? and reintroduced himself to the Congolese touring circuit. Last year he hooked up with the French label Indigo, which released his gorgeous Marie Louise, and he's playing Europe and North America in support of it. Compared to the slick, hyperactive work of contemporary Congolese stars like Papa Wemba and Pepe Kalle, his music is refreshingly intimate and relaxed. The rhythms insinuate more than they proclaim, the guitars whisper more than they wail. Kolosoy's phrasing is fluid but restrained, and his soulful, slightly burnished voice often lifts into a cracked yodel. The performance is preceded by dance lessons, starting at 6 PM. Friday, 7:30 PM, Spirit of Music Garden, Grant Park, Michigan between Harrison and Balbo; 312-742-4007. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Thomas Dorn.