Papa Noel

One of the most important members of Franco's legendary OK Jazz band, guitarist Papa Noel's quick-fingered virtuosity and light, airy touch made him a major figure in the music of Zaire (later the Democratic Republic of Congo). Born Noel Nedule circa 1941, Papa Noel grew up in Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo (the country adjacent to what became Zaire), and learned to play the guitar by copying the Afro-Cuban-derived rumba music that was becoming popular in the region. In 1957, at the age of 16, Noel made his first record with future rumba legends Orchestre Bantou (aka Les Bantous de la Capitale). In the early '60s, he replaced virtuoso guitarist Dr. Nico in Orchestra African Jazz (aka African Jazz), honing his chops with some of the best Congolese rumba players of all time. During the '70s, rumba king Franco recruited Noel to join his OK Jazz orchestra as second guitarist, and their partnership proved dynamic, Noel's lighter, sweeter touch perfectly contrasting and playing off of Franco's more aggressive lines. Papa Noel made his first solo foray in 1984, while still a member of OK Jazz. He stole away to Brazzaville with two OK Jazz bandmates, recruited a horn section from the Congolese army band, and recorded Bon Samaritain, which became a best-selling rumba classic at a time when the faster soukous style was gaining prominence. The record also enraged Noel's employer, who generally kept a tight lid on side projects (especially highly successful ones). Fortunately, the rift was mended, and Noel remained with OK Jazz until Franco's death in 1989. OK Jazz continued for a short time afterwards, then splintered amidst infighting and disputes with Franco's family over group revenue. Noel and several other members regrouped in Belgium as Bana OK, and released an album in 1993 titled Bakitani. Meanwhile, Noel resumed his solo career, recording the album Haute Tension (aka High Tension) in Paris in 1994. Noel has made numerous appearances on Peter Gabriel's WOMAD tours throughout the '90s, including appearances with former bandmate Sam Mangwana; he has continued to record as well, helming classic-style rumba albums like Nono and Mosala Makasi, as well as making guest session appearances on others' albums. ~ Steve Huey

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