By Nia Simone McLeod
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts began its celebration of black art with a bang on February 1st, otherwise known as First Friday, with a party showcasing the complexity of Congolese music. Dozens of Richmonders attended the event to mingle, drink, and dance the night away. The many exhibits of the museum were also completely open as well to the public, so the night’s guests could enjoy what the museum had to offer while enjoying the selection of Congolese music. The night began as a start to the museum’s Black History Month-themed events and also as a connection to the museum’s special exhibition, Congo Masks: Masterpieces From Central Africa.
The night was DJ’d by David Noyes, also known as DJ Daudi, the longtime radio host of WRIR’s bi-weekly show Ambiance Congo. The WRIR radio show showcases the best of popular Congolese music from the 1950s to the present day. The host strives to present his audience with a view of how wide the spectrum of black music truly is, past the hip hop and jazz that most people are already aware of. The show is broadcasted at 3 pm to 5 pm every other Sunday afternoon on WRIR (97.3 FM). Noyes also hosts another show on WRIR entitled The Motherland Influence, which introduces their audience to African, Latin, and Caribbean music.
One of the most popular genres of Congolese music is called “rumba,” which comes from a term used in many different cultures to refer to particular styles of music and dance. The term was first heard in Cuba in the late 19th century, and slowly made its way to other parts of the world including North America, as well as West and Central Africa. The Congolese rumba originated in the Congo basin throughout the 1940s and slowly gained popularity throughout the region.
The genre saw many different reinterpretations as the years went by. For example, “big bands” reinterpreted the genre throughout the 1950s using instruments such as clarinets, saxophones, and conga drums to transform the genre’s signature sound. Later on in the 1960s, many different groups began to fuse Congolese music with folk music to create a brand new sound. Throughout the 1960s, the region also began to experiment with funk music, partly thanks to James Brown visiting the region during that time period. That mesh of cultures bred the soukous genre in the Congo.
Soukous branched itself off from a traditional congo due to its mesh of western influences and higher tempo throughout the genre. Through its unique sound, it began to influence artists throughout the region and gained popularity from its start in the 1960s to the 1990s. Today, Congolese artists mesh more modern genres like hip hop and R&B with the traditional rumba sound to create an incredibly unique mesh of cultures and a sound that’s unforgettable.
Papa Wemba was one of the most prominent Congolese artists, penned as the “King of Rumba Rock.” Wemba founded the popular band Viva La Musica, who performed on stages throughout the world and gained a strong stance throughout the world music scene. Another prominent singer throughout the Congolese region was M’bilia Bel who became the “Queen of Congolese and African Rumba” through her longtime career throughout the region from the 1980s into the present day. The long-time artist released 18 albums during her career, with the latest album releasing in 2014, entitled Pantheon.
Kameron Garrett, a local Richmonder attending the event, learned through his group of friends about the event and wanted to come to celebrate First Friday, but left with a new appreciation for a brand-new genre of music.
“I am really liking the Congolese music. I am probably going to have to look more into the genre online after I leave here; but this was definitely a great choice for the night. I also really enjoyed checking out the contemporary art exhibit as well.” Garrett continued, “I always enjoy learning more about another country’s culture, and the fact that this was happening during First Friday made the event absolutely perfect for me.”
The VMFA’s February First Friday event is only the beginning of the long line of Black History Month events happening at the VMFA. On February 3rd, the museum hosted a public art project with Richmond-based artist Hamilton Glass. This multi-talented artist has painted many different murals across the nation and predominantly features subjects of color in his paintings. Later on in the month, on February 21st, Mayor Levar M. Stoney and other prominent figures throughout the Richmond community will read different poetry and prose selections throughout the gallery. Throughout the month, the museum is utilizing its platform to showcase the importance of black art and shed a light upon local African American talent in Richmond. The museum has also acquired many different pieces of African American art, including 95 pieces by African American artists in 2018. Recently, the museum acquired the neon sculpture piece “A Small Band” by New York-based artist Glenn Ligon.
In a VMFA press release, VMFA Director Alex Nyerges expresses his excitement towards celebrating African American art, “We are especially excited to showcase our African American art acquisitions, not only during Black History Month but year-round, with an ongoing commitment to celebrating the outstanding work of the talented artists represented in our growing collection.”
Congo Masks: Masterpieces from Central Africa, the VMFA’s current special exhibit, presents Congolese masks dating from the 17th century to the 20th century. Additionally, the exhibition includes audio recordings, field footage, and musical instruments from the Central African region. The exhibition was curated by Marc Leo Felix, director of the Congo Basin Art History Research Center in Brussels, Belgium.
Richmond’s First Friday events start the city’s month with a steady groove; and the VMFA’s First Friday event with radio DJ David Noyes is no exception. The night was perfectly decorated with highlights from the timeline of Congolese music. It welcomed the Richmond community in style and introduced them to a genre of music that definitely deserves more love throughout not just the city, but globally as well.