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Samba Mapangala bringing the soukous back to kick off Skirball Sunset Concerts on Thursday

Masoud Khamis/Sauti za Basura Music Festival

Welcome back!

That’s a three-fold exclamation in this case:

First for the Skirball Cultural Center’s Summer Sunset Concert series, kicking off its 2012 season with the first of six globe-circling courtyard shows on Thursday.

Second for African music star Samba Mapangala, the opening headliner, making his first Los Angeles appearance in about seven years, having last summer released Maisha Ni Matamu (Life Is Sweet), his first new album in that same time.

And third for soukous, the exciting, electric central African sound that Mapangala championed tirelessly in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The style has been somewhat lost in the shuffle of the more recent explosion of Afrobeat and various modern fusions, its rump-shaking, rumba-derived rhythms relegated to quaint status.

 “Everybody in the Congo used to play soukous,” he says, speaking from his home in Maryland, where he’s lived since 1998.

He rattles off a few names, starting with his idol, Tabu Ley Rochereau, arguably the creator of modern soukous, though the sound's roots initially took hold in the ‘30s, and in truth evolved from cross-Atlantic passages between Africa and the Caribbean dating back to, well, you know. Mapangala was one of the leaders of the second wave of modern soukous, a global presence as interest in African music took hold after Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, David Byrne and others opened intercontinental doors and ears.

“Now soukous is down,” he says. “Not much soukous around. Not many of us left. But now I decided to come back and bring real soukous to the people.”

And the people are taking to the soukous, at least judging by response at recent shows in England, Holland, France and other European locales.

“I saw in England people went crazy,” he says. “In Holland people went crazy. I hope in L.A. they’re going to be crazy too.”

He’s not taking chances. For this show he’s put together a band that draws on the very heart of classic soukous, centered around three veterans of Rochereau’s rollicking ensembles: the guitarist known as Huit Kilos (who lives in L.A.), singer Wawali Bonane Bungu (now based in Seattle) and drummer Masibu Nzazi Pa’rigo. Together they bring life to his classic songs, as well as the newer ones addressing environmental issues ("Les Gorilles des Montagnes" was commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund to draw attention to the endangered giants of the Congo forests) and pleading for peace among African nations. 

“I’m going to play some of Tabu Ley’s songs too, two songs,” he says. “Tabu Ley is my hero. Because of him I started music. When I was young in the Congo we listened to him, trying to sing like him.”

That was back in the ‘60s in the Atlantic port city of Matadi. In the early ‘70s he’d moved  inland to study in the capital, Kinshasa, playing in various bands. While touring in the Northeast of the Congo, a club owner from neighboring Uganda recruited his band Les Kinois for a residency. From there, a year later, the group relocated further east in Nairobi, Kenya, where in 1981 he took the lead of a new band, Samba Mapangala and Orchestra Virunga, and rose rapidly as a star in East Africa, and by the ‘90s was touring Europe and North America. 

Meanwhile, wars between and within the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda had made going home impossible, and with piracy siphoning off the revenue from recorded music Mapangala took up the invitation of a Kenyan friend in Maryland to relocate. From there he’s watched as his music fell out of fashion as harder-edged sounds, rap in particular, took the fancy of young artists. 

But now as he sees interest renewed, it looks like he’ll have the last dance.

“In Tanzania, Kenya, there are young musicians, they ask me questions,” he says of recent travels to East Africa, where he shot a video for one new song, “Zanzibar,” celebrating the wonders of East Africa (see video below). “I’m always telling then, ‘Keep our music going. Keep our culture going.’ Many of them are playing rap. I say that’s no way to go. Continue our music. Rap isn’t bad, it’s popular around the world. But keep our music going. After rap, you will count. You can’t go to America, tour in the west playing rap. You continue our music.”

And much music will continue through the summer at the Skirball, with Mapangala followed on successive Thursdays by five vibrant acts: Aug. 2 brings the west coast debut of the Alaev Family, originating in Tajikistan but now living in Israel, playing a dynamic mix of Central and West Asian sounds, along with the Jewish music of Bukhara. Aug, 9 is another West coast premiere, with the multi-cultural sweep of Orquesta Sarabia led by Cuban composer-percussionist Roberto Juan Rodrigues. And continuing the string of West Coast debuts on Aug. 16 is the Quebecios trio De Temps Antan, exploring the provinces traditions on strings and accordion. 

L.A. favorite La Santa Cecilia is set for Aug. 23, its blend of Latin, Mexican, Afro-Cuban, rock and jazz as representative of the city as anything out there. And closing the season on Aug. 30 is the world premiere of Eric Bibb’s String Band, a cross-cultural U.S. ensemble in which blue-based Bibb is joined by Louisiana-based Appalachian fiddler-banjoist Dirk Powell, innovative Louisiana Cajun-creole accordionist Cedric Watson and harmonica ace Grant Dermody.

All shows are free admission on a first-come basis. Parking is $10 per car.