Explore the Guitar Magic of Congolese Soukous Master "Docteur" Nico Kasanda

In trying to decode Dr. Nico Kasanda’s magic you can discover elements that translate to all styles.
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An undated photo of Nico Kasanda performing.

An undated photo of Nico Kasanda performing.

In my 25 years as a professional guitarist, music teacher and journalist, there isn’t much in the realm of popular music and the electric guitar that I haven’t come across. Recently, however, I was left scratching my head and perplexed when my diligent student Ben enlisted me to help him decode the DNA of his new six-stringed obsession: the Congolese popular music of the early 1960s and, in particular, the guitar style of one of its main architects, Nicolas Kasanda, who was often referred to by his professional stage name, Docteur Nico.

Kasanda was born in the Belgian Congo in 1939 and as a teenager joined Joseph “Grande Kalle” Kabasele Tshamala’s group, l’African Jazz. It was with l’African Jazz that Kasanda seems to have honed his signature style: a fingerpicked kaleidoscope of high-register triads, gracefully gliding 3rd and 6th intervals and major-scale runs over swaying, syncopated eighth-note rhythms. But unlike the steady roll of, say, Travis picking (an American country fingerpicking style named after the legendary Merle Travis), Kasanda’s digital dexterity involved a more free-form “pluck-and-grab” approach that made the notes ring out like church bells. 

This genre of music - a heady mix of Western pop and indigenous African rhythms played on modern electric band instruments - was usually called African Rhumba, although Kasanda would later help it evolve into a more refined style that came to be known as soukous, a name derived from the French word secouer, meaning “to shake.”

In 1960, the Congo gained its independence from Belgium, and l’African Jazz scored a major hit with the specially composed anthem “Indépendance Cha-Cha,” a catchy song that highlighted Kasanda’s sprightly guitar work. For the next several years, the band was at the height of its popularity, but in 1963, Kasanda and lead vocalist Tabu Ley Rochereau (who was regularly championed among fans as “The African Elvis”) departed l’African Jazz and formed their own group, l’Orchestra African Fiesta (often referred to as just African Fiesta), which also featured Nico’s brother Dechaud on rhythm guitar. 

African Fiesta would remain one of the most popular and influential African groups throughout the decade, and Jimi Hendrix is said to have paid a visit to Kasanda when the ensemble toured France in the late ’60s.

Unfortunately, Kasanda’s acumen at band management wasn’t equal to his musical skill, and he became largely absent from the music scene in the ’70s after the group’s Belgian-based record label folded. Although he would make several later recordings, he never quite regained the prominence he enjoyed in the ’60s and died of illness in a Belgian hospital in 1985, at the age of 46.

Kasanda’s guitar lines cut through brilliantly on the recordings he left behind, many of which are now assembled on various compilation releases and available on streaming services (search for both Nico Kasanda and Docteur Nico). He almost always plays with a strong, clean, chime-like tone drenched in reverb and/or electronic echo/delay. Various pictures and album covers show him playing what appear to be an early Gibson-style hollowbody, a D’Angelico hollowbody and a Fender Jazzmaster. On several tracks, like “Na Keyi Abidja” and “Paulina,” he also incorporated lap steel and slide guitar, played with a liberal amount of reverb.

Before offering any further detailed musical analysis and examples of Kasanda’s music, however, I will first acknowledge my limited experience with the soukous genre. There are few, if any, online tutorials, and it’s a style I did not grow up hearing nor seeing people regularly play. That said, music is music, especially within the diatonic, equal-tempered realm, and in trying to decode Dr. Nico Kasanda’s magic I’ve discovered elements that translate to all styles. 

Like the blues, African rhumba and soukous music is built largely around the I, IV and V major-key chords and enlivened through clever variation. Unlike the blues, however, it stays almost exclusively within the diatonic major scale. Also, most of Kasanda’s lead lines were more jazz-inspired and largely avoided bent notes, suggesting he may have played heavier-gauge strings. His chordal work was often centered on the top four stings and used the upper notes of various CAGED-shaped grips in all positions.

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Ex. 1 shows a one-octave C major scale pattern played in 5th position and its corresponding C chord shape played in that same position. This scale “box” and chord “grip” were most certainly a favorite pairing for Kasanda, and he would move the template up and down the fretboard to various other keys. After you have it under your fingers, try playing Ex. 2, a free-form melodic line loosely based on the opening guitar passage in l’African Fiesta’s “Bougie ya Motema.” 

The sequential scale patterns transcribed here are a common feature of Kasanda’s lead lines, suggesting he most likely had some formal training and could read music and/or had a copy of a Hanon piano scales and exercises book.

To delve into Kasanda’s chordal accompaniment, familiarize yourself with the top-string voicings in Ex. 3, which are the IV, I and V7 chords in the key of D, then play through Ex. 4, a progression marginally based on “Indépendance Cha-Cha” but incorporating a secondary dominant chord (the D7) and a slightly more syncopated beat. Make sure to hold the chord grips down securely throughout each measure and use either a fingerstyle or hybrid-picking (pick-and-fingers) technique to get the notes to ring out against each other.

Kasanda’s mastery of diatonic scales and harmony across the entire neck is evidenced by his brilliant use of speedy runs in 3rds and 6ths. Play through Ex. 5, a G major scale harmonized in 3rds up the fretboard on the B and G strings. Pay careful attention to the fingering here, especially the 1st-finger barre at the beginning of measure 2, which will facilitate a more fluid transition to the upper tetrachord of the scale.

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Ex. 6 demonstrates a variation of a major chord grip from Ex. 3 but with an added fifth on the top string, fretted by the pinkie. These elements, along with scalar runs (like those in Ex.2), will come into play in Ex. 7, an extended example that combines elements heard in such African Fiesta songs as “Zadio” and “Mira.” The first half is built around climbing thirds delineating the I and V7 chords (G and D7, respectively). After an octave-jumping scalar sequence, the example shifts to high-voiced arpeggios picked with a repeating, syncopated rhythm. Again, remember to hold down each chord shape and let the arpeggiated notes ring together.

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Before we embark on our final soukous chordal excursion, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the B7/F# grip in Ex. 8. This was a favorite V7 chord voicing of Kasanda’s that could be moved to any key and embellished by simply holding down the barre and adding or taking away various fingers. This soukouric sleight of hand is highlighted in Ex. 9, a gently undulating I-V7 vamp in the key of E that cadences with different melodic variations on the arpeggiated V7 (B7/F#) chord, which nods to the accompaniment approach heard in “Bougie ya Motema.” 

As always, hold the chord shapes down, and be sure to catch the 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 2 + 2 eighth-note grouping and phrasing in each two-bar phrase. In rock, this rhythmic motion can sound aggressive and compelling, but here the syncopated sway is much more relaxed and subtle. The figure ends satisfyingly with some ascending diatonic 3rds and open E strings before landing on a 12th-position E chord in bar 10.

While investigating the world of Docteur Nicolas Kasanda and the soukous music of the Congolese region, I was again reminded of some universal truths: that music is indeed a universal language, and that the more different cultures are able to share with one another, the more rich, meaningful and beautiful our artistic expression will be.

Many thanks to author Gary Stewart for the photo of Nico Kasanda on page 88. You can read more about Congolese music in his book Rumba on the River: A History of the Popular Music of the Two Congos (Verso) and at his website, rumbaontheriver.com.

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