The acknowledged creator of the rumba congolaise, Wendo Kolosoy was the first Congo-born musician to achieve international renown when his "Marie-Louise" emerged as a global hit in 1948. Born Antoine Kalosoyi in the Mai-Ndombe province on April 25, 1925, he was orphaned at the age of nine and sent to live with the Society of the Missionaries of Africa. He later claimed the spirit of his mother (who regularly sang traditional Congolese songs at local parties and festivals) came to him in a dream and proclaimed "You're going to play the guitar," and at 11 he made his performing debut. The missionaries did not approve of the lyrics of Kolosoy's songs and expelled him from their orphanage in 1938 — he quickly found work aboard a Congo River ferry, sometimes playing music to entertain passengers during the journey. From 1941 to 1946 Kolosoy also fought as a professional boxer, an experience that led him across much of Africa. During the mid-'40s he formed the Cuban-inspired group Victoria Bakolo Miziki, fusing the rhythms of Latin jazz with traditional Congolese folk to create what would become known as "rumba congolaise." Around this time Kolosoy began performing under the alias "Windsor," a nod to the United Kingdom's Duke of Windsor, and over time the moniker evolved into "Wendo Sor" and finally "Wendo."
While returning from a prizefight in Dakar in 1946, Kolosoy befriended fellow traveler and Greek businessman Nicolas Jéronimidis, who signed him to the fledgling Léopoldville-based record label Ngoma. Paired with guitarist Henri Bowane, Kolosoy recorded the salacious "Marie-Louise," a song widely credited with popularizing the concept of the "sebene," the rumba congolaise signature instrumental bridge enabling musicians and dancers to stretch out and improvise. Thanks to regular airplay on Radio Congolia, "Marie-Louise" emerged as a hit across West Africa, although not without controversy: Catholic religious leaders claimed the song boasted "satanic powers," and rumors circulated that if it were played at midnight, it could raise the dead from the cemeteries. For a short period Kolosoy was even imprisoned by Belgian authorities, and following his release he was excommunicated by the Catholic church. Of course, the hubbub only vaulted "Marie-Louise" to international attention and established its creator as the premier Congolese artist of his time. (Indeed, many of the West African performers to follow in Kolosoy's wake commonly refer to the late '40s and early '50s as "Tango ya ba Wendo" — i.e., "the Era of Wendo.")
By the mid-'50s, Kolosoy's popularity was nevertheless on the wane as the electric soukous sound gained commercial prominence. In 1955 he teamed with fellow singers/guitarists Antoine Bukasa and Manuel D'Oliveira as Trio BOW, recording a series of hit variations on traditional rhumba favorites including "Sango ya Bana Ngoma," "Victoria Apiki Dalapo," and "Landa Bango." But Kolosoy also suffered for daring to challenge the 32-year reign of Congo dictator Mobutu Sese Seko: "They wanted me to sing their praises. They wanted to use me as a stepping stone, and I did not want to be involved in politics," he later said in an interview. By 1964, Kolosoy's recording career was essentially over, although he continued performing live and a decade later appeared at Zaire 74, the cultural festival mounted in conjunction with the legendary Muhammad Ali/George Foreman heavyweight title bout celebrated as "the Rumble in the Jungle." When Laurent-Désiré Kabila overthrew Mobutu in 1997, Kolosoy assembled a new Victoria Bakolo Miziki lineup and two years later teamed with French producer Christian Mousset for the comeback LP Marie Louise. He toured the U.S. and Europe in 2000, spearheading a commercial resurgence of rumba congolaise that culminated in the release of the 2002 album Amba. Illness forced Kolosoy to retire from the road in 2005, but he continued recording, contributing new material to the 2007 documentary On the Rumba River, a celebration of his life and music. Kolosoy died July 28, 2008, at age 83. ~ Jason Ankeny