At the age of 14 Augustin Kayembe was hawking drinks from a cooler. Now his nightclubs, infused with the Congolese sound, are spread across the continent.
It is Friday night in Kinshasa in mid-June, a slight chill infusing the city’s humid ambience.
Hundreds of clubs and live shows are blasting out the country’s legendary rumba music, sensuous harmonies floating over gentle guitar melodies that periodically slide into frenetic snare-drum-driven ndombolo, with a shouting vocal and its own dance steps. People are on the streets.
At Chez Ntemba, in the heart of Kinshasa’s uptown Gombe district, DJ Franck is behind the decks.
The dance floor ebbs and flows, but right now it is packed, the fabulously dressed crowd coupled up and dancing a myriad of variations on the sensual style for which Kinshasa is famed.
A fighter by nature, when Augustin Kayembe lost everything in Kinshasa’s 1991 riots he started over in Zambia
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The sound from the speakers is immaculate – with no distortion – which is rare in this city.
The club – smoke free, air conditioned and full of rotating lighting gizmos – is a hall of mirrors, giving endless opportunities for couples to glance over each other’s shoulders to check their looks. Alcohol is flowing, but no one is misbehaving.
Anyway, the suited, beefy bouncers sitting at the entrance are top class.
A bevy of fast-moving waitresses delivers Primus lager, Tembo beer, and champagne at $100 a bottle complete with sparklers, to the thirsty ambienceurs. The mood is cheerful and good natured.
King of the night
The club is just one of the 41 Chez Ntemba nightclubs that Augustin Kayembe, a 53-year-old entrepreneur from Lubumbashi, Katanga, has established across Africa and beyond.
No one else on the continent has ever come close to his accomplishment.
That, plus the fact that all the clubs are thriving, makes Kayembe the undisputed champion of Africa’s nightlife.
This year, Kayembe opened his first hotel, Chez Hotel Inn, next door to one of his two Johannesburg nightclubs in the city’s upmarket Melrose area.
This club has two dance floors, one playing mostly African and the other, international club sounds.
As in Kinshasa, the sound quality is perfect, the lighting is good, there are plenty of mirrors, the DJs know what they are doing and young, well-dressed partygoers are arriving in droves.
Sitting in his modest office at the back of the hotel, Kayembe, who is plainly dressed, middle-aged and thickset, leans forward on his desk, remembering his childhood growing up in Lubumbashi in the south-east of the country.
“My parents did not have money to send me to school,” he says matter-of-factly.
“My father worked for a Belgian family, making coffee and cleaning. But then, at the time of Mobutu [Sese Seko], they came and confiscated the things of white people. My father was one of the first people they accused of being too close to the whites, and he was hounded for it,” Kayembe explains.
In need of money, the 14-year-old Kayembe started selling soft drinks from a cooler on the street.
When Kayembe put beer inside his cool box, the ‘shop’ became a hit, so he started a shebeen (pub).
“They used to call it kantemba yetu, meaning our corner,” and that is how his clubs gleaned their name.
“That was successful, too. But people became jealous and they chased me. So I put another bar in town in 1980. Seven years later, I opened my first nightclub, the first Chez Ntemba.”
Two years later, he opened one in the downtown area.
When soldiers rioted in 1991, they looted Kayembe’s bars. He lost everything, he says.
But used to picking up and starting again, he moved to Zambia and in 1992 opened a nightclub in Lusaka. A year later, he opened another.
At that time Zambians – like so many others across the continent, from Dakar to Dar es Salaam – were infatuated with the Congolese sound, finding it better to dance to, more professional and more exciting and sensual than anything local musicians had to offer.
Kayembe not only supplied Congolese music, but did so in style and, remarkably, without significant competition.
Chez Ntemba’s fame spread and Kayembe moved fast to capitalise, opening clubs in rapid succession across the country.
In the late 1990s, Africans from all over the continent were flocking to Johannesburg looking for work and opportunity.
Kayembe, ever the businessman, was quick to take advantage of this and began opening clubs, first downtown and then in the inner city area of Hillbrow.
The clubs attracted punters not only from the African immigrant community but also South Africans who had been denied access to other African music and dance by apartheid and the country’s isolation from the rest of the continent.
They were now discovering it for the first time.
Quickly though, the clubs attracted the attention of the police, who in the early years repeatedly conducted apartheid-style armed raids, demanding residence permits and carrying out mass arrests.
Though relations are now better, Kayembe closed up some of the clubs and moved to monied and safer Melrose instead.
These days, Kayembe’s main problem in South Africa is les combattants.
They are Congolese expatriates who have, since the failure of Etienne Tshisekedi to win the Democratic Republic of Congo‘s controversial 2011 presidential elections, attacked those they consider associated with President Joseph Kabila.
In Kayembe’s case, the reasoning is that Kabila supporters frequent his Congolese clubs, that he is close to musicians who have sold out by singing for President Kabila, and, more generally, that he should not prosper while they live in poverty.
Several times, les combattants have attacked Kayembe and his sons, only to be beaten back by Chez Ntemba’s bouncers.
Chez Ntemba’s international expansion has not always been smooth.
When Kayembe tried to open clubs in Europe, he came across a style of doing business that did not fit with his own, he says.
Complex tax regulations and a law in France that allows the authorities to close a club down quickly if fights break out inside put an end to dreams of spreading outside the continent, despite the market for the music there.
Where possible, Kayembe has appointed family members to run his clubs.
His sons run the clubs in Cape Town and Windhoek, and are trying to revive the European outposts of Kayembe’s nightclub empire.
He has also hired a trusted team of managers.
Kayembe’s judgment must be excellent, since the temptations are many in a cash business like nightclubs.
In only one instance, Dar es Salaam, does Kayembe say that relations with the manager have broken down.
Idris Kayembe is one of two of Kayembe’s sons who run Chez Ntemba in Cape Town.
Youthful and trendily attired, Idris cuts a very different figure to his father.
But he is full of respect, insisting that Augustin has taught him everything he knows about the business.
“He taught us that if they are run correctly, clubs should succeed because people will always like to dance to good music and to drink,” Idris says.
While Congolese rumba used to dominate the turntables at Chez Ntemba clubs, Augustin Kayembe says this is changing.
“I love our music, and people often call me the king of rumba, perhaps because the musicians I promote through my clubs praise me in their songs. But in my clubs, we don’t only play rumba because the music has become too slow.”
In Namibia, Botswana and Mozambique, he says, people prefer the hard kizomba dance music from Angola and South African house music.
Idris Kayembe agrees.
“Right now, people prefer faster beats, so we are playing not only rumba but all kinds of music. We have three dance floors, one mostly for African music, the others for international beats, house and R&B” says Augustin.
“But here in Cape Town and all over Africa, Chez Ntemba is known for its African music, and we will never lose that.”