Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music
(b Ramadhani Mtoro Ongala, 1947, Kivu or Kindu, near the Tanzanian border in what was then the Belgian Congo, later Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo; d 13 December 2010, Dar Es Salaam) Singer-songwriter from a musical family. He turned to music as a teenager, playing drums and guitar in the soukous style, and soon began writing songs with messages. In 1978 he moved to Tanzania to work with his uncle Makassy of Orchestre Makassy, and when that band relocated to Kenya he stayed behind, establishing his own brand of melodic Zairian soukous which he called ubongo music ('ubongo' is Swahili for 'brain'). He joined and soon led Orchestre Matimila, later called Orchestre Super Matimila. He became a superstar in East Africa, his dance tunes having both a groove and a conscience; he called himself 'sura mbata' ('ugly face') but his fans called him 'Doctor'.
His songs were so forthright, about poverty, corruption and so on, that the government considered deporting him, but later they granted him Tanzanian citizenship, and a district in Dar Es Salaam was named after him. Among his lyrics devoted to de-glamorizing African poverty, his AIDS campaign song 'Mambo Kwo Soksi' ('Things With Socks', encouraging men to use condoms) was banned by Radio Tanzania in 1990, but it became his best-known song. One of his cassettes had reached England, and Ongala and his band were first booked for the WOMAD festival in Reading in 1988 (see Peter Gabriel); he began recording in England, and toured Europe and the USA. His albums included Songs For The Poor Man '89 and Mambo '92, both on Gabriel's Real World label. SEMA '95 included live tracks recorded in Sweden and the UK plus radio sessions from '84; see also soundtrack to Natural Born Killers '94 on Nothing USA and compilation Womad In Venice '96.
He was partly paralyzed by a stroke in 2001, but continued to sing from a wheelchair. He turned to gospel music in later years.