A big part of what I like about soukous music and other Afropop is the contrast and oscillation within it. Rhythmically, each bar of the highlife guitar pattern is a tiny tension and release, the first bar or half bar syncopated and the second half straight quarter or eighth notes.

highlife guitar comp pattern

Harmonically it is typically a similar oscillation between two chords, an ad nauseum simpicity back and forth that contributes to the genre’s dance and trance sound. On a macro level, the best songs are structured with more tension and release within their parts, and as they are generally around ten minutes (four songs would fit on an LP or two halves of a song on a 45), there is plenty of room to build musical tension.

Repetition is key. The solos aren’t really solos generally, but “sebenes,” a term with a nebulous origin that I won’t speculate on. A sebene is an instrumental feature wherein a single player improvises around a theme without straying too far until a new theme comes along. This approach to instrumental sections really appeals to my musical tastes, as I couldn’t care less about the technical ability that solo sections generally showcase. The sebene is more about melody than chops, and the Congo artists were, and are, much more patient than American songwriters typically are.