Congo’s Politics of Dancing

Most of us gringos are content to simply let the guitars sing and the grooves signify while listening to the lilting, rumba-drenched soukous that typifies music from the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo. But for those who actually wonder what those sun-parched Congolese singers are going on about over all those hypnotic horn and axe breaks, here’s a helpful bit of shorthand: Listen for the words “bolingo” and “motema.” You won’t have to try too hard, as tallying them is easy as identifying “habibi” in music from the Arab world or “corazón” in anything Spanish or Latino. Love, it would seem, is everyone’s message. Translated from the Congo’s native Lingala, “bolingo” means something like “romance”; “motema” is “heart.”

Of course, nothing is quite that simple in a land that has become synonymous around the world with ethnically driven conflict and rape as retaliation, even if it’s true that most postcolonial music bearing any Congolese stamp has been recorded for decades in Paris or Brussels, instead of onetime-African-music-capital Kinshasa. (The Central African nation gained independence from Belgium in 1960.) According to University of Montreal anthropology professor Bob W. White, many linguistic complexities are rooted in the repression endured under Joseph Désiré Mobutu, a/k/a Mobutu Sese Seko, the CIA-installed despot who changed the country’s name to Zaire for much of his 32-year reign (which finally ended in 1997) and sought to merge his own leonine, paternalistic image with that of his increasingly mismanaged one-party state. One of the best chapters in White’s recent Duke University Press book, Rumba Rules: The Politics of Dance Music in Mobutu’s Zaire, addresses this directly, using soukous lyrics by such stars as J.B. M’Piana, Koffi Olomide, and General Defao to show that love paeans and praise songs are often veiled cries for help, community, even power in a society gone awry.

White’s tome is a bit harder on guitar hero François Luambo Makiadi (“Franco,” for short), the burly maestro considered by many to be the great man of modern Congolese music. One way to gauge Franco’s stature—other than the fact that he has been the subject of two Stern’s Africa–produced retrospective sets in as many years—is that T.P.O.K. Jazz, his buffed-to-perfection ensemble, gets on-screen time along with James Brown, Bill Withers, the Fania All-Stars, and B.B. King in Soul Power, the fine recent concert film about the Mobutu-sponsored diaspora festival Zaire ’74. White’s affection for Franco’s music and influence is obvious, but the artist’s on-again/off-again coziness with Mobutu’s regime clearly frustrates the author. It’s true that Franco serenaded the dictator and was given control of the nation’s premier label and recording studios, but he also ribbed Mobutu with carefully calibrated satire that eventually managed to get him thrown in jail and forced to spend periods in exile.

The handsome, new two-CD set Francophonic, Vol. 2 covers the last decade of Franco’s life, leading up to his death from AIDS in 1989. T.P.O.K. Jazz had only recently become an album-oriented outfit—and Franco finally more comfortable with the increased space that afforded him—when the set gets under way in 1980, with the result that every track on disc one is more than 10 minutes long (“Bina Na Ngai Na Respect” clocks in at 17:28). Rules acknowledges that hyper guitar breaks (or sebenes) were hallmarks of the band’s style, but it’s the way the singers and instrumentalists shift gears from clavé-driven soukous up to the fleet groove called kwassa-kwassa that makes this a contender for party record of the year. If disc two suggests that the tempos slowed once Franco got sick, in the midst of it all, 1985’s “Mario” introduces the innovative, back-to-the-future sound that brought Franco his first real international audiences, who immediately grasped its dance-floor appeal, whether they noticed all the lyrical bolingos or not.

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