GASPING, a beautiful girl is propelled towards the pit, a heaving mass of 30,000 men. She recoils in panic, arms flailing, arching herself backwards almost to the boards. But, as the beat throbs, resistance is hopeless. On she is drawn, by the omnipotent will of her own thrusting hips. She reaches the edge of the stage, and the tempo soars. The dancer is transformed. Ecstasy grips her. Howling, she grabs fistfuls of air, writhing in a blur of blue latex and spangled fur. The song peaks. The dancer makes a last bone-juddering lunge, freezes, and then staggers drunkenly off to the wings. In the pit, or rather, on the pitch of Kinshasa's main football stadium, thousands of half-lit faces are roaring. Your correspondent discovers that he has dropped his pen.
Congolese music is sexy. Whether the improvised part of a traditional rumba, or the dizzying climax to a modern “ndombolo” dance number, its rhythms invariably recall the carnal deed. Cameroon's prim government tried to ban the ndombolo dance—which is slightly less risqué than the thrusting dancer's routine, even though performed in groups—on the ground that it was sexually suggestive.
The Congolese dismissed the ban as sour grapes. Perhaps they were right. In smart discos, sweat-box bars and market-places across Africa, Congolese music is rampant. Local musicians can rarely compete. Even in Lagos, the proud home of high-life jazz, clubs echo with Congo's trademark throbbing bass, tinging guitars and racing falsettos. And in Europe Congolese music has become almost synonymous with African music. Europeans call it soukous, after secousse, the French for “jolt” or “shake”. In Paris and Brussels, Congolese stars draw crowds of 20,000.
But it is in the Democratic Republic of Congo that the music truly matters. For five years, a vile war has raged in Congo, costing between 3.1m and 4.7m lives. The country is ruined and divided, its state a figment. Yet if Congo is more broken than Iraq or Afghanistan, it is a better place for a party. “Music is keeping the nation alive,” says Noel Ngiama, aka Werrason, one of the country's four big stars. “In Congo, almost everyone can dance or sing.”
Not that Congo's music industry is untouched by the nation's troubles. The dancer who sent this correspondent scrambling for his pen was a member of a band based in London. Lining the back of the stage were only a couple of members from each of Congo's leading bands, many of which are also based in Europe. So, for the first time in Congo, partly for want of musicians, the singers were miming.
As the dancer staggered off, a small man wearing big shades, an Arab djellaba and a Turkish fez seized the microphone. “Thank you for coming,” he said, thwacking the stage with a camel-prod. “You have proved that I, a journalist, am as famous as a musician!” This was Zacharie Bababaswe (above), whose brief homecoming to Kinshasa the audience was celebrating.
Yet Mr Bababaswe is modestly talented for a Congolese celebrity. He is famous for his weekly television music programme, “Green Fire”, which he records in Brussels. This typically features Mr Bababaswe interviewing, or rather haranguing, a Europe-based Congolese music star. His brand of demagoguery has earned him the title “the mullah of the press”. Hence the Muslim garb, which several of the performers were also wearing as a token of their respect. “He makes the music live,” said Biscuits for Schoolchildren, a man in full Bedouin costume, who plays with another of Congo's big four singers, Papa Wemba. But if that were true, Kinshasa's music scene would hardly be thriving.
How it all began
Congolese music has always acutely reflected the fortunes of the people who made it. Its modern form emerged in the early 1940s, in two cities separated by a mile of swirling brown water. War in Europe had boosted demand for Congolese copper, cotton and rubber. Factories were mushrooming in Leopoldville, as Kinshasa was called then, the capital of the Belgian Congo (now officially the Democratic Republic of Congo), and across the Congo river in Brazzaville, the capital of the French Congo (now officially the Republic of Congo-Brazzaville). To meet the demand for labour, peasants flooded in from the rainforest, and the population of Leopoldville grew to around 200,000.
The migrants brought their traditional music, played on drums, lutes and likembes, xylophone-like instruments played with the thumbs. They also encountered new music: Cuban boleros, mambos, salsas and, especially, rumbas, captured on a budget range of ten-inch, 78rpm records put out by His Master's Voice, a British label. Flush with their new wages, the Congolese devoured these rhythms—perhaps because they were rooted in traditional songs of west and central Africa, before being taken to Cuba by African slaves. “And so the rumba was returned to the land of its origins, Congo,” writes Manda Tchebwa, a Congolese musicologist.
Congo's first great star was Antoine Kolosay, aka Papa Wendo, a name garbled from his original moniker, the Duke of Windsor. When not employed as a riverboat mechanic, Papa Wendo sang languorous rumbas at weddings and funerals, accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar. “It was an exciting time,” he now recalls, a 79-year-old seated in the shade of a banana tree, in the yard of his modest Kinshasa house, from which he sells beer.
Everyone wanted to dance the rumba. Seizing his chance, a Greek businessman built a broom-cupboard recording studio in his Leopoldville trading house, and lent Papa Wendo guitars and drums. The authorities were less helpful. In 1948 Wendo wrote one of Congo's loveliest songs, “Marie-Louise”, a eulogy to the sister of his guitarist, Henry Bowane. A month later Marie-Louise died. Whereupon, wherever Papa Wendo played the song, the girl's ghost was reported to have appeared. He was charged with Satanism by the Catholic church, and imprisoned. “Of course, it was really the melody that was haunting people,” says the old man, and then proves his point, with a bewitching, only slightly quavery, rendition of the song.
By the mid-1950s, Papa Wendo had been superseded by two bands whose most brilliant members would dominate Congolese music for the next three decades. As their names suggest, Joseph Kabasele's African Jazz and François “Franco” Luambo's OK Jazz, jazzed up the rumba, adding horns and the double bass. By now, there were half a dozen Greek recording studios in Kinshasa, creating intense competition for the best musicians.
Kabasele and Franco traded in Papa Wendo's modest scooter for sports cars and the other pleasures that a booming Leopoldville could amply provide. By 1955, says Gary Stewart's exhaustive, and gratefully plundered, history, “Rumba on the River”, the Congolese were buying 600,000 records a year, and the capital's native quarters boasted some 330 bars.
More papas than mamas
Almost inevitably, as independence approached, these first modern Congolese heroes were drawn into politics. Patrice Lumumba, Congo's first leader, who was later murdered, campaigned from the back of Kabasele's Cadillac. In 1960 African Jazz played in Belgium at the talks that delivered both independence and the Cadillac man's most famous song. “We are independent at last!” he sang. “Viva liberty cha cha! We have won!”
Almost at once, Congo's bright hopes began to fade. A Belgian-manipulated secessionist movement in copper-rich Katanga province sparked civil war. “You Congolese politicians, put an end to your fratricidal war,” implored Kabasele, in one of several songs rumoured to have been written by his uncle, a future cardinal of the Catholic church.
Where previously Congo's music stars had gloried in the nation's successes, Papa Wemba strutted on the rotten boards of its decline
Yet money and power, the corrupters of Congo's politicians, infected the musicians too. African Jazz's musicians mutinied. Led by a brilliant young singer, first known as Seigneur Rochereau, then Tabu-Ley, they formed African Fiesta. Thus began a rich tradition of cell-splitting, adhered to by Congolese bands and, unhappily, by Congolese rebel groups to this day.
At the last count, Wenge Musica, a group formed in the early 1980s, had split into five different outfits, producing two of Congo's four modern superbands. Over the past four years, the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), a rebel group based in Congo's anarchic east, has fractured at least four times, and RCD-Goma, its biggest faction, is charged with massacring thousands of civilians. “Every Congolese wants to be the chief,” explains Georges Branches, who runs an advertising agency in Kinshasa. “This makes for innovative music and terrible politics.”
For two decades, intense rivalry between Franco, “the sorcerer of the guitar”, and Tabu-Ley, of “the ebony voice”, powered a golden age in Congolese music. Influenced by funk and rock 'n' roll, adding more saxophones and the bass guitar, they made the Congolese song faster and fuller. The lyrics also changed to reflect the concerns of a swelling urban class.
Where Papa Wendo had stressed the importance of finding a wife who could cook, Franco sang of prostitutes and money. Tabu-Ley, partly influenced by a visit from James Brown, America's “godfather of soul”, to play at the “Rumble in the Jungle” (the celebrated boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974), turned his performances into glittering, all-dancing extravaganzas.
Congo's economy, meanwhile, could just about keep pace with these excesses, thanks partly to the relative stability imposed by Mobutu Sese Seko, the country's first dictator, plus buckets of aid money. In 1970 the Congolese were buying 1m records a year, and, with their taste for the good life undiminished, spending 15% of their income on beer. Then the good times stopped rolling. By 1974 Mr Mobutu had “Zaireanised” most of the country's foreign-owned businesses, including some 2,000 plantations—the mines had been taken over in the 1960s—pleasing his cronies but wrecking the economy of Congo, or Zaire as he had renamed it, overnight.
The big men of the music scene grew similarly demented. Franco, the chief of the musicians' union, imposed a ban on new bands, in a flagrant attempt to maintain his own supremacy. As the proud owner of a major record company, stolen from its Greek founder, he also oversaw the decline of Kinshasa's recording industry, partly due to a shortage of vinyl. Yet, despite Franco's efforts, myriad new bands emerged.
Better well dressed than well fed
One of the best was Zaiko Langa Langa. For want of cash, it ditched the horns, and replaced their subtle variations with extravagant guitar solos and vigorous dance routines. Inevitably, Zaiko split, several times, spawning Papa Wemba's Viva La Musica in 1977. This was a landmark in Congolese counter-culture. Whereas previously Congo's music stars had gloried in the nation's successes, Papa Wemba strutted on the rotten boards of its decline.
James Astill Sex may have something to do with it
He was the high priest of the “Religion Kitembo”, literally the worship of clothes, which dictated that it was better to be well dressed than well fed. The church's acolytes were called sapeurs after the French slang for clothes, or gear, sapes. Backed by Congolese shoplifting gangs in Paris and Brussels, and their own resourcefulness, the sapeurs turned Kinshasa's mouldy discos into catwalks for the world's most expensive fashions. Papa Wemba, le Pape de la Sape (the pope of the sape movement), cheered them on. “Listen my love. On our wedding day/The label will be Torrente/ The label will be Giorgio Armani/The label will be Daniel Hechter/The label for the shoes will be J.M. Weston.”
It was no coincidence that Congo's music had become a fully interactive performance: the record industry was dying. Incompetence and outdated technology drove musicians to West Africa and Europe to record. And many decided to stay. This scattering of talent widened the audience for Congolese music. But, cut off from Kinshasa's incestuous rivalries and critical audiences, the migrant musicians rarely produced great work. Artists dismissed as mediocrities in Kinshasa could masquerade as superstars to foreign crowds.
Meanwhile the true stars were dying, Kabasele of hypertension, Franco, and a handful of lesser stars, allegedly of AIDS. Congo was imploding. By the early 1990s, average purchasing power had fallen by 75% in two decades. Innovative Congolese, including many sapeurs, were stealing away to Europe. Newspapers that had once offered sophisticated musical comment were firebombed. Franco's exclusive Un-Deux-Trois nightclub became an evangelical church.
From piracy to praising pols
During the past five years of war, Congo's economy has collapsed, and the recording industry with it. As Kinshasa's studios began closing in the 1980s, pirated tapes and records flooded the market. In 1991, 1.5m pirated Congolese cassettes were seized in nearby Togo in a single bust. Now, with cassettes costing $4, and over 80% of Congolese living on less than $1 per day, even the market for pirates has dried up.
According to Gabriel Shabani, a former record producer, a hit album might sell 20,000 cassettes in Kinshasa, a city of 4m. Mr Shabani has closed his recording studio, and plans instead to sell Congolese music to the diaspora over the internet.
Congo's club scene is similarly stricken. With most Congolese unable to pay more at the door than the equivalent of 50 cents, the standard price for popular gigs, many stars have stopped performing in Kinshasa. Today, Werrason is Congo's biggest draw; but that is at least partly because he does perform. At Kinshasa's People's Palace, a $34m Chinese-built monstrosity, he recently drew a crowd of 20,000 in a couple of hours for a free concert. But the audience was mostly of street-boys, the sound system failed, and Werrason played only three songs before giving up in disgust.
For most Congo-based musicians, singing the praises of politicians is now the most lucrative source of cash. A typical album might feature the names of around 50 rich Congolese, who would all be expected to pay for the privilege. On her latest album, Tshala Mwana, Congo's leading chanteuse, suggests that Mwenze Kongolo, a man accused by UN investigators of involvement in the looting of $5 billion from state mining companies, has the sexual energy of nine men (it is not known whether this flattery was rewarded).
Rather more modestly, Moke “Lambio Lambio” Tomisi, the president of Papa Wemba's Kinshasa-based band (he also has two in Europe), offered to have his patron describe your correspondent as Fleet Street's finest for $500. Though tempted to break The Economist's shackles of anonymity, he regretfully declined.
At which, Mr Tomisi continued rehearsing his dancers in a routine for a Nescafé television commercial. His boss, Papa Wemba, was on bail in France, charged with smuggling several thousand Congolese into Europe as members of his entourage. For the Nescafé commercial, Mr Tomisi expected to receive $500, to be divided among 14 people.
With almost no stars now recording in Kinshasa, Congo's music is becoming devoid of innovation. It can take a trained ear to tell one modern Congolese band from another, so formulaic has the music become. Even Koffi Olomide, arguably Congo's most brilliant modern star, a clever lyricist and resonant baritone, is getting lazy. According to the verdict of Kinshasa's streets, he has hardly written a good song in years.
Yet no new stars have emerged in the last decade to sweep the old guard away. According to Emeneya “King Kester” Mubiala, a star of the 1980s: “We're reaching the point where people still love the music, but barely remember the names of the songs.” In Congo's broken society, tribal divisions are growing. Modern musical rivalries reflect this. Werrason owes his huge popularity not merely to his music, which is quite ordinary, but to the partisan support of people from his Bandundu province east of Kinshasa, including most of the capital's street-boys.
Down among the weeds
Congolese music does seem to be in a bit of a slump. But a recent night out in La Porte Rouge, a tiny bar in Kinshasa's poor Matonge suburb, suggested that its roots were still flourishing. Seated at white plastic tables were poor punters from all four corners of Congo. Against a brick wall, a row of bare-chested drummers were beating out the Mutuashi music of the central region of Kasai. And one by one, the drinkers downed bottles and stepped up to dance their thanks.
Old men and slobbering drunks gyrated with vigour and style, as they plastered small bills on to the drummers' sopping foreheads. Middle-aged slatterns were transfigured, their cares seemingly forgotten, as they swaggered seductively on to the floor. Congo's music industry, like its politics, has a few crooks and rabble-rousers at the top. But, almost incredibly, down among the weeds, Congolese music and the brutalised people who really make it are thriving still.