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N’Dombolo: the postulation of the post-Zaïko generation

Manda Tchebwa

N’dombolo? First and foremost, an artistic secretion (the magical respiration of an entire generation of young Congolese), the Wenge generation’s most emblematic creation, a form of humour and a playful ape-like mimicry. The outpouring of Kinshasa, city of dreams, city of turmoil.

Everything, in this vibrant city’s run-down neighbourhoods – neighbourhoods that are constantly a-buzz with thundering music which blares out with all the force of its decibels from Kin’s jam-packed famous nganda, or open-air terraces – everything blends and bubbles forth in a torrent of shouts.

And, each time, the town is recharged with new ardour, re-inventing itself through its artists’ vitality and fertile creativity. Nothing is missing here. One can’t help but be fascinated by this damned, godforsaken hole of poverty and opulence, vulgarity and ignorance, with its harebrained music fans who hotly debate all day long on street corners – at risk of coming to blows – about the latest “label” (out of the finest in-vogue Italian, French or Japanese designers) or the latest car “adopted” by their “stars”. There are the Shégué (street children) too, contaminated up to the hilt by the music virus. They have since invaded the city’s symbolic sites (the Victoire, Kimpwanza, Mandela, and Kitambo roundabouts, the newspaper stands, the swanky avenues, the market areas, and the nganda…) and will stick to passers-by, looking for a pittance.

Along with its “chauvinistic” music, this city’s aural emblem has to be its “creolised” language – invented by its youths in an effort to distinguish themselves from the terribly puritanical Kinois rearguard, which is modelled by a handful of intellectuals resistant to the rise of this new wave of uncouth Kinois. Too late! Television has opened the floodgates and the young Kinois’ new “ideology” (whose content has yet to be defined) spurts forth from the “neo-Kinicity” tap.

These are the layers of a pugnacious existence that people, in a city that is both nightmarish and extravagant, can only escape through the magic of its music. Music is perceived here as the essential outpouring of a city inhabited by incandescent imaginations cooped up in an unrivalled sybaritic energy inherited from their ambianceurs ancestors. The inventiveness of Kin’s youths is the site of all utopias, all extravagances, and inspiration.

Coming on to N’dombolo, there is precisely a desire to “folklorise” this artistic body language that precisely seeks to rid itself of this kind of simian banality people have tended to caricature it with.

What could be more understandable. In this joyous existential disorder, everything is devised in a vacuous state of jubilation. The “territory of the danced” knows no limits. It sometimes even passionately makes overtures to the animal world, as was previously the case with Minzoto Wella Wella’s Eséma duckling dance inspired by the duck’s waddle, or nowadays with young people’s famous emblematic dance, N’dombolo, which, it is said was inspired by the antics of a certain “Old Marcel”.

“Old Marcel”? Yes, Kinshasa zoo’s one and only (now defunct) star primate. But his cage is still there. Empty, but full of wonderful memories – memories of an incomparable N’domb… what am I saying? I mean rumba – Old Marcel style, of course. That good old languid and swaying Congolese rumba that some youngsters integrated in N’dombolo’s “mechanical” choreographies – with a staggering velocity of course – enriching it in a softer version.

Only “Old Marcel” is gone. All of a sudden, there is no one who can “n’dombolise” like him. He was not just any old ape. He was one music-loving monkey. And Kinois by birth. A performer or minstrel in his own right. A real music and dance lover who knew, like nobody else in the world, how to draw his resources from the oval and misshapen lines of his body. And it is apparently to him that we owe the young Kinois’ favourite dance, N’dombolo.

The new wave strikes

N’dombolo? A name, like most of them, drawn from youth idioms – nearly five years ago now. Here however, the name is charged with a double symbolism. It first of all symbolises the craziness born out of a consensual poaching in the animal world – a bit as if to give a human soul and face to what, previously, came under the sole sovereignty of Old Marcel. Secondly, it is a way of transcending the excessively conformist language of urban dance; to give it a meaning that goes well beyond the human, mid-way between contemporary creation and the desire to escape beyond consensual limits. Somewhere between a corporal expression that activates all its limbs, all its emotions, and creative freedom.

Wasn’t it also (always) young people who, in the past created the Kwasa Kwasa (started by Lingwala’s enfant terrible, Janora) by imitating the ritual body language of the mechanic? Out of this was born the “Kuku Turkey” (turkey dance), signed Papa Wemba’s Viva la Musica in 1979…

In general, all of these dances’ syntax (including N’dombolo) is largely elaborated through collective, intuitive sessions where each band’s singer-dancer makes up his or her own steps during the rehearsals (in the neighbourhood’s bar) open to the (paying) public, who learn the new dance-in-progress at the same time as the musicians. On stage, the dance itself bursts forth in all its splendour, unleashing all its energy. It captivates with its virile steps (between two head sways and several whirling body rotations around the dancer’s axis). It thrills with its intricate steps, its complex combinations (alternating floating arm movements and the more rigid, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, leg movements), miming a few ape-like poses and ticks in the process. And it is impossible to remain indifferent to the circular swaying of hips, which, choreographed into some immutable ritual, go from top to bottom and back up again, and the shuddering of those well-curved posteriors that swing between elegance and virtuosity, erotic suggestion and measured “obscenity”…

Meanwhile, N’dombolo’s sonic ingredients unfurl frenetically in a searing sebene, over and over, biting into a torrid and voluble flurry of shouting, of which it is pointless trying to identify any kind of semantic coherence, poetic improvement, not to mention any kind of clearly asserted ideological postulation. The words and phrases gush from the atalaku’s (the principal ambianceur – or MC) mouth like lava from a volcano. He harangues the dancers, incites them to show more ardour, more creativity, more virtuosity. The atalaku specially creates new shouts and phrases for the new dance. And these shouts, its words and magic phrases, are kept secret for as long as possible (for fear of being “pirated” by rival bands). Regular breaks and syncopation alternate, punctuating the sebene with a virtuous and suggestive play of guitars and synthesisers. They top off the dance, sometimes embroidering it and overloading it with imaginative finds and other sophisticated sound trills to better build it up to its pinnacle. Having barely faded away, the drum rhythm is relayed by the atalaku’s hysterical harangue – in association this time round with an extremely inveterate chorus. The MC now constructs his shouted-out phraseology around a theme that echoes that of the work’s main text. This rides the dancer’s virtuosity in the mysterious journey between gesture and being. Imagine a thousand bodylines that blend, swell, deflate, fold, unfold, and then open out like a corolla. The illusion of imitating the other finally blends into the desire to please. It’s ecstasy! One really wonders, at the end of the day, whether the atalaku isn’t in fact an additional composer, second only to the author of the original work.

“Listen to this! Now this is what I call real N’dombolo”

Carried mostly by Tutu Kaludji, Wenge Musica BCBG (the original line-up)’s incomparable atalaku, N’dombolo immediately conquered the whole Congo, then Africa, between 1995 and 2000. With his bewitching power, he mobilised all 20 to 25-year-olds around a concept that has since declined into three realities – dance, rhythm and musical style. It was this wave that dethroned the established gang (Zaïko Langa Langa, Victoria Eleison, Viva La Musica, Choc Stars, Anti Choc, etc.), who, until then, were considered the only “machines capable of creating and imposing their dance styles”.

It was precisely here that the BCBG generation would also have to meet new challenges – how to stay at the top for a decent length of time? Would it be wise to think already about creating a new dance without running the risk of collective suicide?

After all, wasn’t N’dombolo the most visible mark of a new generation’s taker over of the Congolese musical space (after the clearly stalling “old” generation), a generation forced in spite of everything to make a Cornelian choice between self-flagellation, chauvinism, and denial? And thus logically, the victory of youth over their elders.

In the space of four seasons, N’dombolo had become the show-stealer of every ball, of every band, and, moreover, a musical style unto itself. For people now no longer said, “I listen to Congolese music”, but rather “I love N’dombolo”. “Listen to this! Now this is what I call real N’dombolo”, yells Claudy Siar every night during “Couleurs tropicales”, his radio show on Radio France Internationale.

Caught up in this impetuous trend, young and old therefore had no other choice but to jump on the train or to get left behind. Never, since the oldest Kinois’ rumba and Cha-cha-cha, had a dance achieved such unanimity. That is, right up until the day when from the depths of the populous Ndjilli, Kin’s very own “Chinese People’s Republic” (in reference to its overpopulation), a new dance burst forth, miming the parrot’s movements through the body language fantasies of the Shégué: Tshaku libondas.

Created by the intrepid Enrica Mboma, and later popularised by King Kester Emeneya (with the complicity of his Shégué fans), this dance-theatre characterised by very mechanical thrusting arm movements, like the crank arms on a steam train, was what finally managed in turn to dethrone the seemingly eternal N’dombolo. It came hard on its trail, hounding it out of its very last haven – the Zénith in Paris. There, alongside his Shégués brought straight from Kin’s ghettos, King Kester Emeneya signed his comeback on the international circuit (in November 2001 in front of more than 8000 people), taking on a dance that still embodies the nostalgia of a youth who would have loved it to be eternal.

This article is an extract from Manda Tchebwa’s book, Sur les berges du Congo.


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