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Variations on the Beautiful in the Congolese World of Sounds

By Achille Mbembe (translated by Dominique Malaquais)

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Congolese rumba and its offshoots exercised an intimate power over the African imaginary.  The sounds, rhythms and ethnic dances of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo-Brazzaville and a large area of Angola birthed the music of which we speak. Mixtures and borrowings from African and foreign styles, as well as from Christian hymnody, were then added to this base. The rhythms and sounds born of this mix emerged alongside colonial urbanisation and the social and economic transformations this brought.

In the making of colonial modernity, arts of disciplining and cultivating the body played a central role. Complex and uneven transformations in the economy (relations of ownership, property, labour) were accompanied by the development of new social relations, especially in the cities. These prompted new uses of the body and its pleasures, new ways of living and dying, novel forms of desires.  Social reproduction increasingly depended not only on the availability of the means to meet human survival, but also on a vast array of imaginary forms, on the circulation of dreams, fantasies and fictions.  The city as a space of heterogeneity profoundly transformed long-standing ideas about the meanings of belonging, the symbolics of sexuality and traditional markers of culture and identity. All of this led to an increased self-consciousness about the “fashioning” of human identity as a manipulable, artful process.

Disciplining the body was accomplished through labour on the one hand, and intensive techniques of caring for the self on the other.  One such technique was elegance and self-stylization. The body, humiliated and made ugly in the workplace or at the hands of a brutal colonial regime, could acquire a new value and be rehabilitated through various arts of making it beautiful, through masquerade, simulation, imitation and dissimulation. In this context, appearances emerged as powerful tools and signifiers of action.  So too, during the years of colonialism, a new culture of taste and leisure emerged: a global culture with its own spaces. Bars (nganda) were a case in point.  This global culture produced its own activities, linked, among others, to the sex trade (mwasi ya leta), to sport (football clubs) and the consumption of alcohol.  In these various settings, cultural artefacts local and foreign rubbed shoulders, juxtaposing places near and far.

From its inception in this context, Congolese popular music was less concerned with flawless beauty and purity of form than with its power to act as a sign system devised to free the imagination. It was a hybrid, a bastard child, at heart. In the 1940s the rumba arrived from Cuba. It came by way of gramophone records and instruments such as the guitar, the accordion and harmonica, brought by immigrant workers from West Africa, coastmen whose music of choice was Highlife, a fusion of American jazz, European and Caribbean dance styles and folk music from West Africa.  New dance steps in transit from Loango (the maringa, polka, tango, waltz and quadrille) were wed to the rumba’s beats and the songs of villages thither and yon.  Following in the wake of the bolero, the two rhythm cha-cha-cha, the merengue, pachanga, beguine and mambo, these sounds and steps were rapidly adopted in the main urban centres, as well as among traders and migrant workers in the diamond and copper mines, on the railways and beyond.

The first bands (Congo Rumba, Victoria Brazza, Jazz Bohême) were created during the first half of the twentieth century in Leopoldville, Brazzaville, Pointe Noire and San Salvador. Some combined West African and European musical practices. In the process, local musicians learned to play the violin, the guitar, and a variety of brass and woodwind instruments. At a later phase, these various instruments were adapted to traditional melodies.  At this initial stage, Caribbean and Latin American music were all the rage. This called for still other instruments – rhythm and lead guitars, double basses, clarinets and percussive instruments such as conga drums, maracas and claves.

For decades to come, Caribbean and Latin American music would inflect the structure as well as the innovative and creative processes of the urban music scene in Congo. The rumba proved a particularly rich source of inspiration, spawning a wealth of stylistic variants, starting with the rumba boucher, the rumba-odemba and rumba-sukuma at the beginning of the Second World War, through to the rumba kiri-kiri and rumba-sukusu of the 1980s.  These developments, in turn, were nurtured by the availability of rich and compatible rhythmic formulas, dances steps and body movements (agbwaya, nzambele, ebongo), as well as a plethora of stringed instruments (njenje, kokolo, likembe) and drums (patenge) from various regions of Congo.

The two principle Congolese bands of these early days, both founded by Joseph Kabasele – African Jazz and OK Jazz (later headed by Luambo Makiadi, best known as Franco) – are positioned at the very confluence of these external and internal influences.  Both played a central role in the emergence of modern Congolese music as a form of entertainment intimately linked to key social occasions, ritual and drama.

African Jazz, born in 1953, brought discipline to the orchestra, restructured ways of singing, integrated the tam-tam, the electric guitar and wind instruments into band music, classified repertoires and enhanced the social status of musicians.  Its trademark was a popular fusion of imported and local music with a deliberate Latin flavour.  Franco’s main contribution lies in his use of indigenous rhythms and folklore styles.  Drawing on these, he introduced long stretches of purely instrumental music – a technique Fela Anikulapo Kuti was to refine later in his own drawn out, wordless stretches of saxophone, piano and bass guitar.  Franco also transformed the art of guitar-playing by adopting an aggressive style which stood in marked contrast to Kalle’s flow and the lyrical, idyllic expansion of his melodies.

One of Franco’s early innovations was the incorporation into his pieces of a distinctive short-long, upbeat-downbeat attack, followed by the reiteration of a single note from the guitar; this and the  dissonant twinges he introduced in the first half of a piece, followed in the second by chromatically tinged episodes of rhythmic irregularity. Lyricism here became imbued with a brittle undercurrent, a half-heartedness still heard in most contemporary Congolese productions. Franco rehabilitated the high-register alto and falsetto male voices that were common in traditional music and used the vibrato to create an ornate electric guitar sound. He then pushed the method of playing runs of “sixths” that has become yet another trademark of the Congolese guitar style.  This he combined with a grinding, metallic sound which reproduced the resonance of a traditional zither. Finally, he unleashed the sebene, a master stroke consisting in taking up a musical phrase and repeating it until it becomes hypnotic.

By the mid-seventies, music had become a means by which Congolese society reflected on itself, on its own identity, and on the modes of representation it adopted. In many respects, music epitomised joy, festivity and happiness, elegance and serenity. It enabled the Congolese to sing what could not be spoken about in any other kind of speech. Musical instruments, the guitar in particular, did the talking and explained how what was said was to be danced. As an art form, music played a crucial role in the definition of taste and sensibilities and in the invention of formal codes of “good manners” and civility. It became a vehicle for commenting on morals and an engine for social satire, a repository for discourse on virtues, vices and passions – pride, hate, envy and idleness, ugliness, deformities, greed and sexual predation.

Later generations of artists took their inspiration from Kabasele and Franco. Such was the case for Sam Mangwana, and, later, for Zaiko Langa Langa and Papa Wemba. These artists, however, also brought considerable change, disrupting and destabilizing the rhythmic figures, tempos and musical concepts inherited from their predecessors. In so doing, they prefigured one feature of the Congolese musical scene: the recurrent splintering of groups, along a continuum fuelled by the power of imitation, inter-textual borrowings and never-ending reinterpretations.

Later generations also distinguished themselves from their forebears stylistically by adding or subtracting instruments from their repertoire. Zaiko Langa Langa developed a musical style in which wind instruments were deliberately omitted and prominence was given to rhythmic patterns borrowed from traditional music. In the compositions of this ensemble, among the most renowned of the second generation, the sebene grew in length, overtaking the singing section.  Lyrics gave way to rhythm at the heart of the piece.  “The role of the lead guitar was no longer limited to harmonic accompaniment and melodic improvisations,” writes Kazadi wa Makuna, “but expanded to interact rhythmically with the percussion instruments, especially in the sebene section of the composition.”

The 1980s in Congo were marked by a renewed cycle of violence and a militarization of everyday life. The weight of wars and rebellions, rapes and massacres, drugs and unrest, pillage, political and economic violence was added to the heavy load of a history steeped in suffering.  The music scene registered this new onslaught.  The languid melodies characteristic of “classic” Congolese rumba (1950s-1970s) gave way to tremendous pace, its swaying rhythms and steps to increasingly stereotypical choreography and a sense of emotional intoxication.  This was the new sound – the sound of Koffi Olomide, Quartier Latin and Wenge Musica.  This and the “scream,” a technique that made its way onto the music scene in the 80s, causing a radical shift in the rules of musical beauty.

As all this suggests, the rules of musical beauty have undergone manifold changes over time.  How and why is the stuff of a complex and fascinating social epistemology.  At the heart of this is voice:  orality.  Despite the pressures of a written culture, oral communication has remained predominant in Congolese urban and rural settings alike. Such communication takes place in the context of plural languages and a reciprocal interpenetration between different artistic genres and improvisational tactics. Hard and fast distinctions do not obtain here; speech and music, dance and theatre, each itself the site of multiple languages, overlap.  Juxtaposition is the name of the game.

(Mis) Rules of Beauty


Aesthetics, in this context, are born of tensions between a model fixed in writing, the indiscipline arising from linguistic creolization (a must for oral communication), and the hegemony of images.  From this, extremely complex relationships arise.  Words commonly reference a plurality of concepts.  The things they designate are multiple and their significations structurally ambivalent.  So too images, be they drawn from TV series, videos or the work of self-taught urban painters; intrinsically composite, they demonstrate an extraordinary capacity not only to represent, but also to tell a story and, simultaneously, to make it happen.

Music renders visible the multiple juxtapositions that shape daily life. In the process, it becomes an “archive,” a “relic,” of human experience on the streets of Congo’s cities.  Plays on length and pitch in Lingala, Kinshasa’s lingua franca and the language in which most music is sung, foster an intimate relation between tone and word.  So Zaiko Langa Langa’s “Eureka”:  every sound espouses the tones, accents, sighs, and inflexions of the worded voice, telling and making a story.  Word play, a staple of most songs, adds to the telling of the tale, as do words invented and adapted from different languages, local and foreign.

Borrowings and neologisms are a constant, signifying an experience that is constantly changing, accounting for the instability of reality and its dependence on the sound that domesticates it.  Such domestication is possible only through a combination of image and text, words and sounds, body movements and vocal gestures, the sonoric, the visual and the theatrical.  To tell the story of life in Congo’s cities, music calls on and produces heterogeneities of representation.  Here as in theatre and painting, signification takes place through the juxtaposition of words, colours and sounds, an alchemy in which each element both retains and loses a part of its intrinsic power. The end product, writes Bogumil Jewsiewicki, “is more of a kaleidoscope than a fixed image.”

Ugliness and abjection

In the colonial and, thereafter, in the postcolonial period, ugliness and abjection took on a distinctly political dimension. Born of the violence, exploitation and economic pillage imposed on the Congolese people, they find their most tangible expression in the exercise of power and its effects on those made to shoulder its burden of pain.  Power imposed – the practice of sovereignty – has forced human life to embrace forms of animal existence.  Indeed, suspicions have long run high, in the Congolese imaginary, that within the body of power lurks a beast.

Congo has been living in a spiral of terror ever since the start of the colonial era.  At various points in its cycle, this spiral has assumed ghostly allures, its spectacle of pain varying in intensity as days and events unfolded.  At its peak moments, the human body has become a site of violent confusion:  distinctions between what is “flesh” and what is “meat” have fallen away.  So too, distinctions between what is true and what false, that which is to be believed and that which is “beyond belief.”

Power has been shown to break bones and strip subjects of their flesh, disfiguring them, forcing them into a demonic dance. Power has taken to producing carcasses, penetrating the bodies of its subjects with nervous energy. This has become its raison d’être.  Its modus operandi, tried and true, is to thrust them into extremely dangerous and vulnerable situations, which arouse in them different orders of sensations – from physical pain to convulsions and spasms of envy and greed.

In a demonic play, power entices its subjects to savour corruption, while at the same time making them suffer like beasts.  Central to the hell it unleashes is the violence of genitality, erected into a way of dealing with human beings and objects both – into a practice of government. Sexual pleasure and lust become key integers in the calculus of ordering social affairs.  Human will and reason are exiled to the sex organs, to the nether regions of the body’s anatomical and epileptic zones, and, there, defeated.  The common destiny of human beings and meat – their equation – becomes the very trope of Congo’s regime of terror, of the ugly, the abject.  From this process of slow crucifixion result bodies nailed down, spread-eagled, standing, and prone, at intervals violently mounted by the beast and shaken by terrible jerks.

In these spectral conditions, music broke with the limited circle of sounds on which it had previously relied.  This was so in particular from the 90s forward. The range of timbres was increased and many artists undertook to play more aggressively with dissonance. This called for a willingness to blur distinctions between sound and noise and, in the process, to join art to the world of screams.  Various devices have emerged to effect this crossing of boundaries.  At times, the scream has morphed into a howl – the howl of meat, from the height of a cross, under the eye of a government transformed into a spirit-dog. Screaming, howling, throughout the last quarter of the twentieth century and into the new millennium, part noise-sound, part musical scream, Congolese music has endeavoured to account for the terror, the cruelty and the dark abyss – for the ugly and the abject – that is its country.

Fantasy and improvisation

Improvisation and fantasy are intrinsic to this endeavour. To a large extent – and particularly on stage – beauty, in music, is seen to be a function of the capacity to improvise.  Improvisation, however, should not be confused with simple spontaneity. In fact, what appears to be improvisation on stage is often the product of a slow and patient elaboration.  So it was with dance steps that emerged in the 1990s.  Choreographies did not simply “happen”; they were the result of rehearsal sessions, usually in bars, bringing together musicians and members of the public, who played an active role in the process.  On stage, all evidence of such processes was elided, lending to the convergence of music and dance an air of simplicity, of spontaneity, which was in fact illusory.  This remains the case today..

There is, of course, improvisation proper.  This too, however, has its conventions, its formal syntax.  What may appear, for an outsider, to be an anarchic confusion of impulses and a sheer chaos of sound, in fact constitutes a medium point between prior composition and on-the-spot improvisation.  It is this that gives Congolese popular music its distinctive quality. At its heart is an aesthetic made up of free fantasies, productive counterpoints, discords and distortions. This is a music in which violence and artifice cohabit with naivety, and even stupidity. Imagination is in constant conflict with formalism. The casual and at times frivolous nature of dances contrasts with the mournful nature of songs and melodies. Pleasure and joy are expressed through screams and writhing. And tragedy and loss are told with the nuances of comedy and festivity.

This interweaving of forms, genres and contents makes it possible to invent original compositions, where words, the world of images, appearances and sounds merge, producing flurries of occasional brilliance, and primitive melodies which evoke tears and suffering as much as they do ecstasy (see, for instance, Tshala Muana’s Malu, 2002). This is music laced with emotions ever in conflict, where the theatrical and the oneiric are superimposed on one another across a savage ocean of sounds, screams and noise. Figures and gestures drawn from popular theatre, with its farcical and comical aspects, its exaggerated disguises, its untidy and brightly coloured costumes, are brought to bear on all musical performance. Music, here, records the fragments of a long drama, through melodies of an inexpressible melancholy, phrased both by the singers’ voices and by the guitar, and brought into motion by dancers whose masks are never allowed to fall.

Noise and sound

Contemporary Congolese music seeks to establish a precarious balance between noise, sound and scream. The music is produced in an environment itself strongly shaped by the omnipresence of noise.  “Kinshasa is a town full of noises and full of smells,” comments an observer. “Everywhere music is in the air, a baby crying, the sound of hooters, or portable radios singing.”  Smells too are noisome. “There is always the scent of food emanating from cooking-pots or from a nganda, the smell of a car’s exhaust pipe or a sewage pipe, or the smell of urine against a wall or a tree bearing a ‘Do not urinate’ sign.”

Congolese musical works dip abundantly into this culture of noise. Any and all sounds are used, if not as a musical sound, then at least to create music. Often, musical sounds are based on imitations of natural sounds. Onomatopoeias abound. Noise is used to modify sound understood as pure form. This does not make music heard or composed any less instrumentally rich – quite the contrary, as evidenced by the virtuosity of guitar riffs and the improvisational flourishes they and other instruments bring forth. Noise adds to rhythm spasmodic eruptions that break the stream of slow melodies. Purity of form or sound is not the goal:  the effect sought is one of corruption through noise. Yet this noise is not anarchic, not least because it expresses joy. Noise, here, is part of the practice of joy.  Joy is noisy within this musical genre. And noise, an “impure” sound, is used in the service of joy and beauty.

Any event involving sound is called music if it involves a certain surplus force. At particular moments, carried by the imagination to the brink of intoxication, the musical phrase takes the form of a volcanic effusion. Mixed with words, soaring bursts from the guitar, screams, percussion and melody, it is transformed into an image of the very doors of hell – ear-punching frenzy, groping disorder and energy.  Or instead it becomes an effusion of tears, provoked by the haunting memory of mourning or by jubilation and the unchained outpouring of emotion.  And so it reflects as much the hollow tolling of reality as the pending fulfilment of still awaited promise, an interweaving of myriad figures, the beautiful and the ugly intertwined in the image of life itself.

 Dimensions of Form


The rhythm of Congolese music draws on the rhythms of poetry, of religious song and prayer, and autochthonous dance. It is produced not only by musical instruments, but by gesture and voice as well. Subsequently, rhythm imprints itself on the dancer’s body, infusing it with pulsating waves of energy. Polyrhythm is the dominant model:  bursts and sequences that are at times regular and others intermittent. Variations between increasing and decreasing energy, and movement upwards to a peak and then back down again, are characteristic of most musical pieces. The energetic tension is enhanced by repetition of a same musical phrase, over and over, by the solo or bass guitar, or by ramping up pressure through a series of screams. Sounds, syllables and phrases, all the while, are manipulated with increasing momentum.

A distinctive feature of the music thus created is that rhythm is expressed as tension. This tension is produced by variations in energy, as in the late works of Koffi Olomide (listen to Mopao MM Mokonzi, 2002) or Wenge Musica BCBG (Les anges adorables, 1994). Rhythm, here, is the ordered (and disordered) distribution of energy over time, in a synthesis of instrument (especially guitar and percussion) and voice.  Voices, instruments and dancers’ bodies converge and diverge, unfurling energy, evoking tension counterpoised with release and relaxation. In places, tension is induced by the sheer length of the piece.

These multiple combinations give rise to an infinite number of possible rhythmic nuances – progressions long or slow and intermittent breaks, syncopated and violent by turns. Wenge Musica and Koffi Olomide’s compositions are again excellent examples of this. Each sound is a relay between two sounds, themselves punctuated by the voice of the guitar or the endless psalmodies of a vocalist. Hiccoughs, sudden restarts and stops, violent dips in energy, the residue of voices, the beat, slow or fast, semi-static or stationary tempos are unleashed at different points to produce an effect of stupefying intoxication or one of serene jubilation (see, for example, Olomide’s Affaire d’Etat).


Consider the steps women dance to the rhythm known as soukous.  There are several such steps, each with a different name. The aesthetic of the names is in itself revealing.  Tourniquet, for instance. The word references a set of movements around a circle with clearly defined contours. The circle is the dancer’s body:  all movement is centred on the body itself, or, more precisely, in certain parts of the body.

The dancer lightly flexes her knees, fixes her buttocks, arches her back and begins to turn her hips.  She becomes the curves of her body, sensual, provocative.  The hips act as a chassis for the whole body, yet, like the buttocks, remain flexible. The other parts of her frame follow, moving from this central pivot. To dance the tourniquet then basically means to rotate the pelvis. But this is no simple rotation.  Flexibility and dexterity are required. The dancer’s hands are also used to good effect. They are positioned to produce an “attitude” or a pose. Wrists are flexed firmly, but elegantly; hands are placed on the hips, framing the pelvis as it swivels repeatedly from right and to the left.

Another step, the coucoune, differs from the tourniquet in the way the legs are parted.  Word games tell the story.  “Coucoune” is many things:  a variation on coucou (“the laying of eggs”), cocu (“cuckold”) and coquine (“mischievous woman”). Because it is based on a particular way of parting the legs, the coucoune is a sensually suggestive dance step accentuated by adding to the rotation of the pelvis from left to right another move, from back to front and back again, which refers to sexual intercourse. The démarreur, in contrast, is more of a playful step. The dancer takes up her position as if about to start a motorbike, and then accelerates rapidly. But, having started the engine, she suddenly pitches forwards. At the last minute, she recovers and avoids falling. This step, like the others, assigns a central role to the gyrating pelvis. But it also includes a more agile movement of the feet, thus combining fixed and mobile positions.

Other dance steps associated with soukous are allumez le feu (“light the fire”) and enfoncez le clou (“hammer in the nail”). In the first, the dancer strikes an imaginary match. The match does not light, however, and she tries again, fanning the flame (moto in Lingala) with undulating movements of the hips until the fire finally ignites. But it is hot. She tries to extinguish it in a jerky movement, in which she moves her buttocks and legs like a fan. Enfoncer le clou is similar. The dancer holds an imaginary gun. She squats on her haunches and moves from side to side, as if hammering in nails with her hips. Other dance steps include la feinte (“the trick” or “feint”), in which the dancer pretends to slip, again giving the impression of falling. In extremis, she recovers and again pulsates her buttocks, just like an accordion.

The dance steps associated with ndombolo also derive from a demarcation of the hips in relation to the rest of the body. One difference with soukous is that the body is gradually reduced to a squatting position, then raised again; at given points, the dancer turns first to the right and then to the left, then moves forwards and back, at a pace dictated by the rhythm of the music. Another difference is that the dancer takes up a firing position as if aiming a gun. She then lifts her heels and marches, all the while moving, gradually, into a squat, then turns, rises again, and suddenly breaks the rhythm, turning abruptly to the left or right, front or back. Drawing on this model, numerous steps have been devised:  hold-up; no way; whiplash; clear off; kung-fu style; bonda style; sequence emotion; air-traffic controller, to name but a few.

Congolese dance is a carnal endeavour. Against platonizing ideologies that would cast the body as a prison for the soul, dancing here is a celebration of the flesh. The body is absolute flux and music is invested with the power to enter it, penetrating it to the core. Music produces psychic, somatic and emotional effects on the organs and limbs, subjecting them to the rule of waste.  Music “breaks bones” (buka mikuwa) and “hurls bodies” (bwakanka nzoto), causing women and men to “behave like snakes” (na zali ko bina lokolo nioka). The body is not so much “harmed” as it becomes a site of transgression, the locus of a blurring – between the transcendental and the empirical, the material and the psychic. In addition to existing as flux, the body is also a force-field of contrasts. Music engages in a struggle with these forces. Never simply movement of the human form, Congolese dance embodies something that resembles a search for original life, for perpetual genesis, and, through this, for an ideal of happiness and serenity.

Paradoxically, a state of serenity is attained through noise, screams and trance. This is the case in ndombolo, wherein sounds, at times, are simplified to the extreme:  hardly any high-pitched trumpets ringing out, building crescendos towards a moment of triumph, as in Hugh Masekela’s music; no brass instruments with thundering resonance; no saxophone, as in the styles of Manu Dibango or Fela Anikulapo Kuti; rarely any swaying rhythm, as in the late Franco’s rumba. Instead, orchestral clangings evoke the confusion of life. Interruptions are fast and frequent. Furious dancing, especially by women, is interspersed, here and there, with melancholic vocal phrases, the sombre notes of a guitar, and, now and then, flowing sequences of elegant sound.

Everything suggests a relationship with the body made up of derision and excess, tamed fear, rage, blows and insults, extreme parody, all at the centre of an aggressive mass of sound, interrupted from time to time by a guitar sequence. Still, for all its torrid heat, ndombolo aims to transform the body into a figure of life. With ugliness and abjection all about, the goal of the noise is to compel the body to escape from itself. To allow for this exit, the music turns the hips and buttocks into a pendulum. The flexed posterior becomes a parachute, then a vacuum-cleaner and a suction pad. It is transformed into a semi-autonomous force, in touch at every shift and sway with the world of sensation.

The other path to serenity is through listening to the music itself, its melodies, rhythms, tensions, and lyrics. The very notion of serenity assumes that each subject is an ego endowed with the ability to act on its own body. Subjects can dispossess or rid themselves of their bodies, even if only temporarily. Thus, in Congolese dance, the opposition between body and mind becomes blurred. Dance emerges as the site of a “dual life,” wherein all truth, all beauty has multiple meanings. In a sociological context where misery, anguish, trauma, terror and horror are not only daily realities, but constitute the state of the subject, dancing becomes a way of journeying outside the self.

Because death in this context is one of the general rules of life, and because, to a large extent, “everything ends by returning to the great dormant state of matter” (Nietzsche), this temporary sojourn outside of the self – this is joy. This may be one reason that dancing to Congolese music involves, paradoxically, a radicalisation of nihilism. All meaning here emerges from an already existing radical non-meaning: the state of the ugly and the abject. All beauty emerges from this state of near-boundless laideur, from this other-world of gregariousness and ecstasy, truth and lies, vulgarity and the search for dignity. Where being and appearance meet, joy comes forth.  Music serves as a vector of enjoyment, just as does the generalized corruption that surrounds the subject.  It becomes a space for wandering, until the being towards death which has become life itself.

Music as sound scream

At the heart of the music is the scream.  No figure of speech, this.  The scream is an interpellation, a call to the audience produced as part of the musical spectacle.  Known also, in the vocabulary of Congo sounds, as l’animation (literally “the bringing to life”), it is voiced by atalaku – “animators.”   Animation is used to accompany the playing of guitars.  Introduced in the 1970s, it was relatively insignificant until the middle of the 1980s. During the 80s, Zaiko Langa Langa introduced a dance accompanied by screams:

Atalaku, Zekete: Regardez ses fesses. Voyez comment elles bougent!

(Watch her buttocks, see how they move!)

A number of other Congolese bands followed suit.  In the mid-80s, the technique of screams was transformed under the influence of charismatic atalaku, figures such as Dolce Parabolic, Bill Clinton, Tutu Kalondji, Celeo Scram (Animation Maison-Mere); Al-Patchino (Animateur Nouvelle Ecriture); Robert Ekokota (Wenge Musica); and Theo Mbala Ambassadeur. Atalaku draw their names from multiple universes:  the world of medicine (Gentamycine, Animation Wenge BCBG); of military operations in the age of globalisation (Djuna Mumbafu Colonel Bradi, Animation Delta Force); high-tech communications technology associated with secret operations (3615 Code Niawu); or Egyptian mythology (Shora Pharaon).  Each atalaku strives to forge his own style, but all make use of folklore. They endeavour to coordinate screams and musical instruments to produce an effect of calling out and to the dancers, harmonising sound and movement:  the atalaku screams, instructing the dancers as to what step should be performed.

Screams infuse the musical performance with a torrid and turbulent atmosphere. “The words, the phrases, in crude flights of oratory, burst forth intuitively from the mouth of the atalaku like lava from a volcano,” writes one commentator. The atalaku cheers on the dancers and “incites them to further passion, creativity and technical brilliance … They embellish the dance, loading it with fantasies and trills of sound, raising it ever closer to the pinnacle. The rhythm of the percussion has no sooner faded than it is replaced by the hysterical animation of the atalaku. This time, the atalaku is accompanied by a brisk and lively chorus, and constructs the phraseology of the screams around a theme parallel to the main text of the work, riding on the back of the dancer’s skill in a mysterious journey between gesture and being.”

Baby, do you see how this girl rolls her hips? I can hardly contain myself, look, but look, look…

 My brother, we have to collect the crumbs they have left us. Let’s go, come, if you refuse, what shall we eat?

 Can you feel it, this emotion? Let us destroy the elixir, right now.

 My young brother, I cry every day, because where are we going to live? In Europe they want no more of us, and here at home, there is nothing but trouble.

Comrade in exile, why do you stab me in the back? Should we distrust our childhood friends?

 Long live the weed!

 Let’s let go, my brother, let go for real!

 Shamukwale: My brother is returning the money you have stolen. There is no point in killing me, there is no point in hurting me.

 My mother is the mistress of my father’s best friend. My mother’s best friend is now sleeping with my father. How far can immorality go?

 Empty the truck! Cemetery full!

That the technique of screams was introduced in the 1980s is not coincidental. The 80s in Congo were a time of multiple crises. Music, in this context, was transformed into an instrument of social revolt. Revolt, however, always went hand in hand with uneasy compromise. A number of musicians were thus found themselves singing the praises of “Saddam Hussein,” the nickname given to Mobutu Sese Seko’s son, who was the patron of various bands in Kinshasa.

But the music nevertheless remained an expression of hate.  Instruments – drums, beating faster, synthesisers, bass guitars – took to mimicking the winds of destruction howling through the country.  Sounds of suffering and social fragmentation echoed through the music. The spectacle of bloodshed and dismemberment that was Congo became the spectacle of the song. Such is the source of the screams, cries, moans and groans – all forms of utterance that resist language – which litter Congolese music at the close of twentieth century. And so the scream, like melody, rhythm and percussion, becomes a bridge between pain and its expression as language.

Occasionally, the music went wild:  dancing so as to fail to die (or, if dying, doing so from dance). Music was transformed into a receptacle for the emotions, the trauma and repression of the everyday.   Music was war, its sound the sounds of bullets and submachine guns.  Even the dress of the bands turned militaristic.  Nothing was simple, nothing was clear.  Lyrics came in a surfeit of metaphors, parables and hyperbole.  Each word could mean two or three different things and quotation, in a manner of cannibalism, became the norm.

Scene and spectacle

Stade de Bercy (Paris), 2000.  On the stage, Werrason, of Wenge Musica Maison Mère. The performance starts off with a cascade of guitars and voices. The musicians are dressed in black and white uniforms. Werrason, wearing a leather shirt and trousers, appears in the middle of a song. The solo guitar is unobtrusive, leaving space for lead musician’s voice, which in turn alternates with the voices of a chorus. The song proceeds as if in a Christian litany. The names of artists, both dead and alive, are called out, accompanied by faint gestures, in deep communion with a tradition hailing back to Franco. The drums are almost inaudible. Now and then, the guitar seeks to take the lead, but half-heartedly, and is immediately drowned out by the singing.

Suddenly a group of women appear dressed like soldiers. They sport striking hairdos; some are redheads, others blondes. They are wearing a variety of shoe styles, from boots to Nike trainers. The choreography is formal, controlled by the screams of an atalaku draped in a blue Congolese flag covered with stars. Now and then, the breaks initiated by the lead guitar and the atalaku introduce a spasmodic and jerky rhythm, which provokes a frenzy of movement (legs, pelvis, loins, posterior), synchronised, but free enough to allow for personal style. Two atalakus reply to one other as if in an echo. The women begin to dance like crabs, lined up in pairs, with a leader dressed in an orange uniform, like a mineworker. They open their legs, then close them, accordion-style, move their behinds, slightly off balance, not square on their feet, but on the tips of their toes, now and then with both arms on the head or around the neck. At the same time they turn their heads briefly to the left, and then to the right. Suddenly, they turn their backs on the audience and begin rotating their hips in front of the men, their buttocks facing the audience before they withdraw.

Now everyone begins to dance. First squatting down, then forwards and backwards, to the left and to the right, arms raised. The movements are clearly choreographed, but always leaving room for individual style, depending on the shape of the body. Everyone kneels.  Then comes an abrupt break.  All of the buttocks on stage turn to toward the audience in a series of movements simultaneously semi-erotic and -obscene.  As seconds, then minutes, pass, the boundary between these two registers is erased. The dancers move as if penetrating and withdrawing, thrusting, as in an act of unbridled copulation.  The end comes with the furious spasms of an imaginary ejaculation.

The choreography is relatively free and informal.  Midway, it is broken by a duel between two men – a kind of phallic collision. Each holds his scrotum, legs slightly lifted. Suddenly, both spread their legs, like animals about to satisfy their needs, then they start to spin furiously. The dance is centred around the hips, which the rest of the body endeavours to move to the front and then to the back.  Both hands rest on the pelvis, which is rotated over and over again. There are fake moves – feints – first of one leg, then the other, as the rump is thrust violently backwards, then projected forward and back again.

They feel for their testicles, black bodies swamped in sweat, gleaming under the effect of the lights and the vivid colours. They pretend to tickle, then to caress themselves, then halt and let out a deep sigh. The buttocks are held in a position enhanced by the dancer’s plump flesh. They pretend to introduce the penis into an imaginary vagina and then withdraw. They perform somersaults. They place their feet in imaginary stirrups and mount, before setting off at a fast trot. They wring their hands in joy. Then, as in a saddle, they sit bolt upright, closing the legs and enjoying an intense, sensual friction. They twist and turn like satisfied grass snakes, letting out cries as they thrust and jerk, moving their loins in a simulation of masturbation, the backside clearly visible, prepared for the climax of release.

Everything, or almost everything, in this performance seeks to be seen. Here, the music is above all a language: the language of conscious and unconscious desires. It keeps all the senses on high alert. Images and scenes that are the stuff of life itself scroll past behind the spectacle. Everything with a rhythm is appropriated by the sound – a bird’s song, the staccato of a submachine gun, their cadences linked and superimposed. The tone changes constantly. Each construction is temporary.

The body remains at the centre of the performance. Certain parts of the body, more than others, play a predominant role as the turmoil of sound increases. The dancers retreat further into themselves, seeking to become one with the sound. At the same time, the dance distances them from themselves; their existence onstage takes over:  they are no longer who they are in “real” life. The dance takes place at the very centre of this alienation from the self.

Song and melody

As the spectacle unfurls, time becomes transient, unstable, ephemeral.  Music tells time as it is experienced daily on the streets of Kinshasa. Skilful assemblages of elongations and extensions, curtailments and violent contractions of sounds, bridged by abrupt transitions, are the syntax of the tale.

Thus Koffi Olomide.  He opens the first piece of Effrakata 2 with rapid guitar playing. This is quickly joined – and modified – by an atalaku, who produces sounds which are at times screams, sometimes simply noise, or song, as the artist loses himself in a long litany of names. This cacophony is toned down, from time to time, by a chorus which is itself regularly interrupted by a combination of lead guitar, bass and percussion. Once in a while, the lead guitar provides the harmonic framework of the accompaniment. This interweaving of sounds paradoxically produces a strongly syncopated rhythm, which is interrupted by spasmodic phrases. Nothing is stable in this composition. There are no sustained breaks. Each instrument interrupts another, taking its turn before fading or being extinguished by another instrument, by the atalaku, or the chorus. Then, it all ends as it began, without ever reaching a peak, and with no clear conclusion.

But an unstable, transient, and ephemeral concept of time carries with it problems of length. In Congolese melodies, the idea of length is almost always combined with that of richness. Length and richness are typically achieved in two ways: by means of the superimposition, flow, and synthesis of voices and by instrumental cycles intended to evoke a build-up in the depth of the polyphony. But even here, there are always breaks and ruptures.

A piece by Wenge Musica (1999) is characteristic in this respect.  It opens with what resembles an organised harmony, brought to life by a chorus in which each voice is sweeter than the next.  This chorus is at times accompanied, at times preceded, by a lead guitar sharply distinguished from the other instruments. This first sequence is soon interrupted, however, and a new phase begins in which three different voices intervene, one low, one higher, with the chorus taking up a middle level lulled by the sound of guitar. During the third phase, the guitar openly takes the lead, audibly influencing the chorus. Suddenly, what was until then a relatively balanced melody is disturbed by the intoxicated voice of the atalaku. To the latter’s screams is added a rhythm which gradually becomes more and more spasmodic. The lead guitar is soon drowned by the voice of the atalaku, whose calls become increasingly shrill. Then this moment of “disorder” and “cacophony” is brought under control, as the lead guitar re-emerges and exercises sufficient authority to discipline both the singing and the screams.

In both pieces – by Olomide and Wenge Musica – music reflects the colourful, capricious existence that defines the regime of the ugly.  It is an existence comprised of sudden faintings into nothingness and of fleeting patches of light. In this heavy atmosphere which all are condemned to breathe, the beast exhales. The animal side of power is sometimes disguised, sometimes mischievous. Impassive demon, it forces those who live in its shadow into a headlong rush for their dreams, a ride on the tiger’s back. This is partly what is expressed in dancing. The voracity, the insatiability, cruelty and repugnance, the criminality and cannibalism that stand at the heart of power provoke harsh screams, but also melancholy songs, in which a profound desire for duration and sensation haunts the sombre notes of the guitar.  So Zaiko Langa Langa (2003).

Outro:  Beauty

Here is a world in which everyone behaves like a slave, everyone leads a life of misery and shady dealings, and procreation, life and murder are but one and the same thing. Yet Nietzsche’s statement that “it is impossible for a man fighting for his survival to be an artist” turns out to be false.  It is contradicted by the insatiable enthusiasm for existence expressed in Congolese music. In such a torrid space, what then is jubilation? It is essentially the capacity for disguise and dissimulation. Congolese music carries with it illusion, sycophancy, lies, deception, and ostentatiousness, making the dancing subject into someone who is putting on an act for himself and others alike. The obligation to lie en masse, distortion, and the various ways of counterfeiting life that are life in Kinshasa find their best form of expression in dance. For, to dance in a regime of the ugly and the abject, is to rid oneself, in an instant, of the labour of the slave. Suddenly, the demon falls silent. Shaped and sculpted by sound, the subject relinquishes himself, erases from her face the expression of destitution.

At the same time, jubilation is an expression of the mixture of sensual delight and cruelty so characteristic of the regime of the ugly and the abject. There is always a grotesque and brutal power to be found in jubilation. What Nietzsche called “the duplicity of the mad” comes to life in the outburst of frenetic activity that is dance and the spaces of transfiguration that are the spectacle:

Pain awakens joy, jubilation in the chest rips out cries of agony. From the most sublime joy echoes the cry of horror or the longingly plaintive lament over an irreparable loss.

Such is beauty.

This piece features in the Chimurenga Magazine 06: Orphans of Fanon (October 2004). To purchase in print, or as a PDF, head to our online shop.

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