April 2007

“We Sing Everything. We Have Nothing Else”

Despite decades of poverty, war and dictatorship, the Congo has the richest musical history in Africa. But today it’s teeming with decadent pop stars, wannabe playas and street hustlers angling for their cut. Welcome to the most desperate scene on earth.

By Eric Pape

A polished yellow Hummer with tinted windows coasts over potholes and debris toward an intersection lined with metal-roofed shacks and street-side vendors hawking watches, sunglasses, and sodas. Young men loiter and bicker near ragged beggars and open sewer trenches. Then someone reads the Hummer’s license plate and yells out “MM!” a local abbreviation for “Rich Man.” As the rest of the crowd looks closer, they realize that a pop star is lounging in the cush backseat. They call out his name, Koffi Olomide, until a window opens. Air conditioning spills out into the blazing heat. “What do you want?” Rich Man says, in a studied, soft baritone.

Pognon!” one kid shouts in French. “Dough.”

“Papa!” young men plead from all directions.

“Give us some money,” one demands.

Rich Man hands a stack of bills to the guy standing nearest to the window and orders him to share. But when the crowd swells—some wild-eyed with hunger and dehydration, some on crutches, still others scooting along the ground with their useless legs trailing behind—the cash dump seems more like cynical self-defense than guilt-induced compassion. Boys and men push, shove, and even wrestle in the dusty street, as the Hummer emerges from the scrum unscathed.

· · ·

This is Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the heart of central Africa, where the decadent flaunt their wealth in one of the most devastated nations on earth. As the Congo River runs from the country’s heartland to the capital near its western edge, the nation’s music also seems to pump from countless diverse regions through the city known as “Kin.” The country’s artistic wealth may rival its rich diamond and gold deposits, but Kinshasa’s culture of corruption, moral decay, and negligible resources have created a music scene that can be best described as Darwinian. It’s a place where the average musician survives by writing songs that shout-out rich, powerful patrons—politicians, criminals, or foreign “investors” —who pay a nominal fee for the privilege. An absurd world where even the biggest pop stars feel compelled to offer tributes to regional warlords.

Once the country’s anchor, Kinshasa today is the center of international efforts to resuscitate a nation (formerly known as Zaïre) scarred by what has been called Africa’s World War, which lasted from 1996 until 2003. The conflict started as a sideshow to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, but it soon became the region’s even more deadly main attraction. Starvation, disease, pillaging and gang rape were common. Precious resources like diamonds, gold, cobalt, oil, and timber helped to draw eight neighboring countries into the fighting; in all, more than 20 armies or rogue fighting forces clashed. Nearly 4 million were killed-with more than a million others displaced-the highest single-war total since World War II.

The hardship drove hundreds of thousands of country dwellers-including thousands of former child soldiers-into the capital. It left Kinshasa’s dynamic music scene, which has long been one of the few gateways to a better life, on more perilous ground than ever. But Congolese music, rather than reflect the horror in society, has always danced on the tumult, it’s dominant sound being soukous, from the French word secouer, meaning “to shake.”

Soukous is rooted in 1930s Caribbean music, which evolved into African big-band versions of the Cuban rumba—dubbed “lingala” or “congo” —and enjoyed great popularity across the continent in the 1950s and ’60s. By the early ’70s, the group Zaïko Langa Langa (known as “the Congolese Beatles”) pioneered modern soukous, dumping the horn sections and wind instruments and rocking out by emphasizing the snare drum and slick electric guitars. The result was high-energy music that spawned dozens of hits and dance crazes, stretching from big-city Africa to major European capitals. It also launched the careers of many of the 20-strong band’s members, most notably world-music legend Papa Wemba.

But by the ’90s, artists like Koffi Olomide (a Wemba protégé) and the group Wenge Musica were turning soukous into the raunchy dance music ndombolo, which inspired convulsive booty-shaking across the region and into the Congolese diaspora of Europe and the United States. But while the country’s political and economic structure crumbled, the songs still celebrated outrageous wealth (Olomide was seen wearing fur coats in the tropics). And choreographers almost seemed to mock the grim landscape—one dance mimicked walking and hopping through a minefield.

Now, after years of war, and with masses of nobodies desperately clinging to meager hopes of pop star success, you end up with today’s surreal, rigidly hierarchical music scene. At the top, stars like Olomide and Wemba, as well as J.B. Mpiana and Werrason, still display expensive cars, scantily clad women, and conspicuous bling in videos and onstage. Papa Wemba and Olomide have international followings and can charge up to $80 per seat for a local concert. (Kinshasa has a large upper class of international aide workers, military officials, politicians, and businessmen, such as diamond traders and their entourages). Popular artists make little money in the Congo from CDs and cassettes, both of which are quickly copied and hawked for a couple of bucks on the streets.

Another class of musicians aspires to such stardom by projecting a second-hand image of wealth and glamour. Fally Ipupa, whose soaring vocals highlight strummed guitar ballads, is a flashy Olomide protégé. Less brazen artists perform in a relatively new style called “other music,” which incorporates elements of rap, folk, jazz, and Caribbean music. In one song, “other” musician Jean Goubald sings plaintively and powerfully from the point of view of an adolescent soldier searching for his lost childhood. The rap group Kinshasa Mafia Style (KMS) decry a bribery-driven society. But mostly, it is a scene of disenfranchised musicians who try to mobilize followings in their neighborhoods while hustling for handouts.

Finally, there is the music of the street itself-from the homeless kids singing as they bang sticks on rusty car rims to the local mechanic blasting songs into the wee hours, to the policemen who sing as they run up and down stairs for exercise, to the laborers packed into truck beds who vocalize as they’re transported through town. Music is everywhere in Kinshasa. For all but the wealthy, going out at night usually means singing and dancing in a vacant lot, a dirt-floor “bar,” or any outdoor space.

“We can’t go to the movies or shopping,” says Tshala Muana, the hip-shaking “Siren of Soukous,” who has largely given up music to work in politics. “Here, it is all music. It is soccer once in a while, but music is every day. We sing village songs or memories or Celine Dion or Michael Jackson. We sing everything. We have nothing else.”

Out of all this, miracles do happen. As music fans from Brooklyn to Berlin to the Bay Area recently learned, Kinshasa’s scene is still on the cutting edge. In a country that has endured so much, it’s not surprising that the songs often deal with death—just not in the way that one might expect. Referred to as “Konono music” (after the group most identified with the style) this sound migrated to Kinshasa about 30 years ago via minstrels from near the Angolan border who believed that their spiritual role was to link the living to the dead. When the soft percussive thumping of their small metallic thumb piano (known as a likembés) was overwhelmed by the raucous noise on the outskirts of Kinshasa, they created motley Rube Goldberg┬-like amplification systems. Old car alternators became microphones that pumped music through colonial-era megaphones. Unable to eliminate feedback and distortion, the musicians integrated it into their sound, adding grooves pounded out on frying pan lids and car parts, under call-and-response chants. The harsh-yet-hypnotic polyrhythmic music, released in the west via two collections called Congotronics 1 and 2, caught on in dance clubs and have sold tens of thousands of copies in Europe and the U.S., inspiring Konono No. 1’s international tour last fall. It’s such a success story that inspires a million dreams—and delusions—back in Kinshasa.

· · ·

I meet Jean-Rene Mbungo in October 2006 when he asks me for bus fare home. He is clad in a black Marithé Francois Girbaud long-sleeve T-shirt, cuffed blue jeans, a designer watch, and a white hat that looks like it was made for a flamboyant fisherman. In one ear, JR, as he is known, wears a diamond ring and his right wrist is bound by a black leather Dolce & Gabbana bracelet with silver studs.

“It is real,” he says firmly. This 23-year-old is so casually chic and utterly metrosexual he looks as if he could have been leaving Joe’s Pub in Manhattan after a soul gig. Instead, he’s attending a political rally for interim president and candidate Joseph Kabila (who was installed in power after his father, President Laurent Kabila, was murdered by a bodyguard in 2003). “You never know what they’ll give out,” JR says. It could be T-shirts, food, or even money, as JR well knows from his visits to several rallies for Kabila’s opponent, Jean-Pierre Bemba.

“When you have $10, that’s a lot,” Papa Wemba, who opened up for Peter Gabriel on his massive Secret World tour in the early ’90s, tells me last fall. “If money blows in the wind, people will chase it. It describes the misery of our people. In Europe, this would be a scandal.”

JR proudly says that he is a member of the band Quartier Bel-Air, which is on indefinite sabbatical because their leader went to France to record a CD. JR’s own recording efforts fell apart after he spent his entire savings of $200—several months’ salary—in a studio last year before even laying down vocal tracks. With his wife pressuring him to find work so they can care for their sick infant, JR joined this rally to ask Kabila for assistance. To JR, this was job prospecting. If he could sing for Kabila, he might get a paying gig for the day or the chance to perform at other political rallies. Unfortunately, his audience was limited to other hopefuls, hungry women, and Kabila’s military police.

Despite the problems he faces as one of the multitude of singers and musicians on the streets, JR exudes self-confidence. “I was born with the music in me,” he says. “At ten, I started singing in an orchestra of 18 people.” He pauses. “If I went to your country, I’d become a big star.”

Down the street, dehydrated Kabila “supporters” stand around in the baking midday sun. As I pass, a crowd of men gathers behind me.

“We want me some money,” one demands.

“Water,” says another.

“Shouldn’t you guys be talking to Kabila?” I reply, quickening my pace. “You did walk across town to see him.”

“I’m hungry,” one very muscular man calls out.

The only food I have is some peanuts in a plastic bag. I pass them around, and that’s when I get a good look at the group-a dozen stunningly hip young men, mostly in their 20s. Some wear do-rags, earrings, and big stone necklaces. Others have stylish hair braids, (fake) brand-name sportswear, and Congolese knockoffs of black Converse sneakers.

“Aren’t you guys sort of well-dressed to be here?” I ask.

“We’re musicians,” one says. The others nod. I briefly wonder whether all musicians in Kinshasa look like cherubic Harlem rappers. I ask who sings.

“Me,” a man with a do-rag says. “And him,” he adds, pointing at another guy whose short dreads stick out from a multicolored baseball cap. “He’s the president.”

He isn’t talking about Kabila. He’s referring to the “president” of their band, Talon LumiĆre (Heel of Light). The person who throughout most of the world would be considered the lead singer gets an honored title here. Another young man, who wears wrap-around sunglasses and goes by the name X-Or, declares: “And I am the Secretary General.”

The importance of titles in Kinshasa can be traced back to the reign of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. In 1960, Belgium pulled out of the Congo after brutally exploiting the colony for decades, and the country enjoyed its first democratic election. But with Belgian influence still strong, mining interests of great importance to the west, and Mobutu stirring up fears of communism in the region, the CIA backed his successful 1965 military coup. Mobutu went on to set a template for garish authoritarian power that is firmly imprinted on Congolese society nearly a decade after his death in exile. A man who demanded glorification while inspiring terror, Mobutu defined the way that most Kinshasans interact with authority even today. His ferociousness toward real or perceived enemies resulted in grotesque torture and high-profile executions, sometimes before crowded stadium audiences. One resistance figure who returned from exile after a promise of amnesty was publicly mutilated-his limbs amputated one by one-while he was still alive.

Later, Mobutu moved from the stick to the carrot by instituting a system of graft that funneled billions of dollars to Swiss bank accounts, even as Zaire’s infrastructure collapsed and the nation defaulted on international loans. Still, his cult of personality surged to absurd proportions. He took on the name Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga (translation: “The all-powerful warrior who, thanks to his endurance and unbending victorious will, shall advance from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake”). The nightly news opened on the image of Mobutu descending from clouds.

But as such fanfare lost its impact, and corruption worsened in the ’70s, Mobutu sought other ways to win over the people and began co-opting the nation’s thriving music scene. He ordered traditional songs and dances performed at political rallies, but insisted the lyrics be changed to celebrate Zairian identity and Mobutu himself. Political praise songs flourished, primarily because the musicians were paid, directly or indirectly, by the state. It created a perverse situation: an oppressive, authoritarian leader who strongly supported his country’s musicians-as long as they lauded him.

It is no surprise, then, that Congolese music has almost no history of artistic rebellion or direct criticism. Lyrics rarely go beyond highlighting the challenges of daily life; they almost never remark upon the venal misdeeds that make those challenges insurmountable. “There are, traditionally, no activist artists in the Congo,” says Papa Wemba. “Today, [most] people sing about carnal love. We don’t denounce politics for fear of being jailed or killed, even if there is a crisis. It is permanent, this fear. Historically, a musician’s job was to glorify the chief, like in a village.”

It is difficult to attend any major concert in the Congo, or even listen to the radio, without hearing lyrical shout-outs that salute politicians, businessmen, military officials, or other high-profile figures. This is libanga, the Congolese language of musical flattery. In one stirring live performance, Koffi Olomide dished up libanga for Kinshasa’s imposing chief of police: “Commander Raus et la ville est tranquille” (“[With] Commander Raus, the city is calm”). The more prominent the mention, the higher the fee-generally from $200 to $2,000.

When Werrason boasts that he is a superstar who can fill the biggest stadiums, sell more CDs and cassettes than anyone, and influence elections, he is basically negotiating for an increase in his rates. For Werrason, libanga is simply advertising. Others in the Kinshasa scene say that for Werrason, it makes no difference if he is shouting out a humanitarian organization, a corporation, or even a diamond smuggler, as long as he’s paid. “Western Union got in contact,” he says. “Usually, (a company or an individual will) write me by e-mail and say they want a ‘mention.’ I say, ‘Transfer money to my account.’” The fruit of that transfer is clear. A few minutes into his song “King of the Forest,” whose flashy video is filled with pricey sports cars and a bevy of women in bikinis, he suddenly declares: “Western Union, the fastest way to send money abroad.” Unlike rappers who name-check Hennessy and Cristal as essential to a bling lifestyle, this is a straight-up commercial endorsement.

The target audience for many such plugs are the more prosperous Congolese immigrants in places like Paris, Brussels, and Oakland, who send money back home, which helps explain Western Union’s interest. (A Western Union representative said that the company “supports African artists when we can.”) When a diamond dealer pays top dollar to have his name injected in a chorus, it is to spread his fame as far as possible, and the artist who can do that best will get the most money. As libanga has become the norm, those who do cash in tend to wave it in everybody’s face.

“When I arrive in a neighborhood, people start to call out my name,” says guitarist and singer Jean Goubald. “They want me to drop money out the window. I don’t. They think I’m rich. I’m not. But other musicians do it. They want to give the impression that they are rich, even though the songwriters’ rights association is going out of business. If we earned royalties on our songs, we might get rid of libanga.”

That is unlikely, but Werrason, for one, learned a grave lesson about selling his services during the presidential campaign. Soon after accepting what he described as a “symbolic amount” of money to sing on behalf of Joseph Kabila, a bus pulled up in front of his rehearsal studio. Thugs filed out, broke in, stole musical instruments and computer equipment, then set the place on fire.

“It was [presidential candidate] Jean-Pierre Bemba’s supporters,” alleges Werrason. “Bemba’s people said it wasn’t them, but it was.” Werrason made typically outrageous claims, saying he lost $250,000 in materials, for which he is seeking compensation-from Kabila.

· · ·

They live on the edge of urban darkness. You might hear them scraping in the dirt as you sip a beer on an outdoor patio. Or lurking between parked cars, behind palm trees. Some even climb out of uncovered sewer holes or rise out of filth-laden drainage ditches. Everyone in Kinshasa knows that the night belongs to the unwanted children of the slums of Kinshasa. Many came to the big city in search of opportunities but ended up becoming untouchables.

Up close, their eyes often have the yellowy glaze of an old street lamp. Their breath stinks of toxicity-the residue of huffed glue or shoe polish. When they have a little money, they reek of cheap alcohol or marijuana. In the areas where they skulk, there is little sympathy. Nightclubs, pizzerias, and gas stations hire security personnel armed with sticks. Ask a guard why and he will invariably use the name with which Papa Wemba tagged them long ago: “shege,” for rough and radical Che Guevara-like kids. Shege is an ugly word, a dehumanizing epithet that encapsulates the fears of the privileged and the tiny middle class.

But on election day, no one on Kinshasa’s main drag was denigrating the shege. Walking down the Boulevard du 30 juin on the morning of October 30, 2006, was like surveying a ghost town. Amid fear that fighting would break out between those loyal to the opposing candidates, many of the wealthy simply left the country. There was no urban activity. No traffic. Shops and restaurants were shuttered. Street vendors had taken the day off. People voted in their neighborhoods and returned home to pray that the United Nations, which was overseeing the election with the largest peacekeeping mission in its history, could prevent violence from breaking out. Just about the only people on the boulevard were the shege and the walking—or crawling—wounded.

When the votes were finally counted, Kabila won a decisive victory, making him the country’s first elected president in more than 40 years. And after protests of election irregularities and some shootouts-minor, by national standards-the fiery rebel leader Bemba accepted defeat. Ultimately, the election amounted to a small step forward, as the scarred nation tried to put itself back together like a jigsaw puzzle that’s missing several key pieces.

But on that day last October, nobody knew that the Democratic Republic of Congo would enjoy a rare electoral success story. Rumors flew that Kabila had stationed foreign mercenaries along the nearby Congo River, just in case, and that Bemba loyalists were gathering at another border. As I walk down the boulevard, I realize that it’s the first time no one is harassing me for money.

It’s because I’m walking with Patrick Manzenze Mangala, a man in a ragged JE VOTE JOSEPH KABILA T-shirt with two crooked buckteeth jutting out from his mouth. Patrick looks much younger than his 23 years. Born the eighth of nine children to civil servants who strained to make ends meet and then divorced, Patrick spent virtually all of his teen years sleeping on cardboard on the verandas of closed restaurants. Now he easily chronicles the shege’s suffering, like a tour guide of misery. He might not aspire to be a professional singer, and his music may amount to little more than the street noise that surrounds him, but he has the socially conscious street rap of Kinshasa down pat.

“We, the shege, are like cliff climbers; we can stick to walls,” he says, as though speaking of comic book heroes. “We are courageous. We have to know many things just to survive.”

When I’d first met Patrick, outside the Ministry of Social Affairs on Election Day, his curled-in body language projected fragility and anguish, as he slowly dragged his sandals in the dirt. But now, among the desolation around us, he proudly struts, almost projecting the confidence of a rebel leader.

“I have an organization,” he says of the homeless youth. “These are some of my members. They report to me.”

Before you traverse the streets of Kinshasa—an activity discouraged by foreign aid workers as well as locals—you will be warned not to believe what you hear. It is generally good advice. Nearly everyone who approaches you on the street has a story of woe, leading up to the pitch: “Could you spare a dime ╔ or 20 bucks.” Some tales are surely true; many are complex lies. So I’m skeptical of Patrick’s claim that he is the prince of the shege. His cocky tone seems to echo that of Werrason or of a politician arranging deals. From Mobutu to the pop stars to the most neglected souls on the streets, this dynamic is the same: If you appear powerful enough to promise some crumbs of recompense, people will follow you. And if you’re a follower, maybe you can begin to negotiate your way to greater power and wealth.

Then Patrick delivers his spiel. After a wrenching litany of reasons why I should give him money—to share it with the squalid humanity around us, for one—he offers insight into enduring Congolese power relations. “You must have pity on us,” he says. “Have pity and it will help you.” It will help my network of patronage, my conscience, my sense of solidarity, and even my relationship to God, he says.

On the boulevard, Patrick has already positioned himself as the strongest, healthiest, and most able. With his members focused completely on him, his swagger almost seems intimidating. And with his taut biceps, he is an imposing presence. In the eyes of his fellow shege, there are hints of deference, awe. They really do respect him. The question is the same for Patrick or Kabila or the countless Kinshasa singers who might eventually get before a microphone. Will they use their moment in the spotlight to help bring about change? Or will they just empower themselves and return to throw a few bills into the breeze?

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