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Heart of smartness – DR Congo’s city united in music

Adherents of La Sape (an abbreviation of The Society for the Advancement of Elegant People pose in Kinshasa) . Photo: Junior D. Kannah/AFP via Getty Images - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

SOPHIA DEBOICK on two cities divided by a river but united by style and sounds.

Kinshasa – capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a former Belgian colony – faces Brazzaville – capital of the much smaller, previously French-held, Republic of the Congo – just across the river for which both countries are named.

The two cities are often uttered in the same breath, possessing a shared culture and common tongue in the Bantu language of Lingala and situated a 15-minute boat ride from each other.

But these are warring twins with very different characters. Comparatively sleepy Brazzaville has just a quarter of the population of seething Kinshasa, and a fundamental antagonism established by colonial rivals was exacerbated as the dictatorship established in the DRC in the mid-1960s posed as a bulwark against communism while the Republic of Congo declared itself a Marxist-Leninist state.

Yet, ordinary Congolese have always flowed freely between the two cities, whether fleeing sporadic violence on one side or the other or visiting family and friends who are scattered across both capitals. The scores, if not hundreds, of music bars in both cities, and the flitting of working musicians between them, have been symbolic of this social bond, and the two capitals have an inextricably linked musical history.

One of the Belgian Congo’s educated middle class with no less than a Catholic cardinal for an uncle, Joseph ‘Grand Kalle’ Kabasele went to Kinshasa, then still Léopoldville, in the late 1940s and went on to pioneer the African rumba, becoming the father of modern Congolese music.

Kabasele’s African Jazz evolved out of the group of session musicians employed at Léopoldville’s Opika recording studios, including guitarist Docteur Nico, famed for his finger-picked guitar-playing style, and his fellow guitarist brother Charles ‘Dechaud’ Mwamba.

As the group’s leader and singer, Kabasele took his cue both from the popular Cuban rumba of the day and, more idiosyncratically, the Corsican singer and film star Tino Rossi, who was a known all over the Francophone world in the 1930s.

His romantic, crooning ballads were heard throughout the urban streets of colonial Brazzaville and Léopoldville, and the African rumba inevitably emerged as a blend of international influences.

African Jazz were creating a new, distinctively Congolese sound at a time when the growing clamour for independence made one much-needed, and the band travelled to Brussels in 1960 as entertainers-cum-ambassadors during the round table talks about the future of the country. There they wrote, recorded and performed for the delegates their most celebrated song, Indépendance Cha Cha. It declared ‘Oh, independence – we’ve won it!’, while the first verse listed prominent independence leaders, including first prime minister of the new democratic republic, Patrice Lumumba. Meanwhile, their Table Ronde culminated in an impressive solo by Docteur Nico which rendered the confidence of the new nation in sonic form.

But this was a new nation that would be strangled at birth. Lumumba faced insurgency, an army revolt, and then a coup by army chief of staff Joseph-Désiré Mobutu. Lumumba was executed and the country descended into a civil war that culminated in Mobutu being installed as dictator in 1965, remaining there for more than 30 years (the 200-metre Limete Tower, dedicated to Lumumba and one of Kinshasa’s main landmarks, was erected by Mobutu in 1971 as the former prime minister was rehabilitated by the regime as a martyr).

As a scarred nation, the DRC struggled for stability, and just as Lumumba had angrily rebutted Belgian king Baudouin’s praise of his predecessor Léopold II at the transfer of power ceremony at the parliament building in Léopoldville in June 1960, speaking of ‘wounds still too fresh and painful to be driven from our memory’, Kabasele wrote Bilombe ba Gagne (The Courageous Have Won), which included the lines ‘Such was the state of things yesterday/ The black man knew poverty/ Forced labour and the whip’. His 1961 B side, To Yokana Tolimbisana Na Congo (Let’s Understand and Forgive in the Congo) pleaded for Congolese unity as things spiralled out of control.

African Jazz disbanded in 1963, with Docteur Nico and future icon Tabu Ley Rochereau, a man of huge musical influence and fecundity, writing over 3,000 songs (he also fathered 68 children), forming African Fiesta, who all but invented the soukous style of pop music – one far more frenetic than the comparatively meditative rumba – and disseminated it across sub-Saharan Africa. But it was OK Jazz, African Jazz’s long-time rivals despite being signed to Kabasele’s own Surboum African Jazz label, who rose as Léopoldville’s premiere band.

More immersed in African sounds than the comparatively genteel Cuban rumba, OK Jazz originated as the session band at Loningisa recording studio in Léopoldville and took their name from the city’s OK Bar, where they had debuted in 1955, later taking on the rather bombastic name of Tout Puissant [all-powerful] OK Jazz. Such boldness was reflective of the character of their frontman, Franco Luambo. Raised in Léopoldville and later proprietor of the city’s Un-Deux-Trois nightclub, Franco was another towering figure in Congolese music.

Franco was a charismatic guitar god who took soukous into a new age, but he also exemplified the corrosive effect on the individual of decades of political oppression in the DRC, as he switched from socially conscious songs that sometimes got him jailed to writing patriotic songs for the Mobutu regime, with which he had become well-connected and through which he had become greatly financially enriched. In a great irony, given his 1987 campaigning song Attention Na SIDA (Beware of AIDS), he fell victim to the pandemic in 1989, just as the disease was picking up a ferocious pace across Africa.

OK Jazz were a band that straddled Léopoldville-Brazzaville, with half the members hailing from the latter and returning there in 1960 when independence came for both nations. There, the native Brazzavilleans, saxophonists Jean Serge Essous and Nino Malapet, and vocalists Edouard ‘Edo’ Ganga and Célestin ‘Célio’ Kouka formed Bantous de la Capitale (‘People of the Capital’).

Touring throughout the region and even in France, where the sounds of the old colony became de rigueur, as well as spawning a dance craze through their 1965 single, Danse le Boucher, left OK Jazz as the biggest band in the Republic of the Congo. Yet, as the government increasingly interfered with the band’s affairs in their attempts to co-opt them, leader Essous left in 1966, although they have carried on in ever-amended form ever since.

Today, Brazzaville is the home of the African Music Council, and the alternating biannual Pan-African Music Festival and the Feux de Brazza traditional music festival, while Kinshasa is still a recording hub and boasts the National Institution of Arts, offering higher education in performance and music. Both are among the only 36 global cities with UNESCO City of Music status.

They have come a long way. The Congo was fixed in the imagination as a place of colonial horror by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the late 19th century, and a century on, civil war again saw the region associated with appalling privations. A scramble for conflict minerals, ethnic tensions and violent men with a lust for power continue to throw these nations further off course when they have already suffered terribly through AIDS, and in the case of the DRC, Ebola. While such adversity and a large dose of mutual suspicion means there is still no physical bridge between Brazzaville and Kinshasa, these are cities bound together through common sufferings, but also through song, having given birth together to the African rumba and soukous – two of the most defiantly joyful musical genres ever heard.

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