Forty Years of History, Thirty Seconds of Joy

By ROBERT CHRISTGAU

Just before midnight at Manhattan’s Irving Plaza last November 8, two hours after the announced showtime for the Congolese soukous ensemble JB Mpiana & Wenge Musica BCBG, I listened along with as many as 80 smartly dressed Africans while a band comprising two guitars, two synthesizers, bass, congas, and trap drums was gradually augmented by six vocalists. Four of these were singers, two “animateurs,” their job whipping up the crowd with shouted slogans and namechecks. All wore identical white T-shirts bearing the message “Peace Grows.” Guitars purled, synths percussed, voices joined and split off — always melodic, always in pulsating motion. I was especially impressed by the sweet, piercing showpiece of a little guy sporting an overstuffed baseball cap and multiple eyebrow rings and by two singers who at around 1 a.m. climaxed the loosely synchronized choreography with competitive somersaults.

Helluva show, except for one thing. Where was JB Mpiana? So the band vamped on as frontmen teasingly promised “the boss” until at last a light-skinned big man progressed out to the vacant center mike. No T-shirt for the boss — he wore a jacket with a JB Mpiana billboard on the back and brought along two female dancers, the plumper of whom chewed gum through the entire concert. Less than two minutes after Mpiana added his pretty, soaring vocals, the wonderful music entered some other realm — a serial climax I felt would never end and couldn’t believe would last another 20 seconds. By my watch, it went on for 22 minutes, but the lull was so momentary that there was no appreciable pause, just a more relaxed ecstatic number that didn’t subside for 25 more minutes, when finally, on my feet for over two hours, I wandered to the back of the somewhat fuller house and sat against a wall, even dozing briefly, only to arise circa 2:30, re-energized by a gently undulating sung chorus that continued for, say, seven minutes and culminated in fans affixing U.S. currency to the musicians’ sweaty bodies. I was so entranced I didn’t notice when Mpiana, who had stopped singing somewhere in there, left the stage. The guitarists kept rippling and the chorus kept harmonizing until the venue lowered a screen behind which the band wound down as the crowd strolled toward the exit. I assume the music ended. But I don’t know when. Next day my legs ached.

I’ve witnessed at least two dozen soukous shows featuring most of the modern greats. Quite a few were terrific, but the only one that ranked with Wenge Musica’s was an equally ill-publicized 1983 affair, the first and last NYC appearance of the Grand Maitre, Luambo Franco. Then I was late, so my balcony ticket spilled me directly onto the otherworldly spectacle of 40 singers, players, dancers, and aides-de-camp surrounding a fat guitarist sitting on a straight-backed chair and overseeing a sebene, which is what the Congolese call those climaxes. In the quarter century since 1983, Franco had died, Zaire had disintegrated, and soukous had fallen into apparently irreversible disrepair. Yet there at Irving Plaza was one of four rival versions of a “fourth-generation” soukous band creating an alternative reality matched by few I’ve experienced in a lifetime of music-going. Hey, soukous is like that. So I floated home, took a lot of notes, and put the night in my memory book. Not everything in this world is meant to be understood.

Six months later, I pulled from my crammed to-read shelf University of Montreal anthropologist Bob W. White’s Rumba Rules, which soon proved the third rather good book about Congolese music in English. The others are by British journalists who’ve lived in Africa: Graeme Ewens’s Franco biography Congo Colossus (1994) and Gary Stewart’s general history Rumba on the River (2000), both of which end their stories with Franco’s death in 1989. Subject to academic publishing’s teaching-load and peer-review stumbling blocks, White’s book suffered even longer lag time, appearing 12 years after he completed his fieldwork in Kinshasa in 1996. It barely mentions Mobutu Sese Seko’s soon-assassinated successor Laurent Kabila, Kabila’s own successor (and son) Joseph Kabila, or the war that has killed four million Congolese and counting, mostly well east of Kinshasa in the Kivus.

Yet although Mobutu still maintained an aura of invincibility in 1996, by then Kinshasa had crossed the line from capital of kleptocracy to anarchic dysfunctionality — ransacked twice as aid dried up post-Cold War and Zaire’s economy crumbled, with Mobutu ensconced in villas far north in his home village or farther north in Europe. Great soukous records still surfaced, but most of them were made in Paris or Brussels, many by émigrés. The deep reason Ewens and especially Stewart stopped in 1989 was that they couldn’t stand what had become of the music they loved. Still a believer, White explains what happened next — including that night in Irving Plaza.

Rumba Rules isn’t perfectly turned. Because most of White’s sources have done fieldwork and quite a few are Congolese, the obligatory academic nods have some jam, but they still drag some, and his grand thesis — that “popular music and politics acted together to reinforce a uniquely modern tradition of authoritarian rule” — feels as if a few too many disaffected African intellectuals were whispering in his ear. Nevertheless, it’s good that he addresses soukous’s knotty political ramifications at all, and most of Rumba Rules is fascinating, even enthralling. White is diffident and relaxed about interlacing the personal and the scholarly. His description of his stint as an animateur in Général Defao’s Big Stars is idea-packed and entertaining, and his analysis of four recent love lyrics as encoded cries of social uncertainty and isolation — the kind of interpretive leap that leaves many popular culture scholars flat on their ass with a twisted ankle — isn’t just convincing, it’s wrenching. Also illuminated are the Mobutuist complicities of Luambo Franco, the compulsory daily animation politique in which workers at every level were required to sing and dance Mobutu’s praises, the evolution and devolution of Wenge Musica, how hard it is to play simple Congolese chords or shake an insecticide-can maraca, the cassette trade, equatorial chieftancy, and the rise of libanga, the prepurchased shout-outs now integral to bandleaders’ cash flow.

But best of all is his detailed account of a Big Star’s life. There’s the borrowing of stage clothes; the mud river of a street that fronts the rehearsal space the band is lucky to have; the regimentation, waiting, discomfort, and fatigue; the routinized arrangements; the four- or five-hour shows; and, several times every night, the “thirty seconds of joy” as a chorus accelerates almost imperceptibly into a sebene, that “source of joy and wonder for hundreds of thousands of young people in the Congolese capital” — and also for White himself and perhaps even his barely paid bandmates. White believes, somehow, that in a world where Bruce Springsteen is the Boss and Bessie Smith was the Empress of the Blues and calypsonians have called themselves Lord Kitchener and Black Stalin, “the tendency of musicians to appropriate official symbols of political power . . . may be unique to the Congo.” Yet he can’t let the sebene go. He says terrible things about Franco, whose sardonic populism paralleled Mobuto’s and whose music was greater for it. He posits a Foucauldian reduction in which Franco’s social criticisms were like Mobuto’s own, serving merely and solely as a safety valve for political resistance as they helped line his capacious pockets. He even repeats the “urban myth” in which Franco had a special chair reserved for him in Mobuto’s office. Yet his acknowledgments name Franco as a “profound” influence “whose music continues to haunt me.” An irresistible concoction that dominated Afropop for decades, soukous is like that.

The vast, ethnically irrational territory King Leopold II of Belgium mapped out as the Congo Free State is so rich in metals, diamonds, rubber, and lumber that, as Adam Hochschild’s 1998 King Leopold’s Ghost establishes, it became the model for European exploitation of Africa, always a step or two more brutal and unmitigated than its French, English, German, and Portuguese counterparts. Michela Wrong’s 2000 In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, a wide-ranging journalistic account that zeroes in on protagonists large and small, describes its disastrous nationhood under the somewhat less brutal but much more inefficient Mobutu. Beginning with an annotated list of 161 acronyms, more than 50 of them parties to the Congolese conflict it outlines invaluably if sometimes numbingly, Gérard Prunier’s 2009 Africa’s World War is almost as dismissive of Laurent Kabila as of Mobutu himself, although it holds out shreds of hope for Joseph and Congo’s future. But from the perspective of that Wenge Musica show — or of the hotel lobby in Abidjan where a soukous band played day and night on my only visit to Africa — it’s striking how thoroughly these three very good books ignore music.

Perhaps resisting the stereotype in which, as Wrong puts it, “Congolese either make music all the time or are petty crooks,” Hochschild instead emphasizes Africa’s influence on cubism. Prunier makes up for attributing Wenge Musica’s 1998 sinking-ship song “Titanic” to “Papa Wenge” by revealing that soukous siren Tshala Muana clocked dollars as Laurent Kabila’s private dancer, but he’s so busy tracking alliances and troop movements that he does well to mention music at all. That leaves Wrong to note that soukous “managed to entrance a continent for more than thirty years” before moving on to La Sape, the mania for designer labels crystallized circa 1980 by the great soukous singer and convicted immigrant smuggler Papa Wemba, known among many other things as Le Pape de la Sape.

I propose that these excellent historians are missing something. While buying the Afrocentric claim that European and American wealth were built on African resources and labor, I would add that, never mind cubism, the dominant movement of 20th century music was built on reconstituted African usages. Economically, this is of small import. Usages are hard to monetize, especially when Europeans and Americans prefer them reconstituted. But it insults their aesthetic power and originality just to bemoan how seductive they are — to complain as do two of White’s African sources, for instance, about the propensity of “the masses” to “clothe themselves in the flashy rags of power so as to reproduce its epistemology,” or of musicians to avoid “workshops and conferences” discussing their nation’s problems. One reason African usages took over 20th-century music was their unparalleled ability to transform tedium, suffering, and worse into — White’s word again — joy. Some would say that for the Congo oppressed — as for the highlife audience in an early-’80s Ghana beset by 100 percent inflation, or the beaten-down township laborers enlivened by state-sanctioned mbaqanga under apartheid — this joy is cheap distraction and escape. In some cases that may be a relevant characterization. But what exactly are these people supposed to do? Stay in school? Attend a workshop? Organize a revolution? Just keeping your spirit intact is a major achievement under the circumstances. Indirect victims of many wars, young Kinois live to fight another day — or maybe, finally, know peace.

That’s not a prediction and I’m not a pollyanna. It’s just an expression of respect — a respect magnified by gratitude. At this distance, soukous has gotten hard to come by. One reason I’m fortunate to have caught that Wenge Musica show is that their only available album (Bouger Bouger) was recorded in 1988, and to check out Général Defao’s Big Stars, I tracked down their primary extant CD (Anthologie Defao) at an importer, where it cost me 25 percent of the estimated Congolese per capita income and came with a DVD of videos lip-synched in a public park. These days, YouTube is a good source, and should you luck into a chance to attend a soukous show, take advantage — likely as not, it’ll beat any record. To taste the tradition, however, start with Franco’s Francophonic or Tabu Ley Rochereau’s The Voice of Lightness. Above all, be glad that between Bob W. White and a bunch of overworked Africans wearing “Peace Grows” T-shirts, evidence is strong that the tradition continues.