Rumba Rules: The Politics of Dance Music in Mobutu's Zaire

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Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) from 1965 until 1997, was fond of saying "happy are those who sing and dance," and his regime energetically promoted the notion of culture as a national resource. During his reign, Zairian popular dance music became a sort of musica franca in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. But how did this privileged form of cultural expression, one primarily known for a sound of sweetness and joy, flourish under one of the continent's most brutal authoritarian regimes? In Rumba Rules, the first ethnography of popular music in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bob W. White describes the economic and political conditions that brought this powerful music industry to its knees in the 1980s, and he explores how popular musicians sought to remain socially relevant in the increasing insecurity of the 1990s. Through White's dynamic descriptions of how bands practiced, performed, and splintered, Congolese speak candidly about political culture, social mobility, and what it means to be a bon chef (good leader) in Mobutu's Zaire.

About the Author:
Bob W. White is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Montreal

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Rumba Rules: The Politics of Dance Music in Mobutu’s Zaire by Bob W. White should be a welcome addition to the library of any fan of Congolese music. This book has descriptive passages that give a delicious insight into the everyday workings of a modern Kinshasa orchestre. Furthermore there is some fascinating information and research that helps explain how Congolese music sits within the national culture and everyday social life of the Congolese people. The book can be justifiably described as an essential read for anyone wishing to gain an extended appreciation of the Congo, its politics and its quirky obsession with music.” - Martin Sinnock, The Beat

“White's poignant research and heavily-referenced text showcases a rather complex and dynamic musical historiography and ethnography of Zaire's (now Congo's) musicians. . . . [A]n in-depth guide to the music and society of a people transformed and shaped by political policies and pressures. The text contains an extensive notes section, bibliography, small discography, and index. Scholars and students of African music with Congolese interests would benefit most from the text’s information. Yet, it is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in music.” - Matthew J. Forss, Callaloo

“[A] pioneering study of its subject.” - Ted Smith, Montreal Review of Books

“[A]n important source of information about one of the most celebrated genres of dance music in Africa. Highly recommended.” - Kazadi wa Mukuna, Choice

“[F]ascinating, even enthralling.” - Robert Christgau, Barnes and Noble Review

Rumba Rules is a really exciting book, definitely worthy of the ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘sorely needed’ labels it is bound to attract. It is full of the basics and the nuances; deeply informative about a place, a scene, a local history, and lived realities; and deeply accountable to debates and discussions about how popular culture encodes a feeling of and for modernity.”—Steven Feld, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Music, University of New Mexico

Rumba Rules ties dance music to dictatorship, band leaders to politicians, in ways that are sensitive to the struggles of Congolese musicians and their fans in Kinshasa. Bob W. White neither diminishes the artistry and entertainment value of musical performances nor over-determines their role in political culture. This is a book that finely theorizes the relationship between aesthetics and political culture through vivid and often amusing storytelling.”—Louise Meintjes, author of Sound of Africa! Making Music Zulu in a South African Studio

“What began with an extraordinary feat of immersion into Kinshasa’s music scene toward the end of Mobutu’s regime has been honed and crafted into a study of Congolese popular culture and politics that is bound to become a classic. A feat of ethnography and a much-needed ray of hope in these messy and tragic times.”—Johannes Fabian, author of Memory against Culture: Arguments and Reminders

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822341123
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Bob W. White is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Montreal.

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Read an Excerpt


The Politics of Dance Music in Mobutu's Zaire
By Bob W. White

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4091-1

Chapter One


IN OCTOBER 1996, WHEN LAURENT DÉSIRÉ KABIla's rebel movement began to gain momentum, many people in Kinshasa found it hard to believe that the rebels would push as far as the nation's capital: "He might take Zaire," a young man told me, "but he'll never take Kinshasa." President Mobutu Sese Seko's declining state of health (he was said to suffer from prostate cancer) and Kabila's military and financial support from other African leaders in the region (especially Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda) proved these predictions wrong. When Kabila's name began to circulate as the leader of an emerging rebel movement in the east, the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaïre (AFDL), relatively little was known about him. A journalist I spoke with told me that people in Kinshasa were ready for Mobutu to go, but that in their hearts they wanted their next leader to be a kinois (someone from Kinshasa). Nonetheless, as Kabila and his troops marched triumphantly into Kinshasa in May 1997, the capital was buzzing with excitement. From loudspeakers and radios all over the city, the musicians of the popular music group Wenge Musica could be heard singing: "Louis de Funès! I saw Fantomas! He was running away! Running Away!" Young people in Kinshasa were quick to make a link between the villain of French popular cinema and Mobutu, who apart from being diabolical was also being chased out of town.

While most people in Kinshasa expressed excitement and optimism about the idea of a Zaire without Mobutu, some of the musicians I spoke with during the transition seemed ambivalent, even confused. Under Mobutu, who ruled Zaire from 1965 to 1997, popular musicians had become accustomed to a system of politics that rewarded them for making public displays of loyalty or for staying out of politics altogether. In response to this system, popular musicians gradually developed a series of strategies (public praise, self-censorship, and new forms of showmanship) that enabled them to thrive both as artists and as international stars. Over time, these strategies became an integral part of the aesthetics and performance of their music, so integral, in fact, that some musicians no longer saw their relationship with the people and institutions of power as problematic. By the middle of the 1990s popular music had become more than just a form of mass entertainment. It had turned into a means of social mobility and self-protection for those willing to immortalize the wealthy and powerful by citing their names in their music. As it became increasingly obvious that Mobutu's days were numbered, many musicians felt nervous because this meant that the intricate networks of patron-client relations built around his powerful presence would be destabilized if not completely overturned.

At first Kabila seemed to have no interest in being the object of musicians' praise. In the weeks following his arrival, rumors circulated that a number of popular musicians had offered compositions in honor of the newly formed government, but that Kabila was ignoring them. People in Kinshasa understood this as an attempt to distance himself from Mobutu and his system of rule, and no one seemed particularly surprised. After all, it was Kabila himself who had been heard saying that people in Kinshasa did nothing but listen to music and that one of the objectives of his leadership would be to get the Congo back to work. Musicians, especially those making a living through music, found this situation unsettling. Walking back from a concert in Montreal in the summer of 1997, I asked a Congolese musician who was touring Canada with his group what he thought about the rumors, and he expressed a sense of frustration with the new regime's stance: "It's no good, mon cher. Kabila doesn't want us to sing him. What are we supposed to do now?" Kabila was either uninterested in playing the old game or unable to understand it, a situation that clearly made musicians insecure about the future.

La Guidomanie

Within Africa, the Congo is known primarily for two things: music and Mobutu. While Congolese music is known for its seductive combination of melancholy and joie de vivre, the legacy of Mobutu's political system is much more sinister (White 2005). A wealth of scholarship exists on political developments in the Congo, especially during the years leading up to and following independence in 1960, and much of it is available in English. I refer readers to this literature for a more detailed analysis of the sequence of events surrounding and following independence: the end of colonial rule, the rise and fall of Lumumba, Mobutu's seizure of power in 1965, the formation of the MPR (Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution) as the country's only officially recognized political party and later as the "supreme institution of the Republic," the nationalization schemes of the early 1970s (Zaïrianization, radicalization, retrocession), changes in international markets for copper and oil in the mid-1970s, and in the early 1980s the beginning of a difficult period of democratic denial surrounding the formation of the first opposition party, Étienne Tshisekedi's Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social.

Ongoing concern about the status of opposition politics, along with the controversy surrounding the Bindo lottery scheme (see Jewsiewicki 1992b) and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, contributed to widespread frustration, especially in the capital, and in 1991 Kinshasa exploded in riots. Referred to sardonically as le pillage, this period of only a few days left an indelible mark on the memory of many Congolese as a low point in economic and political history and as a symbol of how deeply le mal zaïrois ("the Zairian condition") had penetrated society. A similar series of riots occurred in 1993, but this time the civil unrest seemed both more organized and more brutal, primarily due to the role played by disgruntled members of the military. During the 1990s, Mobutu kept a safe distance from Kinshasa, preferring to divide his time between Gbadolite (the presidential village in the north central part of the country) and various villas in Europe. His famous speech in Kinshasa on April 24, 1990, in which, crying, he announced his resignation as the head of the MPR, marked for many people the beginning of the end of mobutisme. Mobutu's decision to retract this decision several days later would confirm for many that the tears shed during this speech (after which he uttered the famous words "understand my emotion") were those of a crocodile and not a leopard.

This period also saw important changes in the music scene. Since the early 1990s, the musical group Wenge Musica has been held up as the flagship of the fourth generation of Congolese popular dance music. Unlike most well-known groups in Kinshasa, Wenge was formed by a group of cofounders instead of by a single charismatic leader. This organizational structure (which is rare, but not without precedent) enabled Wenge to hold audiences' attention for a number of years, but in many ways Wenge was also a disaster waiting to happen. For a long time the musicians of Wenge Musica maintained close ties with Mobutu's son Mwenze Kongolo (also known by his nickname, "Saddam Hussein"), who in addition to being a high-ranking officer in the Zairian army was probably the most powerful figure in the music industry of the 1990s. Like his father, Kongolo combined the lure of money with the threat of violence to control musicians' movements and words. As long as musicians continued to sing his name on records and during concerts, they would benefit from political protection and financial support. Kongolo was known to have a special affinity for Wenge, and his position as the honorary "president" of the group served as a constant reminder that it was in the group's best interest to stay together. In fact, Kongolo had intervened in the past by physically threatening anyone who tried to break up or separate from the group. With the release of the first Wenge solo album in 1996 (Feux de l'amour), however, the singer J. B. M'piana drove a decisive wedge between himself and his longtime rival and fellow band member Werra Son. Furthermore, increasing political tension in the eastern part of the country meant that Kongolo was often absent from Kinshasa and no longer in a position to mediate conflict within the group. In the fall of 1997, after an altercation during a concert at Kinshasa's prestigious Intercontinental Hotel, it became clear that Wenge was breaking up, and rumors about the group's fragile future began to spread across the city like wildfire.

The next day fans organized a protest in front of the band's headquarters, and as the conflict with Kabila's new government intensified, there was increasing concern that the situation with Wenge might lead to civil unrest in Kinshasa. Finally in December 1997 the newly installed minister of information and cultural affairs, Raphael Ghenda, called a special meeting with the conflicting parties in hopes of brokering an agreement that would lead to reconciliation. Ghenda's chief of staff announced to the press that "there were some serious problems within Wenge due to an absence of consultation, but we are not yet talking about the possibility of separating. Furthermore, the musicians have been asked to not let themselves be distracted at a time when what we need most is unity in order to ensure national reconstruction" (qtd. in Kasongo 1997).

According to the author Manda Tchebwa, who together with the famous singer Tabu Ley was approached by the minister to facilitate the meeting, the closed-door session lasted nearly six hours, with each musician expressing his grievances, and resulted in a heated exchange of personal accusations and a fragile consensus to keep the group together (personal communication, May 2, 2005). While the two rivals left the minister's office shaking hands in front of the cameras, in only a matter of days Wenge had officially split into two: J. B. M'piana's Wenge Musica BCBG (for the group's original name, Bon chic, Bon genre) and Werra Son's Wenge Musica Maison Mère. This separation led to a series of secondary offshoots in the months to come, and the dream of a reunited Wenge quickly became a thing of the past. Perhaps Werra Son himself said it best when he announced to the local media that "there are too many Wenges in the Congo."

During this period it seemed that everyone in Kinshasa was talking about the conflict between the two musicians. Most people had an opinion about what had happened and continue to remember this period as a time during which friends, families, and neighbors became increasingly divided over the issue of the group's separation. A young man in his mid-twenties told me, "J. B.'s album really marked a turning point in terms of politics.... From that point on the conflict between the musicians got worse and for the first time in our neighborhood we were able to see who was who" (group interview, May 15, 2005). When another young man told me that he had "lost a lot of friends during that period" (ibid.), he was referring not only to friends who left the Congo because of increasing political instability but also to the fact that the Wenge controversy was slowly starting to cause division among fans along ethnic lines, with people from Kasai supporting J. B. M'piana and people from the Kikongo-speaking areas around Kinshasa supporting Werra Son. Wenge Musica's ethnic makeup had never surfaced as an issue in the group's past, and the fact that Wenge's problems were being read in ethnic terms seemed to signal a structural shift not only in popular music but in national politics as well.

One thing that was not new in Congolese popular dance music was the internal dynamic of dislocation ("splintering") that occurs whenever a disgruntled member of a group (generally one of the lead singers or guitarists) decides to strike out on his own and establish his own authority as a musical and artistic leader. Splintering has been a central dynamic in the management and performance of popular music in Kinshasa since its very beginnings, and it may or may not be explained by looking to an equatorial tradition of "big man" politics in various regions of the Congo basin (see chapter 8). What is clear is that throughout his political career Mobutu modeled a style of political leadership that made strategic use of divisiveness, most often as a means of consolidating authority, and this aspect of his leadership also became common in social organization outside of the political sphere. Mobutu's status as "president for life" was only reinforced by the series of honorific titles that became part of his propaganda campaigns in the 1970s: "Helmsman," "Founding President," "Father of the Nation," and "Revolutionary Guide." Many popular musicians, also deeply concerned with their status as leaders, adopted this aesthetic of authority by playing on the imagery of military strongmen to assert their power as artists. This preference for strong, charismatic leadership and the tendency toward splintering as a means of establishing political authority led to what people in Kinshasa today refer to as guidomanie (from Mobutu's use of the term guide), or the obsessive preoccupation with having a following and becoming a leader.

One of the most striking examples of this guidomanie is the title track from J. B. M'piana's 2000 album T.H., which was seen not only as a response to Werra Son's Solola Bien (1999) but also as an important follow-up to M'piana's own Titanic (1998). The music video for the song "T.H." is typical of most music videos produced in Kinshasa. There is no story line or scenario: the song consists of a series of choreographed dance sequences, and the musicians are dressed in coordinated outfits (in this video the latest gear from the hip-hop fashion designer FUBU), with M'piana ("The no. 1 Sovereign") dressed differently from the other musicians in the band. M'piana is surrounded by a dozen or so musicians arranged in a pyramid formation behind him singing the praises of their leader, who is visibly excited to be dancing in spite of what seems like a feigned indifference in the lyrics:

Souverain azali champion, solo The Sovereign is champion, we have tokobanga te nothing to fear Souverain azali champion, solo The Sovereign is champion, we have tokobanga te ... nothing to fear ... Souverain a bangi naye baye He was keeping to himself and they kobenga ye called him Souverain a bangi naye baye He was keeping to himself and they kobenga ye called him Po na nini? Why? A beti liboso Zenith First he played the Zenith [theater in Paris] A beti lisusu Olympia Then he played the Olympia Bapesi ye disque d'or, match Next a gold record and then he won esili the match Biso tozali humble ... We are humble ...

The song's introduction borrows musical elements from the performances accompanying the state-sponsored political rallies that during the 1970s and 1980s intended to show the "unconditional support" of the Zairian people for their nation and its leader, a genre of political propaganda that became known as animation politique et culturelle (see chapter 3). The irony of this video is not that it borrows from the aesthetics of cultural propaganda under the Mobutu regime, since as I will discuss later this particular performative genre had become ubiquitous in the national media by the early 1980s. What is ironic is that M'piana would surround himself with such ceremony, bragging about his accomplishments and demonstrating the loyalty of his followers, while making a claim about his leadership qualities based on his ability to remain "always humble"; the title of the song "T.H." stands for the French expression toujours humble" (figure 1). This is the kind of doublespeak for which Mobutu became famous, and the celebrities of the popular music scene of the 1990s mobilized similar rhetorical strategies to the point where it was unclear whether they themselves were fully conscious of their actions.


Excerpted from RUMBA RULES by Bob W. White Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Popular Culture's Politics 1

2 The Zairian Sound 27

3 Made in Zaire 65

4 Live Time 97

5 Musicians and Mobility 131

6 Live Texts 165

7 The Political Life of Dance Bands 195

8 In the Skin of a Chief 225

Notes 253

Bibliography 271

Discography 287

Index 289

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