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Congolese musicians rarely provide a critique, but continue to provide solace

Authenticité survives in the present generation of Congolese musicians like Fally Ipupa (with the red vest). From YouTube

The “Indépendance Cha-Cha” is one of the best-known songs in the Congolese cannon. It was composed and first performed by the father of modern popular Congolese music, Joseph Kabasele, and his band African Jazz in Brussels in January 1960 during the negotiations for Congolese independence. It proved a huge hit all over Africa in the years to come and is performed to this day.

The song was done in anticipation of June 30 1960 when the Belgian Congo became the independent Republic of the Congo.

“Indépendance cha-cha” is firmly part of a tradition in which a list of names of important parties and people are included in the song (it’s a tradition that nowadays involves substantial payment for the honour).

‘Indépendance cha-cha’ by Joseph Kabesele and his band African Jazz.

In the “Indépendance cha-cha” the list was of pro-independence parties and the main actors in the drama unfurling in Brussels including Patrice Lumumba and Moise Tshombe.

The early dreams of independence gradually disappeared as the years passed and this beloved song became ripe for a reworking. In 2010 the rap artist Baloji produced a wonderful video of the song renamed “Le jour d'après”. In the video he tells the ironic story of life since independence.

The Congolese-Belgian rapper Baloyi with a modern update on ‘Indépendance Cha Cha’.

Old gentlemen musicians, who could still remember the heady days leading to independence, play and dance beside the younger generation. They’re all attired with the dapper dandy style for which the Congolese are rightfully famous.

The era of mass rallies

After independence, throwing off the formal shackles of political colonialism proved far easier than removing the bonds of economic imperialism. The covert involvement of the former Belgian colonists and the CIA in the assassination of Lumumba in 1961 was followed by years of turmoil as the independence movement fractured.

Colonel Joseph-Désiré Mobutu assumed the presidency after seizing power in a coup in 1965. In 1971 he renamed the country Zaire.

Mobutu Sese Seko in Kinshasa, back in September 1960. EPA

His programme to nationalise Congolese industries, dubbed Zaireanization, followed visits to China and Korea in the early 1970s. Industries were taken over and assigned to his clients, often without the skills to manage the businesses, or the motivation to reinvest any profits Mobutu didn’t take for himself. Taxes weren’t invested in education and health or maintaining the energy, road and rail networks necessary for the long-term health of the economy.

But the visits to China had another influence on Mobutu. They provided him with a model for mass performances for party and nation. These included mass gatherings during which huge numbers of party members performed choreographed songs and dances in praise of the president and his party.

The gatherings were clearly performances of nationhood. But they were also linked to Mobutu’s policies of authenticité – an idea borrowed from the president of Guinea, Sékou Touré.

The idea was first mooted in the Manifesto of N'Sele in 1967, alongside Mobutism and nationalism, and presented as a rejection of both capitalism and communism. It was foremost a cultural policy aimed at combating a colonial mentality denigrating African culture and language as inferior to that of Europe.

Mobutu on a Zairean banknote. Shutterstock

In practice it was harnessed to building Mobutu’s personality cult. He ordered the building of one of the first state run television studios and broadcasting facilities in Africa. Named the Cité de la Voix de la Peuple it had 18 radio and six television studios. Television broadcasting began in 1966 and the broadcasting centre was completed in 1970. The building is now a sad and dilapidated testament to Mobutu’s glory days.

The dominance in cultural life of the Mouvement Populaire de La Révolution (MPR) was implemented in ways that mimicked the kind of imposition formerly associated with the colonial authorities.

For the sartorially expressive Kinois this was not something to be accepted without a challenge. In time it led to the rise of the rebellious movement of satorial dandies, the Sapeurs.

Authenticité also involved the changing of colonial Christian names to African ones. Mobutu changed his own name to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga.

And like Nyerere in Tanzania, Mobutu demanded that popular music should be exclusively in a national language – which in practice meant primarily Lingala – the language of the capital.

Personality cult

For many of the musicians I interviewed, whether or not they had any sympathy for Mobutu, the idea of authenticité was almost universally seen as a positive one at a certain level. This was despite the fact that Mobutu abused Congo culture to build his own personality cult.

Independence may not have led to genuine political and economic autonomy for the former Belgian Congo. But at least in areas of life that were not a source a mineral wealth and not an obvious political threat to the president, a new kind of freedom of cultural expression and self confidence in the worth of Congo’s cultural heritage could bloom. It found expression in a glorious period of musical creativity.

Sleeve of Franco and Sam Mangwana’s collaborative album, Coopération.

This included adopting modernity into Congolese music. For some, like Bumba Massa and Sam Mangwana, it took the form of modernity from diverse diaspora influences from across the Atlantic, especially Latin America. For others, like Kanda Bongo Man, it was in the mastering and use of modern technology to express Congolese culture.

Malcot Lowiso, a Congolese musician working in South Africa, made it clear that authenticité was not about a return to the past:

It is possible to modernise with authenticity. We have modernised our authenticity without copying others, without copying the French or the Belgians.

Love of a huge fan base

The man most closely identified with the cultural movement of authenticité was the leader of the giant band TPOK Jazz, the Congo colossus Luambo Franco Makiadi. Franco was inspired to create wonderful music by integrating the Congolese musical heritage with African and European influences and the world of the diaspora. He benefited both from Mobutu’s patronage and the love of a huge fan base all over the continent. Franco embraced the principle of authenticité, and sang songs in praise both of the principle and the party espousing it.

Franco wholeheartedly embraced the principle of authenticité in his music.

Maybe the idea of authenticité survives as part of the dream of a meaningful cultural independence in the present generation of Congolese musicians, in the work of singers such as Fally Ipupa and Ferré Gola, who continue to create a distinctively Congolese sound.

Congolese singers like Fally Ipupa keep it authentically Congolese.

Unfortunately politically things look far less hopeful. President Joseph Kabila is looking increasingly like the inheritor of the political tradition of his father Laurent’s former enemy, Mobutu, and the dictatorial colonists who preceded him.

Scheduled elections slip into an indeterminate future, accompanied by worsening human rights abuses in the Kasai region and attempts to divide and weaken the opposition.

As has been the case for so much of the DRC’s history since independence, musicians rarely provide a critique, but continue to provide solace.

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