Jan 11


The Mail and Guardian, Johannesburg

Of Congo’s music and blood-stained history

Oct 02 1998


The Democratic Republic of Congo has always aroused two contradictory emotions in me as an African: the ecstasy created in my soul by some of the best guitar music on the continent, and the fear and anger aroused in my mind by the irrational, blood-spattered politics that resurfaces in the country every so often, bringing shame to every African.

I’ve loved Congolese music ever since I bought my first wireless set, circa 1957. I used to tune in to a listeners’ request programme on Radio Brazzaville called Les Disques Demandes. [You may sample Congolese music in the posting in this website entitled, “My favourite Congolese song.”

The short-wave reception in Accra, Ghana, was not of the highest quality. But not even the ear- numbing static could diminish the beautiful guitar notes that were strummed by the incredible fingers of Franco and The OK Jazz, Rochereau, Dr Nico Kasanda and the African Fiesta, l’Orchestre Shama Shama and other superb Congolese bands.

In later years, one of the most pleasant surprises of my life has been to arrive in Harare to find that, by pure chance, a live performance by Pepe Kalle was to take place in the very hotel where I was staying.

The music and dancing – including naughty forays under the skirts of women dancers by the dwarf who appeared in the film, La Vie est Belle – had me in stitches.

The banquet hall in the Harare Sheraton was packed, although Zimbabwe is an English-speaking country, and Pepe Kalle, like most Congolese musicians, sings only in French and Lingala. When music talks, what is the relevance of language?

In London, too, again by pure accident, I have been lucky enough to arrive at a BBC studio to take part in a Radio 3 discussion, only to find that Papa Wemba and his group are there to play — as a musical interlude — a track from their latest album.

Afterwards, I could not help but invite myself to join the band in their bus, in order to chat with the musicians. I ended up going with them to the studios of Virgin Records, where they performed live for more than an hour on the wavelnbgths of Virgin Radio.

I discovered that Papa Wemba’s chief guitarist was not from the Congo, but from Cameroon! But should I have been surprised? After all, Cameroon is almost next door to the Congo, and the people there also use string instruments a lot, which makes the guitar easy for them. In any case, the Cameroonian guy came from as much an excellent musical pedigree as that which gave birth to Manu Dibango, didn’t he? Me, I was in heaven that day with Papa Wemba (who, incidentally, I discovered to be quite a masculine-looking guy, despite the way he indulges in high-note singing! He was quite soberly dressed, which means I lost the chance to see him in the sort of guy that made him famous as a founder of he Congolese sartorial movement that earned the name, Les Sapeurs).

I am sure I did not know it at the time, but subconsciously it must have been the possibility of a chance to hear Congolese music first-hand that made me jump at the chance of making my first trip to the Congo. This was when United Nations troops were still trying to restore order there, after the first flush of killings that had taken place in the wake of the revolt of the Force Publique, that occurred immediately after Belgium granted the Congo independence in June 1960.

Ghanaian troops were among the UN forces and I was invited, as editor of Drum Magazine, by the Ghana Army to cover the visit of a Ghanaian dance troupe, the Heatwaves (led by my future wife, Beryl Karikari) that the Army was taking to the Congo to entertain the Ghanaian soldiers in the UN contingent.

The Ghanaians were billeted in Luluaborg, and it was from the airport there that we flew to Lake Makemba and other UN outposts to play for the troops. One day, our dstination was a small UN encampment called Mwene Dittu. Even though UN aircraft had been landing regularly at the airstrip there, and armed Ghanaian soldiers were there to meet us, our aircraft was surrounded by Congolese troops as soon as it landed!

Apparently, the Ghanaian troops thought they were on friendly terms with the Congolese troops and did not consider them a danger. Thus their action was quite a surprise to our troops (sadly, it wasn’t the last time the Congolese troops sprang a surprise on their Ghanaian counterparts.)

For a reason that was never explained to us, the Congolese soldiers refused to allow us to disembark from the aircraft. We could see from the windows of the aircraft that somehow a fierce argument had broken out between our troops in their blue UN caps and the less well-turned-out Congolese troops.

We all felt very sorry for ourselves. Were we to be the cause of an armed confrontation, when our objective was merely to entertain?

The heat in the aircraft became increasingly stifling. Our fear increased with every gesture the Congolese troops made at the Ghanaian soldiers.

We could tell that the longer the argument lasted, the more embarrassed our hosts, the Ghanaian UN troops, became. They had somehow endangered the lives of the best dancing troupe in Ghana,which was there to dance for them and make their dreary tour of duty in the Congo a bit more bearable.

I prayed that their embarrassment would not make them combative and annoy the Congolese troops even more. Meanwhile, I sweated — like the rest of the band and the dancers.

The Congolese soldiers, to my surprise, seemed to be taking their orders from a very militat woman dressed in cloth, just like the market women seen all over West Africa! My mind did a double take to Makola market in Accra: imagine a Makola market woman leaving her milk and sugar stall and daring to command a unit of heavily armed troops! Yes, the Congo is full of surprises, I thought, learning at first hand that one could always be at risk for the most unimaginable reason, in the poisoned political atmosphere in the country.

Nothing seemed to be able to convince the militant lady at the head of the troops that we were on a friendly mission, merely to entertain, and were not a group of spies or extra soldiers flying down, masquerading as musicians and dancers. The argumentation became so intense at times that I feared a shoot-out would ensue, with us caught in the middle.

As we baked in the sweltering heat of the midday sun, dying by inches inside the airless cabin of the DC-3 aircraft, all the news agency stories I’d been reading from the Congo now began their wicked work of choosing that time to flash before my eyes: hapless nuns raped and killed; unarmed priests massacred; civilians caught in the crossfire of a battle between armed factions; 43 Ghanaian UN troops surprised by Congolese soldiers they had “befriended” and murdered in cold blood at a military camp called Port Franqui …

Finally, we were allowed to disembark, and we all heaved a sigh of relief. Our hosts gave us cold beer to drink to cool our nerves, and a decent meal of rice and chicken stew to assuage our hunger. Then, our dancers and the fabulous band of Rex Ofosu gave the troops an incredible display of hi-life. It was such a stirring show that every step they danced seemed to say, “If we could have been killed for coming here to dance, then we are going to really dance our hearts out.”

I can still see Rex Ofosu moving among the troops, saxophone in his mouth, giving a wonderful rendition of “Car bii ba oo!” a beautiful number first recorded by E K [Nyame’s] Band.

But for me, the aircraft incident ruined the visit, for I couldn’t hep my analytical mind setting to work to ruminate on its implications. I couldn’t ignore the military incompetence which the Ghana contingent at Mwene Dittu had exhibited. If they knew the Congolese were minded to demonstrate their control of the airstrip, why had they not done the Congolese the courtesy of informing them, beforehand, that they were expecting an aircraft? It was all a matter of “territorial control”, wasn’t it?

To the Congolese, pride mattered a lot at that time, for their country HAD been invaded by foreign troops, UN caps or not, and our troops should have had intelligence officers who briefed them on the implications opf the whole UN presence and the resentment it caused amongst pockets of Congolese political power. Maybe the lady in cloth led a faction that did not approve of the UN presence in the Congo. Our intelligence officers should have known that, shouldn’t they?

My analysis of the situation made me disenchanted with the efficacy of our military leadership (the contingent was under the control of British officers and I suspected that they did not adequately appreciate the susceptibilities of the Congolese factions).

Because of my unease, tended to eschew too much socialisation, but one evening, I summoned enough courage to go to a nightclub at Luluaborg to hear Congolese music. It wasn’t a successful evening for me, for the fear that something surprising — and unpleasant — could happen at any moment never left me and I was nervous that the joy went out of the music. Me and Congolese music?It was a bad scene for me.

And now, in 1998, here we are again. The ousting in 1997 of the kleptocrat, Mobutu Sese Seko, had raised everyone’s hopes that at last a new Congo would rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the nightmare years of Mobutu’s misrule. Western investors seemed to be falling over one another seeking investment rights, especially for the country’s immense mineral deposits. Surely, under proper management, the country would be ushered into a new era of prosperity for a population that has suffered – perhaps for longer than any other African country, on a continent where life and suffering seem to go together.

But were our expectations not unrealistic to a degree, one wonders. At first, everyone seemed to brush away the signs, even through the obvious hubris of Laurent Kabila’s victory, that all might not be what it seemed.

Hadn’t Kabila rebuffed the efforts of even President Nelson Mandela to mediate a peaceful transfer of power? Hadn’t the expert revolutionary, Che Guevara, who had fought with forces under Kabila’s command in the Sixties, from a base near the Tanzanian border, commented in his diaries (published posthumously a few years before Kabila’s re-emergence on the Congolese scene) that Kabila was “unreliable”?

Yes, but …

Maybe Kabila had changed in the three decades since Guevara made his unfavourable comments on him in his diary?
Well … did anyone say anything about a nation whose politicians seem to have a penchant for leopard-skin caps, and how no leopard ever changes his spots?


Now we know, don’t we? Three African states –Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola — on Kabila’s side; two (Rwanda, Uganda and apparently, Burundi) against. Where will what has been called “Africa’s First World War” end? When can music, rather than gunfire, be the sound one hears most often in the Congo, as in the pre-1960 years? Eh?


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