For our Hip Deep program Congo-Goma: Music, Conflict and N.G.O.s, we interviewed Petna Ndaliko Katandolo, an artist, filmmaker and founder of the Yolé! Africa Cultural Center in Goma, Alkebu Productions, and the Salaam Kivu International Film Festival, hosted annually at Yolé! Africa since 2005. Petna is also a local of the region.
Morgan Greenstreet: Can you tell us some of the story of the region around the city of Goma, North Kivu?
Petna Nndaliko: Well, Goma itself is a very interesting story, because the word Goma is from ngoma, which is a drum, as you know. And this was one of the colonial misunderstandings or miscommunications they were having.
It was in 1930 that the Belgians managed to come to Goma and want to build Goma as a town. And when they reached there, they found some local people, the story goes that people were playing drums on the top of the mountain of Goma in the middle of the city, people were playing drum and enjoying themselves and when the Belgians arrived, they said, “Oh, what’s the name of this place?” Since the locals could not understand the language, the locals assumed they were asking, “What is the sound coming from that mountain?” So they said, “Oh, that’s ngoma, that’s the drum, that’s a drum playing.”
So the Belgians just wrote down, “This place is called Goma,” since they couldn’t pronounce the N at the beginning. That’s how the city got the name Goma. And this was in 1930. And if you do your math, you will see that in, 1960, the Congo got independent. So Goma did not really suffer much of the colonial rules, because they didn’t stay there for long enough to breed people to become very colonized.
At that same time, there was Ngeko. He was the traditional king around Goma, and he had an amazing army, so he resisted to Belgians up until they brought in the Force Publique. And the Force Publique committed a genocide, they killed so many people to be able to enter Goma itself.
That’s what I can say about the history of Goma. And this is an unwritten story, so nobody knows much about it. There are some archives in a museum in Belgium, and some scholars been writing essays about it, you know.
In more recent history, all we hear about in the U.S. is the conflict between different warring factions, different rebel groups. But there is not much of an effort to describe the details, to understand who is who, why they came to be there. I know it’s very complicated, but maybe we can start at present: What’s the current political climate in Goma?
It’s difficult in Goma to talk about the present, because life changes so fast that it makes it complicated to follow the whole situation day by day. Because of the crisis, people have a tendency to live day by day, to say “I don’t know what will happen the next day.”
It is clear that this is a situation which is created by the mafia, within Goma, you know, the multinational corporations which are exploiting the natural resources, all of them are based in Goma, and they pass through Goma with the minerals to go outside.
And the so-called conflict which is going on has been described as an ethnic problem, which is completely wrong and false, because it is much more an economical crisis. The coltan mineral and the gold and the diamonds in all these villages surrounding Goma has made Goma this strategic place, you know?
And for those multinational corporations and for people who are corrupt in our, in the Congolese government, they have made sure that the situation should stay chaotic so that nobody should be able to follow what is going on.
So you find the people, they have just developed this sense of surviving day by day, and it is so amazing to see how this same mafia has managed to make sure that the story that happens today, tomorrow it is forgotten.
And I think it is through art that we are trying to keep the memory alive, saying “No, we should keep the memory of what happened, and what is happening now, and we should try to project ourselves in the future, not a future of tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, but in 20 years, what will Goma be?” People should build a way of thinking which will guide them for the next 20 or 50 or 100 years.
Goma was named the tourist capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo by Mobutu [Sese Seko]. It is such a beautiful place, you have a lake [Kivu] just nearby. You have mountains surrounding the city itself, and then you have the [Virunga] National Park just 30 kilometers away from Goma. And you have this amazing volcano [Nyiragongo] just in front of you everyday in the morning, wherever you are in Goma, you will see that volcano. The place is so beautiful!
And the resilience of the people! People are so courageous! I grew up in that place. We were known for being independent, and I trace this back to the story I just told you. The history is we did not suffer much of colonialism, therefore, it was only one generation that was under the colonial, so people kept their cultural values. And we still had possibilities before these wars came in, we had the possibility of going back to some of our history and heritage to find the values which can help us move forward, without depending on international aid, without depending on what the government delivers or doesn’t deliver.
People were taking action in order to make life easy. Like building a school was never a big deal for the government, because people themselves would say, “Eh, we need a school here. OK, what can we do?” We would collect money from the community and the next day, there is a school. We would go to the officials, you know, and then say, “Give us the paperwork, we have already built a school, we want kids to go school.” So that was the situation in Goma as I was growing up.
And that would be an example of what you would call valeurs or values, right? A lot of musicians we interviewed talked about anti-valeurs. There’s some kind of feeling that the Congo in general and Goma in particular has been filled with anti-valeurs, so people aren’t caring for each other. Do you agree with that?
Oh yeah, definitely. When artists they talk about anti-valeurs, that’s it, it is clear: Today, the people who are excelling, the people who are becoming big in the community are either thieves or they’re corrupt and the next day they’re building big, beautiful houses. You see someone who was a warlord and the next day they get promoted to become general or minister. So all of that, those are the anti-valeurs which the artists are thinking of.
Today, with the booming of N.G.O.s in Goma, you also see this situation where people want to be paid to learn. Because N.G.O.s say, “We are leading this workshop about so and so program, but we’re gonna give you a per-diem at the end of the workshop.” So even us locals, when we bring in a program, they tell us, “Oh, how much are you going to pay us for coming?” But this is for your own knowledge, you know? And this is the anti-valeurs that people or artists are singing or talking about.
When do you feel that mentality you described before, when there was a sense of community, of working together for the common good, when did that begin to deteriorate, and why?
Well, the war situation became worse from 1994, with the flow of refugees from Rwanda. You got an entire country which came to a small city, Goma. And that also came with a huge flow of international N.G.Os, and the N.G.O.s did not take into account the local values, they came in with their own agenda and program and they imposed it on people. You know, in general, I can point it from there, that’s when things start collapsing.
Can you give an example of an N.G.O. program that might have conflicted with local way of doing things?
Well, I can give you this simple example: I was invited by an N.G.O. to do a workshop with these children, you know, they call them child soldiers. I don’t agree with that term, but you know, I was invited in, and I thought I was just going to work with children, I was giving a drawing and a painting workshop. By surprise at the end of the workshop, which lasted two weeks, they start grading those children, and those who drew a bombed house or a guy with a machine gun, they were given a high grade, and the ones who drew a flower and a house, their dream, they were given a different grade. This was so awful for me to find out, that this was how they have been using my time. And why were they doing this? I asked the question because I was furious, I made a scene, they said, “Oh no, we have to turn in a report, and this is supposed to be an art therapy program, you know, children who are painting flowers and a beautiful home and all these things, it does not really show the work we’ve been doing.” So I was mad! This is how the N.G.O.s are teaching kids to become victims. Your victim-hood, that’s what pays. And these kids stay in that situation, saying, “Oh well, to play the traumatized person, that’s what pays.” And imagine now, over 20 years of this generation who grew up in this kind of condition. So tell me how those youth are thinking now, that they are over 25, if they know that if you play the victim, you can be considered in the community?
That’s just an example of how art is being used, for what they call social change. And of course, I don’t also like the words “using art,” I say it’s “through art” you know. You have so many things: N.G.O.s will come in with all these big salaries, and the N.G.O. workers come in with a lot of money and they create a parallel economy, create a situation within a community whereby if the locals don’t reach the N.G.O.’s standard, then the local community will starve.
In what way?
Well, we have a culture of bargaining. You go to a market, let’s say an avocado; you come from Europe, you come from the U.S., an avocado is expensive, you get it at three dollars, or five dollars, right? But [in Goma] three dollars is an entire bucket of avocados, right? So the first price [market workers] give, they [foreigners] will just pay for it. They pay for it, and they will say, “Hey, this is a lot of avocados, you know what, I need only three. I give you five dollars.” So, the next day, when the local guy will come expecting a basket full of avocado, the person will be like, “No, I don’t want to sell it to you, I’m gonna wait for the guy of the N.G.O.s.”
Ah, I understand, I got you.
Yeah, so they create a parallel economy and the same practice has weakened even our government: the salary they get from the government becomes a very small salary which cannot, anymore, meet the needs of the family, and then very soon, the father become alcoholic and then very soon the N.G.O.s come in and say, “Oh, your kids are suffering, let’s give them their rights.” So they start paying school fees for the kids, and then the entire social system changes, because the kids will no longer respect their father, the kids will no longer respect their mother, and it becomes a problem.
Right, I hear you. In our interviews with musicians, I heard a lot of what I’d describe as “N.G.O. speak” that gets into their language, French words like sensibilisation “raising awareness,” encadrement des jeunes, "mentoring," les droits d’enfants, “children’s rights,” things like that. I was wondering how does this sort of N.G.O. culture affects the arts in Goma, and especially musicians?
The N.G.O. culture, has been affecting the arts on a very, very deep level. Artists are no longer thinking from the community, or of the community, but artists have become the machine of propaganda. That’s how deep the N.G.O.s have affected the art scene. Because the more you fit in an N.G.O. profile, the more you will get money, you will be paid, and the more you will become popular, because N.G.O.s have the means to send your music, send your film to television, because they will pay for it to be on air. That’s how deeply they’ve affected the way of thinking, they’ve affected the message transmitted by artists, and even the way of living of artists. Yeah, the N.G.O. culture. I call it, you know, the Killing Art System, that’s what I call it.
Why do you call it that?
I call it the Killing Arts System because it’s turning artists into propagandists. Artists are no longer standing for what they believe, you know, questioning the social life every day, and sometimes engaging people in a new debate, you know? That’s no longer the longer situation. And what is coming out, it is exactly reproduce the programs of N.G.O.s which does not fit in what the community want, first of all, and that, it is contributing to much more destruction that construction.
M.G. Can you give me any examples of specific N.G.O. campaigns where they use music?
Well, we had this N.G.O., I won’t say the name, because they listen sometimes when we talk, which is so noble. They approach Yolé! Africa, and they wanted to make this campaign song about the cholera epidemic. And when they came in, we agreed on how we can approach it so that it becomes something organic, and it will be what artists have to say, about that sickness which was becoming, at that time, a serious situation in the community.
So what we propose as Yolé! Africa, we said, “Look, with the artists, let’s start by organizing a community meeting, and from that community meeting, we will talk about what are the problems people are facing now, in Goma.” And in a community meeting, of course, without even saying anything, people talk about cholera being a problem. And then we say, “O.K., so as artists, have you ever composed or thought about do anything about cholera.” And some of them were like, “Oh yeah, yeah yeah, we have ideas about it!” And the result was, “O.K., if anybody has any text or song, you know, about that, can you submit at Yolé! and then we read it.”
They brought tons of texts, beautiful texts. And then the N.G.O. people came in and said, “Oh, these are the sort of guidelines that we want people to have in their songs, in their texts they should consider these steps are respected.” And the steps they brought in were, “To avoid cholera, people should wash their hands before they eat, people should clean their baby baths after changing them…” Like all this ridiculous, rudimentary stuff. We were like, “O.K., but this was not part of the deal.”
So we got artists to record the texts that were interesting. The first round of music, when we get it back to the N.G.O. people, they were like, “No, no, this is not what we want.” And you know, what it was? It was a song written by this rap group and it was talking about how, if today we are suffering from the cholera epidemic, it is because people are displaced, and people are displaced because of what? People are displaced from their home and villages because what? Their villages have natural resources. And who wants those natural resources? So please, stop bombing, stop killing people in the village, let people go back to their home, so that we can avoid it to have this kind of epidemic. That was the song they [the N.G.O.] didn’t want to hear!
So they came in, it was a mess. We said, “We cannot go beyond this, this is what the artists had to say!” What they came, and say, “O.K., we’re going to keep this song, but we want also to have another one. So they also got another musician to come in and sing all those steps of washing and of course, the song which is still playing on the radios up to now, it is the other song. We had to do a video and post of their, the musician who sung the version of saying, “we have to go to the root of the problem, instead of just talking of the sickness, we have to go to the root of the problem.”
Yolé! made a video and we put it up online [as the first episode of the Art on the Frontline series] Because the artists were speaking from their heart, don’t have space in N.G.O., you know, in the N.G.O.s agenda.
What song is that?
It is “Mazao,” which means “Outcome.”
So another thing which I found interesting, is that it seems some artists in Goma are learning to create for this foreign expectation, learning to play the victim as you say. And that seems very problematic.
One of the questions we asked all the musicians was, “Do you consider your music to be political,” and many of the artists rejected that term. Why is that?
The artists rejected that their music be referred to as political?
So we asked them, “Do you consider your music to be political?” And artists making songs describing the results of conflict, talking about the roots of the issues, as you’re saying, would say, “No, my music is humanitaire’ or “No, I talk about social issues,” or, “I am une artiste engagé, an engaged artist.” Can you describe the difference between being political and being engagé?
Yeah, I can see why artists will say that their music is not political, because the word "politics" first of all, has so many connotations in the local culture: Even a kid, when he’s growing up, if the kid learns how to lie, the parent say, “You kid, you have bad politics.” “You are a politician.” So politics, first of all is connected to lies, like you’re a liar. And then the other thing is, many artists who are conscious, they’re being arrested not long ago in Congo they will arrest you saying you’re doing politics. Artists, whenever you ask them, “Is your music, it’s political music," they will just go, “No, I’m not involved in politics,” because they will directly make a link to the government to come arrest me.
Did that reach Goma?
During which years was that?
This year they would arrest artist for speaking out!?
Oh yeah, they did, and some songs of some artists have been banned to be on the radio here, even in Goma. Wanny S. King, I think you interviewed him. His song “Wale Wale,” it is banned to be played on the radio.
So Wanny and other artists are under threat of being arrested for…the messages that they sing?
Yeah, there is that. And engagé, yes, engagé that means you are socially engaged and you want to sing things which are valuable to your community. And that’s where you will see the artists, the ones who sing very conscious music, like, you know politically engaged in their texts, they will call themselves artistes engagés.
And the artistes humanitaires, that’s a generation of N.G.O.s who are like, “Oh, yes, you know, we are here to solve the problem by singing the problems.” Like those ones, they will sing the cholera song, they will sing the HIV song, they will sing the child soldier songs. Yeah.
And do you feel like artists, even artists who aren’t working directly with the N.G.O.s, do you feel like they will take up those themes because they’re expected to?
Oh yeah, I was telling you about an entire generation which doesn’t even know how the government functions, because they were born and grew up when the government wasn’t functioning anymore in a proper way. And any kid who is under 30 now in Goma, cannot pretend that they know a functioning government, the only thing they know now is an N.G.O. era, because they grew up in a time of N.G.O.s, and a functioning government really did not exist. And I can see it, every time I go back, I would see that generation, I can see how everything they are involved in creating has that influence still.
Only a few of them get the chance to be with people who help them to think beyond N.G.O.s. And you can see also many Congolese youth, this is a very important point, they gain some of their consciousness when they leave Goma and they go in neighboring countries, they go to Uganda and these countries and they see a functioning government and they see a proper structure: this is where government is supposed to be, this is where N.G.O.s are supposed to be, this is where the so-called “international community” is supposed to be, and this is where the people belong. It’s only once they get out of that system, and if they’re smart.
I’ve also noticed in some of the interviews, a lot of artists will talk about the need for interethnic collaboration and cohabitation, living together as one. There are these two concepts, basically, that there is a local issue, and then there’s an international issue. What are the local feelings about the roots of the conflict?
Well, this is a very important question, and very interesting. The local tension [exists] like anywhere in the world. Even in the same family, you always have that tension, and as you stay together, you find ways of solving those problems with no drama really. There can be small tension and you’ll find a way of solving the problem. But because of the constant fueling for either political or economic reasons, those small tensions have been fueled to take a different proportion, you know. And you will find that a small tension between two tribes becomes the instrument that a multinational company will use to start a bigger conflict so that they can exploit the minerals again.
You need to have a global perspective, to understand what is going on now locally, and that is not a luxury given to any common Congolese. Because what is happening now in the village of Masisi, those decisions are being made in New York. They are affecting the people of a deep, deep down village of Mwenga in Congo. And the guy who was born and grew up in Mwenga will not know that this decision was made in New York. For them, they will be like “My problem is my neighbor.”
It is a very easy thing to imagine, and most of the local artists, if they can talk about ethnic tensions or conflicts, I’ve heard most of them talking about it in a very, very wrong way, because they don’t understand how the international politics plays also at that level, you know?
Here is another example: You will find somebody will join a Mai Mai group, a militia group, because he wants to protect his family. But Mai Mai group is there because the first militia group was created by locals who said, “Hey, let’s defend our territory because we have all these people coming from either Rwanda or Uganda and they want to take over our land.”
And the issue of land…These militias and rebel groups come, with a benediction of multinational companies who are giving them guns and whatever they need, are coming in because they’re looking at natural resources, they’re looking at minerals, right? The locals don’t care about those natural resources, because they don’t know about them. What they care about it is their land. And in that region, even my own tribe, they say “If you don’t own the land, you don’t have the right to die.” So it is a spiritual belief, where people will fight up to the end so that they protect their land, because once they are off their land, they become a refugee. Even if they die, if they bury you in a land which is not yours, your soul will stay in purgatory somewhere up there. So people fight to die for their land. Once they fight like that to protect their land, those rebel groups which were coming in Congo, they will wear the same costume as people from another village and then go burn another village. And they knew that there was tension, long ago, people have their small tensions. But then they will fuel that tension, so that they can have access to the land.
And this comes in a city and becomes a big problem. The youth will not understand that the problem is not the ethnic tension. The example I give all the time is, we have been living together for all these years and we always had a way of finding a solution to stay together, despite all the small tensions which were there. You will find a politician in a bad position who will want to become important, and he will come, or she will come from Kinshasa or from any other place and say, “You know, if we are not eating enough today, it is because our neighbors, the other tribe, they have got a part of our land.” And then, yes, the problem of land will start and it will become a bigger problem.
But most of it is because of the access to the mines. To summarize everything I just said: There is local tension and very old tension or misunderstanding between tribes, like you can have in families or even between friends. But they used to have a way of solving that with no problem. But the fact that the economic element has been added to it, there is no way, or it has become difficult to find a solution to those small tensions between the ethnic groups. And of course the youth, the people don’t have a global perspective, it is difficult for them to understand that all this small tension has been amplified, or how they’re connected to a bigger picture.
I hear you. In what way do you feel like Yolé! Africa influences artists?
I describe it this way: In the middle of the chaos, which is very well organized by a group of people so that locals could not think, what Yolé! gives is that space where youth especially, can have a space to think, dream, doubt and keep on trying. And we influence them by giving possibilities, alternatives, choices to what is being offered as the truth.
Then after that, the artists have to fly with their own wings. I can give you an example: Jeremy Gilley [founder of Peace One Day] came to Yolé! Africa, and find this amazing, brilliant young guy, named Gaïus, and he wanted to hire Gaïus to be the manager of his Peace One Day campaign on a local level.
And this is one of the youth who managed to say no to that proposition. He was like, “I’m still so young. We invited you to Yolé!, we asked you questions about how relevant that project is for the community, since it is not a project the community asked for.” And [Gaïus] refused. I mean, he would have a very good salary, they were giving him all these interesting offers, like “We are going to make your career big.” Gaïus turned it down and said, “At my age, I think you have people who are much more qualified that me to advise you on how you should approach your project. I feel flattered for your offer, but I can’t take it.”
And this was so noble to see coming from a youth who was born and grew up in Congo. But he has been involved and worked with Yolé! and could understand that that kind of offer was only to undermine the community and at the same time, to somehow distract him from his amazing career. And he’s doing his amazing career: He’s now a very well-established international journalist and he still works with Yolé!.
Can you describe Peace One Day, what their concept is and what they’ve been doing?
I don’t know how I can describe them really [Laughs]. What I know is what I saw in a movie Jeremy Gilley made about himself. Jeremy Gilley is the initiator of Peace One Day. It is an initiative where he wanted the world to have a day of peace, and the day of peace was there, but it was not known, so he wanted to make it a popular day. But the concept he developed was that it was this one day where everyone should make peace, put down the guns or whatever. And, you know, with that he organized, I think, 10 million dollars, if I’m correct, to do that. And he had to organize a campaign of three years, and that would be organizing a Peace Day in the Great Lakes Region.
He came to Goma and he organized a huge concert, he brought big artists to come and sing for that day. That’s exactly how I understand the concept of Peace One Day.
We asked all the artists about Peace One Day, the Amani Festival and SKIFF, knowing they are all different, how each of them serve the community and if they really promote peace the way that they claim. So what’s your opinion of the Peace One Day project?
I think the intention of Peace One Day is noble, it is good; we need peace. But all these prefabricated projects which are always brought to Africa without the implication or the consent of Africans themselves, anything which is imposed on the community, which is not from the need of the community, for me, it is just a waste of time, it is another waste of time. And that’s how I think about it.
It is good for him, it is good for his publicity, it is good for people want to feel good, but the conflict will continue, people will keep on dying. It would be better to invest all that money in finding solutions from the source, from where the problem is starting from. If that money can be given in a campaign against all these multinational companies who want minerals from the East of Congo, I think that would be much more helpful.
The Amani Festival has been a big deal in Goma, right?
Amani Festival has been a big deal in Goma because yes, the need for big events was there and artists have been grown enough that they wanted to be part of something big like that. I think also Goma needed to have a space where they can see big artists come and perform. I think for entertainment it is a very amazing and beautiful project, that’s all, but giving it the word "peace" [amani means peace in Swahili], that’s just a way of getting money. It has nothing to do with peace. It is the same language we were talking about, about how to attract and get money from the donors.
I think it’s always doing a good publicity for that Belgian guy, so it’s good.
Do you think Amani Festival and Peace One Day contribute to a durable peace?
[Laughs] I think my opinion is still the same, I just said that it’s a good show, it’s a very good show for people to have a moment to go and have beer and dance. I think Congo has been having that since Mobutu, people will have beer and dance. I think the space we need now is much more a space for people to think, and not only to dance with their butts and then they go to sleep.
So, how is Yolé! different? I recognize that it is, but how does Salaam Kivu International Film Festival (SKIFF) create a different kind of space than that?
First of all SKIFF and Yolé!, they are not only spaces for people to come. We call Yolé! an arts and cultural center, but Yolé! is beyond that, it is an educational center. To be safe, when Yolé! was created, it was just to give it a connotation of art, because art is "harmless." It is through art that we manage to engage the community in critical thinking. With activities like SKIFF, it is a moment when we bring activists from all over the world to come in and exchange, we don’t bring an artist who comes there to be a superstar, no. We bring artists, they stay with the youth of Goma, they work together, they create a piece together, the artist teaches them, they become friends, you know? They start to dream outside the borders of Goma. And then they start also to think differently. They start to thinking as an agent of change.
The approach of SKIFF or Yolé! Africa is that whenever an artist come in, he’s come to learn about the local culture, and he or she brings brings her or his own experience to the table as well. So we are creating an international solidarity, first of all, around Goma, and we offer the possibility to the youth to have a global perspective on whatever is happening there. And also to learn how to question the everyday reality which is going on in Goma and in the region, but with a global perspective. That’s where the big difference is.
We bring in Pierce Freelon, we bring in all these other people, they will spend a week working with the youth of Goma, we don’t just bring them and parade them, “We have a big name,” and then the next day they’re in an airplane and they go back. No, we bring these people, they go and visit, they stay in a family, they eat with the people in the family and connect on a human level. Most of the people who we bring to SKIFF have friends here now and they come to Goma in any other circumstance, not only for SKIFF. It’s not the artists who say, “Oh, I have my date, and I will perform in Goma and that’s it.” No, they become friends and any time anything happens in Goma, I see on their Facebook and Twitter, they can talk about, “Eh, my friend, this happened to them.”
This is what we wanted to create! Solidarity around what is happening in Goma.
And did that occur as well when you brought in artists from other regions in Congo? I know Flamme Kapaya came in 2012, but did Papa Wemba actually come this year like he was supposed to?
He didn’t come [Laughs]. He was sick [Laughs], that’s the official version that we know, I don’t know.
That’s disappointing. But when Flamme Kapaya and other artists from other regions in the Congo come to SKIFF, did you find that same desire to be involved, that same engagement, the give and take of experience, as international artists? Has it been similar or different?
Oh yeah. All the artists we bring in, from within even Congo, they understand Goma better, or differently. Because everyone has an opinion of Goma until they get to Goma. And then, you can also get to Goma but you have to know: in which community of Goma will you be in? Because in Goma you find the completely N.G.O.-mind community, you will find people who come from the corrupt side of the government, you will come from the people who come from a completely honest and ethical part of the government, and you will find the artistes engagés, you will be in a social activist world, and you could also be in the new form of community in Goma, which is like the barely "activism" side, where they fake to be social activists because they know that that is the way also to capture money from funders. I’m telling you, it’s full of mafia there, it is just like a mosaic of mafia.
But Flamme came, and now Flamme is recording with other artists from Goma, up to now, he’s still in touch with them. I could name all of them, they change their way of understanding Goma and also of engaging with the artists locally and within the region. You can go to Yolé! Facebook and you will see that there is so much appreciation from artists around the Great Lakes Region, from Uganda and Nairobi.
One of the young filmmakers came to see me this year, in fact, and he was telling me that “Elder, you have no right, I know I have no right to tell you this, but I’m telling you, that you have no right to abandon the work you’re doing. You can’t step down.” And I’m saying, “Why are you saying this?” And he said, “You have no right. You have no idea how much you are transforming this place. Look, I went to Nairobi, I didn’t know where to go, but when I remembered that I met with Giduku, brother Giduku at the festival, I called Giduku and I had a home, I worked. And when I called Nairobi, they were like, “Man, that kid is amazing!” Everyone in that world, the world of filmmaking in Nairobi knows him and they talk about how he’s professional, he doesn’t talk a lot, he’s doing the work as perfectly as he can. I don’t like it when kids come and tell me all this praise, I was like, “Go away, go out of my office.” And the next day, he went on the camera with this journalist who was doing a film about Yolé! Africa and testified. That’s how the network grows and how people stay connected with what’s happening in Goma. Yeah people become like a family, they become like friends.
That’s the difference between what we are doing and what the "cultural centers" are doing in Goma. I say it all the time: We came in as a necessity and the moment that necessity, that need will not be there anymore, I can propose to all my colleagues, “We should just shut down Yolé!, there is no need for us to be there.” And I don’t want to create superficial needs so that Yolé! can keep on existing. No, we did not start for that. We started it because there was a need, an issue to address, and we’re still addressing that issue.
I wanted to ask you about how the beat-making labs affected music-making locally? I’ve noticed a lot of the music coming out of Goma, at least the music connected to Yolé! and SKIFF, is hip-hop, so I’m wondering when did that come about, how did that come about, and what are the influence of the beat-making labs on that community?
Well, the beat-making labs came at a moment when the urban youth needed to express themselves. Learning how to produce beats is also a very good source of income. It didn’t take long, it picked up.
But were people making hip-hop in Goma before then?
People were making hip-hop music, but hip-hop didn’t have a space. Congolese rumba is the king in its arena there and the hip-hop artists did not have much space. But when we started Yolé!, we created a space called Jam Session, and it was open to all the hip-hop artists. And we started with less than 40 people attending the Jam Session. It started there, but within three months, it was packed, every day, over 500 people would attend it. It was the only weekly rendezvous of hip-hop music.
Then some hip-hop artists started finding their way out, traveling to Uganda for the Hip-Hop Summit, coming back. So the hip-hop started gaining momentum. And since it’s an urban phenomenon, many youth embrace it and people start listening to hip-hop. And the difference the hip-hop brought in was that most of the hip-hop was socially engaged, you know. The hip-hop artists were singing what people wanted to express, what people wanted to hear as well. Somebody saying what they are thinking, loud!
Why do you think that is? Here in the United States hip-hop is always number one and very, very rarely is a mainstream artist engagé, what we would call "conscious." So why particularly in Goma, was hip-hop this other space of critique?
Hip-hop became a space of critique because, first of all, the local artists took ownership of hip-hop, hip-hop being the art brought and introduced to Africa and especially the east of Congo by black Americans. Which was a kind of hope to see, to have black role models who were doing something good. And most of the people did not care much because they could not even hear what was being said, it was just cool-looking black people. And most of them were coming from, you know, the ghettos. As the kids would refer to it in Goma, they call it ghetto and they think ghetto is a good term, that’s how they look at it.
And also with the influence from the first rap from France, which was also a very socially engaged rap, it was easy for the kids to pick up hip-hop and use it as a musique revendicatrice [protest music.]
And this is because most of the Congolese rumba musicians were on the [pay] of the politicians. So the hip-hop artists, they are dissociating themselves from the rumba, that logic of saying rumba goes with politics. Look at it: Grand Kallé was a friend of Lumumba, Franco was a friend of Mobutu, nowadays Kabila is a friend of Werrason. Each rumba musician has a politician parrain [godfather] somehow. And I think the youth embracing hip-hop was a way of saying, “No, we want to be completely out of that marriage with politicians,” because for them it was much more of a social message.
I wanted to talk about one of the videos in the Art on the Frontline series. The song “Agizo ya Lumumba.” How did the concept for that song came about?
The concept was, I was leading a workshop of filmmaking and I was talking about the concept of Third Cinema, and the theory of Third Cinema, I gave an exercise to the youth, saying, “How do you enter into conversation with the past, so that you know where you’re standing in the present and project a different future?” They came up with this concept, “There is this poem of Lumumba, written by Lumumba, and we don’t know about it.” So they were like, “What if we get rappers to get in the conversation with Lumumba and we try to make a connection between knowing our past, get where we are so we can look to the future.”
And then they brought in ideas and we had a blackboard full of ideas. They were like, “Today the hip-hop artists are becoming slaves, like enslaving themselves again, putting chains on themselves.” Like all these ideas! So they came up with that concept, saying, “O.K., how can we put it together? Let’s add dance, let’s add all this.” So it was the perfect collaboration, because I had my filmmakers working with musicians and beat-makers and dancers. So that video represents the soul of Yolé!Africa in fact!
What is the interrelation of the arts taught at Yolé!Africa? How is a video artist involved with a musician?
Well, I’m so proud of the interrelationship between the artists and the art forms at Yolé! Africa, because you get students in video, they collaborate with beat-makers whenever they need music for their films. And you get hip-hop artists, dancers, if they need a beat for their song, they collaborate with a beat-maker; the rappers, whenever they need a video, they collaborate with a video [artist].
And we have this amazing small project, which they always do together. Even the alumni, after they graduate, they go on out, they still come back and do those kind of collaborations. Artists, they find a way of being independent from [the situation] where you will have a song and you will need money, and therefore you have to go either to a politician to give you money to do a song, which means you will also have to do something for the politician, or you will have to go to an N.G.O., which means they will use you in their campaign. But we’re finding a way for artists to be autonomous and be able, with that autonomy to start either selling their art, because they can collaborate and then share the outcome when anything come out of it.
There’s one video at Yolé!, Made in Goma, which seems like a collaboration with DRC ApeParel, a clothing company? What was the process of that collaboration?
The process was amazing, and I hope it will continue being amazing. DRC ApeParel is of course an American-based company. The deal of collaborating with Yolé! is they’re bring equipment for making T-shirts, and that equipment is for creating a studio at Yolé!, a screen and a printer and all those things, and then will have a yearly class teaching fashion designing and how to design T-shirts and so forth. And then, the DRC ApeParel gets Yolé! to make videos and Yolé! generates publicity material for their company. And this has been working well, because we now have a good number of youth who are making a living designing those T-shirts.
And we also want to give an opportunity for youth who want to go into business, you know, entrepreneurship. Not in the sense of that term, which is becoming a trend for N.G.O.s, but you know, how to be self-sufficient with their art. And the collaboration with DRC ApeParel is so far working well. We are still hoping that more material will come, as we agreed. We are looking forward to that.
Many of the artists, when we asked them about the local scene in Goma, were very pessimistic saying “It’s really, really difficult to survive as an artist,” and I would think even more so in an economically autonomous way. But I would expect, in an N.G.O. culture, that there might be bars or restaurants that are patronized primarily by people bringing in money, people who work for N.G.O.s, where musicians might actually be able make money. Is that the case or no?
Yes, that’s the case, you are correct. There are a lot of bars and most of the artists, in fact, now gigs every evening in bars. That’s what I was talking earlier: The mentality of N.G.O.s has gone far in their heads. That entrepreneurship side of the artists is now suffering from the dependency mentality, so you find also a number of artists who will be complaining all the time about, you know, saying, “We don’t have promoters, we don’t have…” and so on, just because they’re expecting that an N.G.O. or somebody will come along and change it.
No, artists need to understand that there are many possibilities to self-promote. A lot of things have changed now in how the music industry functions with access to the Internet, with access to social media and all these platforms. Yes, they have to be smart enough to come up with ideas that can help them to get their music out there.
Right. It was interesting to hear from Mack El Sambo [president of the local musicians union], because he is a veteran so he has that kind of perspective. He said that he was the first artist from Goma to make a record.
His perspective was that things have changed in a very positive sense, because when he was coming up, he described sending the album art to Japan to get printed, because there was no where to print it locally, traveling to Kampala, Uganda to make the CDs. And he was saying one of the major changes in Goma now, is there are many people who could make a music video or a recording, and there are many qualified people willing to work at a low price. So I found that an interesting kind of perspective between younger artists who feel they don’t have what they need to succeed, and an older artist who said, “now you really do have what you need to succeed.”
Exactly, that summarizes very well the N.G.O. mentality, because Mack El Sambo was born when we took responsibility for whatever we were involved in, right? But now, with all those possibilities, you hear artists still saying that there is no way to make a living out of art. Yes, it is difficult, but there are tons of possibilities now.
Some artists have mentioned other styles of music that are gaining popularity now, like Afrobeats, as in Nigerian music, and how that’s the only way to make a living. Do you have any reflections on that?
[Laughs] I think there is no formula, to success, no easy success. I think the only formula is to work hard and be true to yourself. But if the artists keep going with any wind which is coming, they don’t have a clear destination. [When you know] what you want to bring out, what you want to share with the rest of the world, people at the end of the day see value with what you’re bringing out, because it’s honest, it’s genuine. But once it is a strategy of success, then [you need to] be a good strategist to be able to do it.
[Laughs] Do you feel like the workshops at Yolé! Africa influence the themes that artists choose when they record make videos?
First of all, the process of things at Yolé! Africa comes from barazas, this community gathering. We have two barazas in a month, one has no subject: the community comes together, and artists are part of that community. And we just say, “What are the problems, what are the situations we are going through now?” People will be like, “Now, it’s difficult to get water, because the water system in the city was poorly planned, now people are many.” Then it will be another problem, “Insecurity, every evening they’re killing people in that place.” So those kind of ideas will come, somebody will be writing down. And then they will break down ten topics that people brought up. And the next baraza, they will call somebody who’s qualified in that subject, and they will talk about it, and people will ask them questions, and then they will talk about solutions and possibilities. And artists go [to the barazas]. At the end of the year, when we have a theme for SKIFF, it comes from the one that got the most reaction, that’s what we put as the theme of SKIFF.
So artists, they have that as a source of whatever they create, because they are in that community which feeds them all the time. And they feed each other in fact. And we also have what we call, Mot et Livres, which is a gathering for slam poetry. And if an artist has a book which is on an interesting subject, they bring that on Thursday evening at Yolé! Book Café, and read it to other artists and the people who were invited, and if you have a text you are still writing, you can read it and others can tell you “Oh man, that is strong, maybe you can say it in metaphoric way so you don’t get arrested.”
So there are all those platforms, and I think it is much more a community-driven platform which influences the themes they’re going to sing.
Is the Jam Session that you described still going?
No. It’s no longer on. This is what we said, it goes by necessity: Maison des Jeunes [another local cultural center] they started a program they call “San’aa Weekend” where they bring artists and they perform. You know, Goma being a small place, it is easy for people to get in conflict. And I always try to tell my team, “Look, we don’t need conflict, we don’t need controversial stuff. Since they said they’re doing music, and if they’re doing it well, let’s not have Jam Session anymore, because there is no need to have a jam session if Saturday they have a jam session 10 miles away, it doesn’t make sense. [Unless] we harmonize our program to see when they’re going to have their program and when we’re going to have ours.”
But they could not follow and I told the Yolé! team, “You know what, we will start having a DJ jam session, so there will be a DJ and artists will come.” Because in Goma, there are now many bars growing and there are no qualified DJs, so we had a workshop this SKIFF with a DJ from U.S. who came to teach and we are gonna start having a jam session of DJs so we can also come up with a group of qualified, good DJs. But that will start at beginning of next year.
Sounds good. Other than that, what are the regular events that are ongoing at Yolé?
First of all the classes: Computer literacy, film and video literacy and the beat-making class. We have the space for dancers, they practice almost every day. We have a monthly program twice a month, that’s baraza; we have a sort of mentorship program which goes twice a month, where we bring in people like Mack El Sambo, they talk to the youth who are starting to, you know, make some steps in their career as musicians, or we bring in Madogo to talk to the filmmakers.
And we have “Femmes Dans l’Art.” We have a meeting called Women in Art, but you know, everybody can attend, you can be a man or whatever, but the focus is to talk about issues of women, in particular, in art. Other than that, occasionally some artists write to us, “I’m coming through the country and I’d love to come to Yolé…I’m a writer, I’m a poet, I’m a filmmaker.” It can be any kind, maybe, “I’m a guitarist and I want to contribute.” Whenever the person comes, we call the artists and they do a master class or they do a three-day workshop.
Excellent. And what’s the dance scene like, because it seems like there’s quite a lot of energy around dance?
Oh yeah! I think the dance scene is the biggest scene of art in Goma, in fact. They have a bigger audience than musicians, a bigger audience than filmmakers, than all kind of art forms. The dance scene, it’s huge, we have more than 60 groups every time, signing up for SKIFF and we have to eliminate a good number to end up with 16 groups to perform for the final performance. Most of it is crowded by younger people, really from 12 to 27, that’s the average of the dancers. And we have three main big groups, the one that have been traveling a lot, and we have two contemporary dance companies. So yeah, the dance scene is huge and it is making a lot of impact. Because of our connections in the region, we make them travel a lot, and their hub is Yolé! Africa.
The dancers who are trying to organize others, all of them practice at Yolé! Africa and we offer them a lot of workshops because we have so many friends in the region who are good dancers, so they come through and teach them.
So those groups are traveling regionally or internationally?
Both regionally and internationally: the contemporary dancers were in Germany, another group went also to Senegal, I mean they go all over really. Mostly the hip-hop [dancers] go to Uganda and Nairobi in the region.
And how did the dance scene come about in Goma, was it going on before you founded Yolé! Africa?
Yolé! Africa revived it, as music and everything, Yolé! Africa revived almost all art in Goma when it came back. But the culture of dance was there, even before people start singing, start producing musicians in Goma, we had a huge scene of dance. People like Swede Sebliko, who were imitating Michael Jackson, like perfectly. In 1990s dance was popular. Then, with all the crises, dance and all forms of art disappeared. Wars, looting, all this awful stories. Chuf! Everything went.
I remember when I returned to Goma after the eruption of volcano Nyiragongo, I had a meeting with the artists, all of them just complaining that art just doesn’t exist any more. I knew the artists, but they were not practicing, they were not producing anything. So I said, “Look, all of you are here complaining you can have a show but nobody will show up, so you don’t have courage to practice because you will end up losing a lot of money in putting up a show and nobody will show up.” I told them, “Look, guys, we are so many already here, why can’t we start becoming the audience of the other artists?” And that’s how it bloomed, it come again. We start becoming the audience and then the crowd start coming in and now you don’t need an artist in the crowd anymore.
So with dance, it was the same, but before, the hip-hop scene was not that big; it was much more putting rumba music and create your own choreography to it, and then dance in front of the audience.
And do you see influence from any traditional music and dance in what the artists do in the dance groups?
Oh yeah, there is a lot of influence. And that started coming up in fact when we added the criteria of originality in our selection of dancers during SKIFF. Then most of them start doing research about tradition, they go to the traditional dance and find some steps, they incorporate them in their hip-hop dancing so they can have sort of originality in whatever they are doing. And it’s growing, and it’s amazing the show they are putting on, really amazing shows.
One thing we’ve been asking all the artists, and it seems like a rhetorical question, but I don’t think it is: “What does peace mean to you?”
[Long laugh] Already, peace itself as a word or a concept, it is the ideal we all want to attend, want to live, right? So, peace for me means that everyday effort of trying to reach a space where love, respect and compassion will be our way of living. So that’s what peace means for me.
I think it’s an important question, because if “peace” becomes a generic word that everyone throws out there, it becomes a word like “love,” that almost doesn’t have meaning. And I think there’s a danger when “peace” is trivialized.
Yeah, definitely. That’s the ideal of human life. We have to work constantly toward that, to be able to achieve or to attend that peace. And once we start making it just a slogan, then we are taking everything out of it. And that’s the problem I have with just branding things. Here, what we’re not talking about, it’s not just a merchandise for you to brand.
And what are your hopes for Goma, for North Kivu in the coming years, especially the cultural scene?
My hope! Yo man! [Laughs] I’ve a very optimistic person, and if I wasn’t optimistic, I would’ve stopped what I’m doing already. And I’m not dreaming saying that things will change and will be completely perfect, but I believe in any single voice which will be able to say things which others are thinking but they don’t want to say loud. Then there will still be hope of something good. In art itself, we are having an amazing generation of young artists who are thinking globally and acting locally, and that is important.
I know the reality of living surrounded by predators. It is not easy to be a free mind. But it takes only to have one free mind, which can be able to speak, to create two more free minds. And the chain keeps on growing.
Excellent. Anything else you want to add?
Well, we’ve decided that the brutality which capitalism is coming with, the brutality which the N.G.O.s are coming with, we will fight it with beauty, that’s how we’re going to counteract all that destruction.
[Laughs] Excellent. And do you know plans for SKIFF 2016 yet?
We’re planning already, we’re speaking with some artists for SKIFF 2016, we have a theme already, the theme will all go around the voting, because we are voting for a new president [Laughs]. And we’re already getting in funds, it’s coming, it’s coming.
I would still love to attend.
And we hope we’re going to have you this year.
Yeah, I hope so. All right, thank you so much Petna, I really, really appreciate your time.