Features December 3, 2011
Feature: Hidden Meanings in Congo Music

For most Afropop fans, Congolese music is synonymous with party hearty soukous and sensuous rumba. And, as we like to joke our Congolese friends, their music’s success on dance floors around Africa and in cosmopolitan cities around the world amounts to Congolese cultural imperialism!

Dig below the surface of this vast central African country and you find a much darker historical reality. We invited two Congolese colleagues to share their insights with the Afropop audience. Dr. Kazadi wa Mukuna is an ethnomusicologist and author who teaches at Kent State University in Kent Ohio and Lubangi Muniania is an arts educator, community scholar and president of Tabilulu Productions based in New Jersey.

The Historical Setting

Congo has been a place of violence, poverty, division, and instability for over 500 years. The Portuguese first arrived in 1483. By the 1500s, they had destroyed the great Kingdom of Kongo by tricking their leaders and harvesting slaves and ivory. In the late 19th Century, the Congo became the personal fiefdom and virtual slave labor camp of King Leopold II of Belgium. This time the cash crop was rubber (for a gripping read on this era, we suggest “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild ). After Leopold was forced to sell Congo to the Belgium government, Belgian colonial rule continued until independence in 1960. African dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko followed from 1965 to 1997. An estimated 3-4 million people have died in the civil war that has raged during the post-Mobutu era, yet the plight of the Congolese has received very little attention. Now democratic elections are scheduled for July 2006.

Lubangi Muniania: “You have to remember that this is a country where people have been oppressed for so long. There is this sense that nobody listens to us whenever we cry. What is the need of crying out loud when nobody listens to you? This goes way back King Leopold II. No one really did a thing about what the Congolese were going through. The only person who spoke up they killed - the one that everyone knows, was Patrice Lumumba. Not counting all the ones that nobody knew. They sort of like wiped them out… People come from that culture of “Okay, we’re not going to say it. We have to live our lives. One day, things will get better. We don’t know how. But at the same time, they want to sing to themselves so they won’t feel the pain. I’m talking about the 15th century. Way back then, until today.

People have not really taken serious control of their lives. It’s so painful. You don’t tell your pain to your kids. You don’t want to appear to your children as a powerless person. You just want to tell yourself that things will be good. Then you use mbwakela to show you’re not pleased with the situation. It’s a totally different mindset. You are angry but you don’t want to be obvious about it. Because, you know, there is a culture of people being killed and nobody saying anything… We don’t want to appear as victims but we are the true victims. We want to walk around with our heads way up. We can throw one or two or three sentences to let you know that things are not well.”

Mbwakela—The Art of Metaphor

Lubangi Muaniania refers to “mbwakela” and “throwing one or two sentences (of mbwakela).” Mbwakela is central to understanding Congolese culture. It’s a phrase, a couple of sentences, even a whole song where you say something insulting or critical without its being easily understood. It is coded language, a secret discourse that goes on under the noses of tyrants and oppressors - or a clever way to attack your rivals.

Kazadi wa Mukuna: Mbwakela is a genre of metaphor songs. So they will sing about someone without pronouncing that person’s name. He who reacts is guilty. Among many many composers, Franco excelled in the composition of mbwakela.”

Kazadi is referring of course to the late Franco aka Luambo Makiadi, a towering figure in Congolese music. Singer, guitarist, bandleader, composer and arranger, he drew his inspiration from the people of Kinshasa, the capital of Congo. Franco died in 1989. A prime example of a Franco song using mbwakela is “Tailleur” (Tailor).

Kazadi wa Mukuna: “And the top of them all (mbwakela) is “Tailleur” (tailor). Here he does not say anyone’s name. But everyone knew who is the tailor and who is the owner of the needle. When he says the owner of the needle has taken his needle, how are you going to sew? We all know the target of that song. Say you are the Attorney General, you have the needle until the owner, the President comes to take it away, or demotes you”

While the Attorney General was in power, he had thrown Franco in jail to punish him for performing what were judged obscene songs. But Franco got the last laugh.

Mobutu Sese Seko

The story of Congo is intimately wrapped up in the story of Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu is generally regarded as a corrupt kleptocrat who stole some three billion dollars, which he stashed in Swiss bank accounts. He is also known as an authoritarian dictator who repressed the population during his rule from 1965 to 1997. But according to our guest scholars, there was more to Mobutu than the conventional wisdom about him.

Kazadi wa Mukuna: “Mobutu started as a very good man with good intentions. This man was the first person who united the country. Without Mobutu, I’m sorry to say, the country would not be united. Because I remember very well that prior to Mobutu, a Muluba from Kasai could not go and work and live in Haut Zaire. If you were not from that region you did not live there and work there with your children. No. And those that did adventure in those directions often did not return. The only place you stayed at ease was Kinshasa because Kinshasa was a metropolis. And no one bothered anyone… ”Ba noka” that’s Lingala mbwakela for “our uncles”: the Belgians did not want us to unite. Divide and conquer. They wanted there always to be friction between ethnic groups. Mobutu came and put an end to that. He became evil afterwards. Why? Don’t ask me. Those are things that can happen to anyone with power.”


The most significant program that Mobutu launched was called “authenticite” (authenticity) in 1971. Kazadi wa Mukuna likens it to the first president of Senegal Senghor’s very influential philosophy of “negritude” and the black power movement in the U.S.

Lubangi Muniania: “Authenticite was an interesting time in Zaire. It was a moment when the Africans decided that they have the right to be different. They celebrated differences. They say we are Africans. We are different. We have a way of thinking, of expressing ourselves. And we’re going to keep it that way. So if you want to deal with us, you have to accept our differences. That was the idea of authenticite. Of course the leader of authenticite happened to be Mobutu. He was very proud of himself, so it trickled down. So Congo, the country, was renamed Zaire. Congo was named by the Belgians. If we are indeed free people we have the right to name ourselves, instead of carrying the names of our old masters. Now we are no longer Congo. We are Zaire. Which was a reflection the river since the river crossed the whole country—from the east all the way to the west. And the river touches all the different regions. The river represented who you were. You belonged everywhere. So that was the idea of authenticite.

The most important thing was the change of names. So we said, wait a minute, we are not that. Like myself, I was born. Our grandfathers had different names. Our fathers had European names. And then us. So we had to go back to the African names. So it was a very interesting moment in the history of Zaire. People came from villages. People like grandparents came and we spent time with their teaching us about the traditional life, which a lot of us did not know; myself, I did not know. I remember that time. I was growing up like a little kid in Europe. Really. Growing up speaking French. Did not have anything to do with the village. So they came. Taught us who we were. We changed our names - like for me from Walter Henri Gabin to Lubangi Muniania which had a meaning. Lubangi is the one who crosses the river. Muniania is a medicinal plant. Actually my name was longer…. We had all these long names. That moment gave us a serious sense of pride. We knew who we were. Where we came from. So that was the authenticite. Now in music, that meant we had to be creative, using our traditional music. So that’s how someone like Franco flourished tremendously. Because Franco is very traditional. So he was very happy because he was right at home. When that was pushed forward. Franco said we are doing it our own way, we are using our own imagination. And you will find people using themes, expressions and proverbs that came straight from the tradition.

Franco started singing in Ki-Kongo. They would dance these traditional dances. Like they used to dance ki-ndobika. So for the purists it was like “oh my god”. These (dances) were abolished when the whites were here. What are we doing? So ki-ndobika was a version of a dance used during initiation ceremonies. You’d call it a dirty dance in a way. Like the Cuban old version of rumba which, if you think about it - rumba, lumba - it was very provocative sexually. Like, the woman would provoke the man sexually and then the man would come and be very suggestive. So ki-dombika was picked up. But it was clean though to present it on TV. People like Zaiko (leading band) which is the younger generation will do all these traditional dances which they will pick here and there.”

Kazadi wa Mukuna: “Mobutu was not an idiot. He was a very smart man. He knew that he could use musicians to push forward his mission. Franco was instrumental. And Franco took advantage of this to compose songs about authenticite. Franco wrote about everything. He spoke about every aspect. Authenticite was a subject that he was close too. “Belela Authenicite Congres Na Congres” MPR is one of those song in which he truly revealed his belief. He says in Lingala, “In a foreign country, a foreigner asks, “Who am I?” Proudly and in my way I will tell him that I am Zairois. My party is MPR. My chief is Mobutu.” It all comes down to “belonging.” Franco took that traditional concept of belonging and used and summarized it to put it in terms of authenticite as Mobutu defined it saying that “MPR is family and politically organized. If you are born Zairois, you are a member of the MPR.”

The Rumble in the Jungle

Anyone who saw the movie “When We Were Kings” got an impression of a vibrant Kinshasa at a proud moment in Zairean history.

Kazadi wa Mukuna: "1974 was a great year. It was a peak of Mobutu’s power. Why? Because the national soccer team - Leopard - won the African Cup of Nations and qualified for the 1974 World Cup in Germany. The price of copper was at a high on the world market. The Rumble in the Jungle (the Mohamed Ali-George Foreman) fight took place along with performances by James Brown. Johnny Pacheco - Cubans, Europeans, etc. So 1974 was significant for the country and for Mobutu. A lot of money was poured into the country by all these visitors."

By the late 1970s the price of copper had fallen sharply and the living conditions for the common man had become grim.

Kazadi wa Mukuna: “Remember, we said the economic peak was 1974. Thereafter the price of copper goes down and with that we see the downfall of the economy. That will bring a very sad picture in the country. Why? Because people were not being paid. Or if they were being paid, they were not being paid on time. Or not being paid what they are worth. So the economy was losing its ground and the politics was becoming not very straight-forward. We see uprising of people beginning to question Mobutu’s authority. People became more daring in public like they never did before. All this why? Because the economy was going down. People literally began to see the misery with their own eyes, seeing the pain in people’s faces. People began to eat once a day. The parents will eat in the morning. The children will eat at noon. You began to eat by shifts. So all those things became very apparent in Kinshasa especially. People began to question the authority of Mobutu. We’re talking about the late '70s and early '80s. And also something new will begin to happen in Kinshasa in particular, by necessity--and that is religion. The way I look at it, now we are in this bad situation, there’s only one person to turn to - and that’s the Big Man upstairs. You have to turn to the big man to ask for salvation and redemption that no one on earth can give to you. The population will turn to religion like they’ve never done before. People began to gather in each other’s homes for prayer. And that is important. So these activities had to be documented and kind of exploited by musicians. And they did exactly that. So we see hear songs like “Amen” by Koffi Olomide with a beginning like a prayer “Our Father Who Art in Heaven… You are seeing what is going on”

All these things began to reflect the prayers that were now being recited by the population in order to ask for forgiveness and salvation for help from an upper authority…. I think this whole thing is well summarized in the composition “Golgatta” that Tshala Muana sings. It talks very serious and deep seated meaning. You guys are praying and praying to God. He’s probably not listening to you. He even did not answer his own son while he was dying on the cross at Golgatta; He was there but he did not do anything. If he didn’t do anything for his own son, what is he going to do for you? We have prayed and prayed. Nothing has happened. To hell with it!”

As the life of the people in Kinshasa continued to get worse, artists became more daring in their use of mbwakela. Not attacking Mobutu directly - that would risk loosing your life - but more like singing about the economic situation through mbwakela: for example, Papa Wemba, singing with Sam Mangwana, in “Reference” says “I’m like a dry leaf on the ground.” According to Lubangi, the tree represents which has abandoned its own people.

Mobutu’s Fall from Power and Dealing with New Authorities

In 1997, a rebel army supported by Rwanda, Uganda, and Angola and led by Laurent Kabila marched all the way from eastern Zaire to Kinshasa on the far western side of the country. When the rebels were breathing down the neck of the city, Mobutu fled with his family to Morocco. The country was renamed Congo, an insult to Mobutu’s authenticite program. The rebels were greeted as liberators at first, but they acted badly. They went on a rampage, stealing from people’s homes. They did not speak Lingala or French so locals could not talk with the new authorities. They humiliated Kinshasans on the street. Lubangi Muniania tells us that the song “Desequilibre” by the supergroup Zaiko Langa Langa. The song is about love and relationships but when it goes into the animation (like rap) it says if people come back and try to take advantage of locals, the people of Kinshasa will put tires around their necks, in other words, burn them alive.

Congo Today

Afropop’s Banning Eyre interviewed rising Congolese star Felix Wazekwa in New York City recently about how artists in Kinshasa are coping today:

“I do not want to stay quiet. I must speak. I'm still an artist. Artists must reflect the reality of the country, and certain artists, like Franco, did have the courage to speak out, and many times, he was arrested. But because he was in such demand by the public, they always released him. So it is good that we artist today have more freedom of expression, but is not total, this freedom. We are still afraid. We know that there are subjects we cannot broach without fear.”

And later in the interview he said,

”I was born in a country so rich, blessed with all kinds of minerals… but yet it has not brought us any form or shape of happiness.”

As in other African countries, their natural resources are both a blessing and a curse as ethnic blocs and foreign manipulators vie for control of Congo. Hopefully, the Congolese election set for July 2006 will be free and fair and its citizens finally will have more control over their lives. One thing we know: the rich tradition of mbwakela or hidden meanings in Congolese music will continue to serve as the voice of the common man.

Also recommended: “Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death” Belgium/UK, 2004, 84 min., documentary, English/French/Dutch with English subtitles, Peter Bate, dir.

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