Lubangi Muniania runs Tabilulu Productions and is an international consultant on African art and culture for a variety of institutions. Over the years, Lubangi has been a key source of expertise on Congolese music for Afropop Worldwide. On April 11, 2018, Lubangi dropped by the Afropop office in Brooklyn for a deep conversation about recent developments. Some of his remarks appear in our program “Congolese Music: The Fifth Generation.” Here’s a full transcript of Lubangi’s conversation with Banning Eyre.
Banning Eyre: Lubangi, It’s great to have you back. Let’s start with a little about you. You were born in Congo, right?
Lubangi Muniania: Yes. I was born and raised in Kinshasa, but I traveled throughout Congo, and I have a pretty good idea of what the country is. Luckily enough, my father was in the military, so we were able to travel throughout the country. But now, I’ve been living in America for about 30 years.
The last time we spoke was awhile back, in fact the dawn of the ndombolo era. I think there’s some confusion around that word. Can you decode this term for us?
Ndombolo started out as a dance move. Wenge Musica came out with ndombolo. It caught on., and then other groups started dancing ndombolo. So people started identifying the dance move with the music, or the music with the dance. It’s a funny culture. Congolese don’t really impose themselves as, “What I’m doing is this.” They just let it happen. So that’s how outsiders started identifying that type of music and dance as ndombolo, but a purist Congolese music connoisseur knows that ndombolo is actually a dance.
It’s kind of the same story as soukous. Soukous was a dance, and then it became the name of the genre.
That’s really how it goes. Soukous was a dance move, and then it became a genre of music. The same thing with kwassa-kwassa. For instance, if you go to South Africa, they call Congolese music “kwassa-kwassa music.” Because of Kanda Bongo Man. By the way, he’s still going strong.
Great to hear. When did ndombolo break?
Ndombolo broke right about late 1997, early '98. That’s when ndombolo broke.
And what does the word actually mean?
Well, literally, it has to do with women's behind as in derrière combined with the way they "work it" and the way guys chase after "it." But the meaning changed over time. The musicians kept it as an enigma in a way. Because there’s also this culture of saying something and hiding the meaning of what you’re saying, so you don’t get yourself in trouble.
That’s the art of mbwakela.
Yes, ndombolo came out of mbwakela. So these creative guys, they go back to their own traditions. That’s where they get all these words, all these moves, and they bring it to the urban area, and it becomes so popular. Same thing with kwassa-kwassa. At some point, ndombolo became mbwakela for Laurent Kabila, the president. It was his persona and the way he walked. But then when they questioned the musicians, they said, “No, not at all. That’s not us. It’s just people that made it become mbwakela for the president. It has nothing to do with the president.” Wenge Musica’s original atelaku (animateur), I’ve forgotten his name, he came out with that.
So ndombolo becomes the name of the genre. People start to think of it that way. What can we say about the actual music that went with it? What had changed in the music that made listeners refer to the actual music as ndombolo?
It was partly the beat of the drum, which was not the same as soukous. The music was a bit slower, and it went well with the drumbeats sounded. And then the percussion, and the bass; when you hear that being played, you know “I’ve got to dance to it this way.” So that dance was ndombolo--not rumba, not soukous. In soukous, you rarely hear the percussion. It’s the guitar, the seben part. Very fast. And the drum, very fast.
Especially the snare drum.
The snare. Exactly. And soukous is a solo dance. You go crazy, whatever you want to do. The way you dance ndombolo, it’s more your typical Congolese way of dancing, like with Zaïko [Langa Langa], where you’ve got to wait for the animator, the atelaku, to tell you what to do. Ndombolo they do the same thing, but this one, the drum is also telling you how to dance, step by step. So that was something new. And people just loved it.
And then it’s the competition. This music in Congo is very competitive. They compete all the time. In fact, the competition has reached a level that is actually really ridiculous; it’s serious. You have to keep up. If you want to be considered as a top-five artist, you’ve got to compete with the rest. So being creative and digging deep into the roots makes you competitive and that’s how they go back into the tradition. I mean, I consider them geniuses, because they get this traditional sound, and it’s so modernized. But it goes way back in the tradition. Zaïko was actually the first one that brought the tradition up front, back in the early '80s. Zaïko brought the atelaku forward, and it became part of their show, their recordings, everything. And that changed music in Congo. And in Africa. This is exactly what you hear in Abidjan, and also in Nigeria.
And also that beat. [Sings the beat] That’s Zaïko. It’s called macini ya kauka. Zaïko came out with this. I think they went to Brazzaville, and they were on a train, and someone asked the drummer, Marijo, “Wow, we like that sound, of the train, on the rail. Can you repeat this while we play music?” This was early '70s. That’s when they created that sound.
And that name, does it have a meaning?
Oh, it has a meaning. Kauka is the neighborhood where most of those guys came from, and macini is machine. So it’s like “the machine of Kauka.” So when they would play, they would just call him, “Marijo, macini ya kauka, hit it so we can go.” He was like the locomotive of the train. Everybody would go crazy.
Macini ya kauka became Zaïko’s sound. In Abidjan, they just called that “Zaïko.” When you add sebene, that’s Zaïko, and the third generation of Congolese music really grew out of that. The dance back then was known as kavacha, and kavacha also became a genre of music, but really it’s macini ya kauka.
And today it goes to different parts of Africa. They play macini ya kauka. Ivory Coast. Coupé decalé is really based on macini ya kauka. Because coupé decalé developed when a lot of the Congolese migrated to Abidjan after the war started in Congo. They went over there and they started collaborating with the DJs. If you listen to the early coupé decalé, Ivorians were singing in Lingala, or mimicking Lingala. They would just say things that didn’t have any meaning, just how it sounded to them. [Demonstrates] They were imitating the atelaku, just what they remembered, but it’s that part, that’s macini ya kauka. And then it became coupé decalé, and they became creative with that, very creative.
So we’re talking about the late '90s here, right.
1997. '97, '98.
Right around the same time ndombolo is happening in Kinshasa.
So this is really the beginning of what we call the fourth generation, right?
Well, we would call fully formed coupé decalé the fourth generation, but if we go back to macini ya kauka, which is really the mother of coupé decalé, that’s still the third generation.
Speaking globally about African dance music, when would you say coupé decalé more or less overtook Congolese music around the continent?
Coupé decalé is after 2002.
When you have Magic System’s “Premier Gaou.”
“Premier Gaou,” yes. Before that, it started more locally, and the early guys wanted to sound more like Congolese. Within Ivory Coast, there’s a group of people known as the Bétés [part of Krou in the southwest], and their way of playing music resembles Congolese music also, so they already had this foundation. But then around 2000, up to 2002, Magic System came out with “Premier Gaou,” and it was a huge hit.
[Editor’s note: Magic System’s first recording of “Premier Gaou” came out in 1999, on the group’s first album. But it was the 2002 version that went global and spearheaded the coupé decalé phenomenon.]
And that is the time when the Wenge generation and ndombolo is going on. So was there competition between ndombolo and coupé decalé?
Not yet. What changed things was when Koffi Olomide moved away from his original tchacho, his suave ballad kind of music. We incorporated ndombolo and became bigger than the rest of them, Wenge and all. Because he played Bercy in Paris. So at that moment, the early 2000s, Koffi was the one representing ndombolo. There was no competition really. Magic System came out locally, and Koffi was actually inviting them to his concerts. So it took a while. I would probably say after September 11. Yes. After September 11, people started reflecting. I don’t know. Looking back. And before you know it, president Laurent Kabila was dead [assassinated Jan. 6, 2001].
Wow, that all happened that year.
Yes. Then September 11 happened, and after that, that’s when things started going down, and coupé decalé was the new sound now. At that point, the Congolese became very political. All these people who used to organize concerts in Europe started organizing political meetings, because they finally realized that the country was going down. So they stopped focusing on music, and they became combatants. They asked musicians to start singing, change the lyrics. They had to become political like Bob Marley. They felt like—they still feel like—the Congolese government is working against the interests of the people. They were corrupting the musicians, asking them to sing the praises of people working in the government. So all these Congolese in Europe and America got together and decided they didn’t want to sponsor anyone who didn’t denounce what was going on in the Congo.
Interesting. During Mobutu’s time, nobody would do that.
Right. No one denounced the government then. But the supporters of these musicians, they now started denouncing. And they asked the musicians, rather than singing love songs, or praise of somebody, we want you to denounce what is going on. There is massive rape going on in the eastern part of Congo, and women said, “We want you to sing that.”
And did they?
They did. They finally did. Fally [Ipupa]. I think Koffi also. But they were not overt. It’s interesting. People were not happy. It still hasn’t really caught on.
Old habits die hard. This is something that Jupiter Bokondji of Jupiter and Okwess spoke about. He wanted to distinguish himself from the rumba artists, first by bringing in other, overlooked rhythms, and also by singing “conscious” lyrics. He talked about being part of a “sacrificed” generation.
He wanted to be part of a conscious generation. Though he did point out that you can’t just sing anything. If you say too much, you’re going to get in trouble. But getting back to the the ndombolo generation and this business of competition between bands and singers, you talked about the musical side of it, the ones who did best were the ones who were most creative, digging into tradition. And I know their focus on fashion and the look--a lot of great creativity there. But there’s more than friendly competition going on here. The last time I was in Kinshasa was in 2001, I interviewed Werrason, and he was concerned about the way the fans of singers like him and JB Mpiana were becoming like sports teams, and fighting. I gather it’s only gotten worse since then. What do you think this was really about?
Well, it was about people’s frustration. They were frustrated with life, about the government. But they couldn’t describe it. They couldn’t tell to themselves, “I’m not happy. I am angry because the government is not working.” So they needed a champion, someone who could bring pride, so they looked back to JB Mpiana and Werrason. So sort of by accident, they became the leaders of these youths. Most of their parents probably were not models to them anymore. JB Mpiana became a model for some, and Werrason became a role model for others. And they would make them compete. The fans would fight, and they would say, “You are our leader.” They used to call Werrason “Le Roi de la Foret,” The King of the Forest. And they would tell him, “You are not supposed to talk to JB Mpiana. Our King does not do this.” And he would follow. He would listen to them, to keep himself up.
Before you know it, the newspapers got involved. Journalists got involved. And some sponsors got involved. A beer company that would sponsor JB Mpiana would be in competition with another beer company. So this whole thing became bigger than themselves. And it became ridiculous. And it almost got to a point where politicians got scared, because they knew that if they picked a side, it would become a political fight. So the actual president, Joseph Kabila, started inviting them together, all of them. They created what they called Maisha Park. Maisha means “life” in Swahili. The government wanted to get involved, but it didn’t really go anywhere. The artists tried, but they still don’t really get along, and the only reason is that you want to satisfy your fan base.
Jupiter mentioned that this competition is still going on, and he was very down on it. These days, is it still the same players, JB Mpiana and Werrason?
JB Mpiana, he’s still there. Werrason as well, but you’ve got to remember that Koffi Olomide is still active. Koffi uses his position with younger singers to stay up. He competes with them. He has his own label now called Koffi Central, and he pushes new singers. But they have to be loyal to him. It’s almost like a cult or something. He is the main person that everybody is looking up to. So you see him being featured by these young singers all the time. If one leaves and goes to JB MPiana, it creates a problem. You can’t leave here and go over there.
So there are kind of three axes, Koffi Olomide, JB Mpiana and Werrason.
And then remember Felix Wazekwa. You met him. Felix is Koffi Olomide’s nemesis. So it became Felix Wazekwa versus Koffi Olomide, JB Mpiana versus Werrason, and now Fally Ipupa versus Ferre Gola.
Tell us about Fally Ipupa and Ferre Gola.
Fally used to sing with Koffi Olomide. He was known as one of the best singers of Koffi Olomide’s band Quartier Latin. In fact, he was Koffi Olomide’s protégé. They were doing duets together of some of Koffi big songs. Now Ferre Gola was the protégé of Werrason in his band Wenge Musica Maison Mère, and he left Werrason and then he went to Koffi Olomide. So now that created of the problem. Koffi Olomide welcomed Ferre Gola as the new addition to his team of best singers in Quartier Latin, and he would put them side by side, Fally and Ferre Gola, and would do duets, beautiful songs. They would do the remix of Fally’s songs with Ferre Gola. It was really beautiful. Koffi hit the nail on the head with that. And he really gave them space to express themselves, to become creative. This made Ferre Gola a household name. Because he had been with Werrason, and now he was with Koffi Olomide.
And this is about 10 years ago?
Longer. 2003, 2004, in there.
So squarely in the era of ndombolo.
Yes. And ndombolo is not dead, by the way. It’s still going, because really, they are still doing rumba.
It’s still all one story really, isn’t it?
Right. Exactly. It’s like a Congolese dish. You can’t just eat the rice by itself; you’ve got to put in some beans and cassava leaves. You know, this is what this thing is about. If you play rumba, you’ve got to know when to break and add in some ndombolo. Of if you do ndombolo, you’ve got to know when to bring people down to a classic Congolese rumba.
So how did Fally and Ferre Gola become rivals?
O.K., again, it’s the same psychology of people looking for a role model, a leader. Now, Fally is a generation after Koffi, so he’s no longer a kid. Fally was the first one to leave Quartier Latin,. Ferre stayed a little bit after that, and then he left. Fally’s album came first. He recorded with Koffi Olomide’s permission while he was still with the band. Koffi wanted him to have his own solo album. Fally’s first album was Droit Chemin, and I did advise him on that album. But in the end, it was released under a different label, with an Ivoirian producer who was very close to Koffi Olomide when he was with Sonodisc. But in the end, this producer did not get along with Koffi because of a few mixes he did that Koffi didn’t like. Then they didn’t get along, and this producer went and took Fally and did this project, and the project caught on. Quite a few songs from that album became hits, not only in Congo, but throughout Africa.
He really blew up. This is probably a little later now, right?
Yes. 2007. Fally changed his look. It was right at the time when metrosexual was becoming a thing. Fally’s friends in Paris were telling him, “No, you’re a good-looking guy. You’re young. You shouldn’t be like Koffi Olomide. You’ve got to be like us, the new kids on the block.” So he changed his look. His sex appeal was obvious, and he capitalized on that. And Ferre was like, “Oh wow, what am I doing with Koffi Olomide?” So they started looking at Koffi Olomide as an old man, so they left him. Then Ferre got picked up by a label in Brazzaville. After that, if Fally releases an album, Ferre releases one, year after year. So people started comparing them, and then you start to have the crowd dividing between Fally and Ferre.
The same thing again.
The same thing again. These singers identify themselves as the fifth generation, because they come after Wenge Musica. It’s interesting because Fally is very creative. He was struggling with the sound. He wanted to break away from the usual by remaining authentic, Congolese. So that’s what Fally is struggling with. People enjoy his music, but don’t think he hasn’t yet found the right sound yet. He’s still working on it.
So if we were to listen to all these albums, from Droit Chemin to last year’s Tokoos, back to back, we would hear a lot of change.
You would hear him moving away from the usual rumba. You know, some argue that because of Ferre Gola, whose music is rooted in rumba in a strong way, Fally didn’t want to stay there. He wanted to evolve. He really wanted to go global, By adding sounds from different parts of the world. But still traditional at the same time. That’s really what Fally is working on.
Tokoos is a real departure, bringing in Afrobeats, including guest artists like Wizkid and Aya Nakamura, how has been received by his fans?
First of all the title. Tokoos means “great.” His generation came up with that word, tokoos, and that’s how he’s being received. The funny thing is, for Fally’s fans, it’s not really about the music. It’s about enjoyment. When it was Franco, with classic rumba and up to Wenge Musica, I should say, Koffi included, people were focused on the music, the creativity. They would be mad at their artist if they didn’t hear the sound that they are looking for. I don’t see that with Fally’s fans. Fally’s fans want to see Fally succeed. They want to see Fally go far, whatever sound he uses. They look at the rest of the world and ask, “Are they happy? If the rest of world is happy, we are happy.”
So that gives him a lot of freedom.
Big time. And he earned it. Because he could’ve lost a lot of fans, especially with this album. Yes, because when he started out with Droit Chemin, he worked with so many great musicians. That’s the album that made Fally. Then he started playing around with American sounds on the second album, and people didn’t quite like that, but he kept pushing, and now his fans know what he’s trying to do. Now his fans are like, “O.K., we’re shooting for Mars. Let’s go. Let’s just go and see how it’s going to work out.” So they have let Fally be whatever he wants to be. Now Ferre is also being creative, but within rumba. He’s bringing back nostalgic sounds. Sometimes he brings in a new sound, and he’s looking at his fans and asking, “What do you think?” But because he has a great voice, he could do a whole album without any strings, just his voice, a cappella album. People would love it.
So do you think this competition among artists is just part of Congolese music permanently now? As long a there’s no political stability in the Congolese government, this is just status quo in Kinshasa?
Joseph Kabila does not want to leave power. He’s past his term limits, but he does not respect the constitution. And he’s not present as a leader. He does not inspire. But he is there. All these business dealings with multinationals, which don’t do anything for the people. People are feeling abandoned. So one of the ways to keep them up and happy, interested in the country, is music and sports. And sport is not doing too well. They didn’t make it to the World Cup. We were looking forward to it, so they could have something for 2018. But when you have people like Ferre Gola doing amazing concerts in the country, and outside, it brings pride. So it becomes, O.K., Ferre Gola represents me. That’s me ambassador. That’s my leader. That’s my role model. Fally Ipupa represents me. That kind of stuff.
So it seems like artists are still the most prominent, not just singers, but people in the Congo.
Right, right, right. And then there are two more that have come up really good. You have Fabregas. He released a song in, I believe, 2014 that drove the whole country crazy, “Ya Mado Mascara.” Fabregas was actually invited on French television to talk about “Ya Mado.” That’s a big deal. He used to sing with Werrason, so Werrason kind of released his own signature singer, Fabregas.
He is very theatrical the way he sings and dances. He brings in the African outfit when he does that. He knew how to do it. If you look at the video and see the dance, you will think it’s very provocative sexually, but in reality, it is a warning to youngsters to be aware of AIDS. It’s interesting the way he did it. It brings you in when you see the movements and the images, but when you listen to it closely, he’s telling you to be very careful and aware of the disease. He says, “You got to be careful at night. Looking at all these beautiful women with makeup and this and that, but that could be a trap into a very dangerous disease.” It’s not like Franco when he sang “Attention na Sida.” "Beware of AIDS.” People were scared. But Fabregas didn’t scare people. He was being sarcastic: “Oh, I heard that a woman died, but before she passed away, she left the list of the men that she’s been with. And there are so many of us here who knew the woman.” That kind of stuff. And then, people are like, “Oh my goodness!” You know, in Kinshasa, it goes well when you sing like that. And by the way, he was wearing a dashiki like T-shirt in that video. The shirt became so identified with the video, that now when people sell this type of shirt, they just call it Ya Mado.
You said there is another young singer who is making waves.
Yes. That’s Robino Mundibu. He also has been making big waves in Kinshasa. They are not competing. The good thing with Fabregas and his generation, they all want to be working together.
They’re trying to short-circuit the competition thing.
They talk among themselves. They say, “Let’s do something different.” When people come to them, they want to invite them, and the next thing you know, they are inviting each other to perform together, record together. That’s what they do. They are fighting this competition thing. So they want to bring something new.
Fascinating. So are they going to be the sixth generation?
Sixth generation Yes. That’s how they see themselves. The fifth generation, it used to be how the music sounded. But now it’s how you conduct yourself. They’re saying, “We don’t want to be that generation that is competing.” And they have pushed Fally Ipupa to go back and have a good relationship with Koffi Olomide. Not yet with Ferre Gola. But this new generation wants to be different.
That’s interesting. Coming back to lyrics, when I spoke with Jupiter, he said that the audience is demanding a more engaged political lyric from singers. You can’t just sing love songs anymore. Would you agree with that?
I would agree. Now Jupiter and Okwess, they represent a different genre. It didn’t start now. It didn’t start with Jupiter. It started way back. I would take it back to Abeti Masikini.
There are some interesting tracks from Abeti on that Zaire 74 release that came out last year, the African sets from the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle music festival.
Abeti was doing alternative. Lokua Kanza came out of Abeti. If you listen to early Abeti Masikini, the focus was not on lyrics. It was on the sound. But later, Abeti went back to doing soukous and rumba to go global, because that alternative genre, people didn’t take it well when it came out of Congo. They called it “research music.” You’ve got to research your sound. That’s where you see Jupiter and Okwess.
They call it research music because they are going deep into tradition, but they’re also digging deep into other rhythms, ethnic styles that have not been exploited.
Right. They do that. But not in a popular way. It’s like jazz in a way. They want to hear creativity, but in music that makes them dance. Now today, there’s a growing group of people who are becoming interested in that sound. But that sound has been there. You had Bobongo Stars, alternative Congolese music. Dominic Kanza came out of Bobongo Stars.
Really? He’s Angelique Kidjo’s guitarist now. I remember when he came here with Papa Wemba in 1988. But it’s interesting that you say this wasn’t very popular. Jupiter told me that when he first started with his set out in 1983, people didn’t get it at first. They accused him of playing “white rock ‘n' roll.” But gradually he got acceptance.
Tshala Muana almost fell in that category, research music.
But mutuashi, her style, kind of became a thing, didn’t it?
It did. Thanks to her. Otherwise it might have just been part of alternative. Same thing with Staff Benda Bilili. Even Konono No.1. Konono was actually traditional music, but they made it sound more like alternative.
So when they came from playing at funerals in the village, and started playing for crowds in the city, that was essentially them entering the alternative scene?
That’s right. But the big alternative musicians, they do have their own audience. People go and listen to them. Is it taking over now? No. They are still fighting. The interesting thing about Fally Ipupa is that he understands that world very well. Because before singing with Koffi Olomide, he used to do a bit of alternative.
I want to ask you about the Zaire 74 record. I had an interesting impression listening to those performances and thinking about the context as part of the festival with James Brown and all these people. When I listen to the performances by Tabu Ley, Franco and Abeti, it seems like they were not emphasizing the rumba so much, but rather playing up more kind of rock side of their sound.
The way they played is the festival way of playing. When they play rumba, the song goes on and on, because you know Kinshasa’s bars were where these guys used to perform, the band will not stop and say, “O.K. the show was over. Go on.” No. People leave, and you will play until the last person is sitting there. There’s five people still there, you’ve to play until 6 o’clock.
I experienced that back in 1987. It blew my mind.
So that’s a whole different situation. Now, most of them, that’s how they learned music. You play music, and that there’s a narrative, and then you sing about the people in the audience. You sing about what’s happening. So you are communicating with the audience. That is the secret of Congolese music. People ask, “Why’s it so slow?” Because it’s a dialogue. The sound of the guitar, the voices, the lyrics. People are dancing to the song. People are communicating. That’s really the secret of this Congolese music, this rumba.
Now when you give them a festival stage, and you tell them they’ve only got 30 minutes, the whole dialogue changes. And that’s when they start doing, like you said, like a rock ‘n' roll sound. But really, they were playing a third-generation sound. Zaïko. Kavacha. That’s the time of people like Papa Wemba. But you notice that they did not invite them. The third generation was not invited. The only group that was invited is Stukas. Stukas was third generation. They brought them in, but not Zaïko. So what Tabu Ley and Franco did was, they wanted to play like these third-generation groups, the youngsters. So they came, not to compete, come but to be on the same level as James Brown and these guys.
So what we’re hearing is mostly second-generation artists, borrowing from the third generation, in order to have this more hard-hitting festival sound?
Just a quick word about Papa Wemba, one of my favorite singers ever. It was so terrible the way he died, on stage while performing. How do you think he’s remembered? And how do people think about his later years, with all the drama he experienced?
Papa Wemba is remembered as one of the greats. He is well, well, well respected. There are some people who blame him the youth behavior today, saying he is the cause of that because he didn’t push youth to go to school. There are people who debate this. But that wasn’t his job. He was just an artist. He gave hope. You’ve got to remember, Papa Wemba came out of a culture where you are validated if you had a degree, a university degree. You had to be a doctor or a lawyer. If you didn’t have that, you were not respected. This comes out of the Belgian colonization, the evolués. That was the name they gave to the ones who are more Europeanized. So if you didn’t have any degree, and you didn’t work for the government or any prestigious companies, just shut up and go. So Papa Wemba, I don’t think he had a university degree. But he gave those who did not have anything, something to be proud of. What was it? Was it a dance? Papa Wemba told them that if you can dress well, and you have a label, then that’s your degree.
As a matter fact he has a song. People don’t know much about that song, but it says, “I went to university, and in university, my major was fashion.” But he’s not talking about fashion as a fashion school. He’s talking about la sape. [La sape is an abbreviation based on the phrase Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, sapeurs. Wemba was the king of the sapeurs.] He was saying, “If you know how to dress well, you know how to coordinate colors, you’re smart. You’re a genius. You’ve got something. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.” That spoke to a lot of those kids who did not have the means to go to school. So they prided themselves on sapé, dressing well. It was a whole movement that took both Congo Brazzaville and Kinshasa by storm.
Now, the way he died, so dramatic, dying on stage. I wonder, do people speculate about why he died, how he died? Are there conspiracy theories?
Big time. Some people accuse the government of being involved, because he became vocal. He spoke against the government a little bit before he died. He was saying that, “We saw these guys came in with their boots. They didn’t have anything. Today they have bank accounts and houses in Europe and America. Meanwhile people don’t have anything.” He started becoming vocal. Then little bit after that, he went to perform in Ivory Coast, and some people say, “Well, you know, his microphone was poisoned. There was a guy who came in and fixed the mic before that, and then as he was singing, he dropped dead. Then a guy came in, and instead of helping Papa Wemba, he took the mic off. I mean, there are videos, and people say, “Look at that. He took the mic. He didn’t help Papa Wemba.” There’s a whole conspiracy theory around that.
Then some people said, “Well, no, before that, he was sick. He wasn’t well.” Then some people defend the guy who took the mic because it cost $20,000. So there’s all that going on. And it went on for a while. They thought maybe the family was good to pick it up, but the wife didn’t say much. Some people said, “Well, because she was well paid to keep quiet.” Then they found a video of Papa Wemba saying that, “If one day I go, I think [it] good [to] go on stage.” He said it.
I think a lot of artists think about that.
He said, “When I sing… It’s happened to me when I’m singing, I didn’t feel the ground. It’s like when I’m floating. One day I said to myself, ‘Wow, what a great feeling. Maybe that’s [how] I’m going to go.’” He said it. There’s a video about that. That kind of brought people down a little bit, calm them down.
Maybe he got his wish. Now to end, we need to talk about some of these diaspora artists.
We have to. We can’t end this without talking about this whole movement of Congolese diaspora music. Take Romeo Mputu. He used to be an atalaku. He was trying to get his wish, which was to be an atalaku with Koffi Olomide. Then he got picked up by JB Mpiana, but he didn’t end up recording with JB Mpiana. So he went to South Africa with his dad. And in South Africa he started recording music with Gallo, and he did very well in South Africa, so he decided to expand, to start collaborating with some other folks. His early music sounds more like Congolese, but then he realized that outside, English was what people were listening to. People wanted to know what you were singing about, so he decided to do it differently. There was that moment. So that’s when he came to America, to see if he can collaborate with some American musicians to introduce himself to an American audience and other musicians. So he’s doing this English thing now. But onstage, he also does his Congolese sound. His song “Tracker” is very popular, but only in English-speaking countries. Especially in Zimbabwe and South Africa—that part of Africa.
But he is part of this movement. These are kids who grew up abroad, in the Congolese diaspora, but they still want to identify with Congo. There’s one big one. His name is Maitre Gims. He’s in Paris. He is the biggest artist in France. Not for Congolese music. But just in France, period.
From what I hear listening to his tracks on YouTube, his music mostly falls into what we would broadly call hip-hop or r&b.
Ye, but there’s a song from 2015 called “Sapés Comme Jamais.” Sapé like Papa Wembe, comme jamais, like never before. It has over 342 million views.
This guy packs the Zenith in Paris. Everybody follows Maitre Gims. That song, “Sapés Comme Jamais” adds in the guitars and everything. Then he has his other songs that don’t really sound like Congolese music, but in his interviews, he says, “I am inspired by Franco.” The narratives. The way he sings songs. Maitre Gims is the son of Djanana. Djanana was Papa Wemba’s singer. I believe Djanana is the family name.
So he comes out of third generation. And of course, Papa Wemba was the chief sapeur. He also defined the diaspora thing, by having two bands.
Right, and of course because of Papa Wemba, Maitre Gims grew up in France. When Papa Wemba took his band over there, his dad brought his family to Paris. So he grew up there, but he grew up among Papa Wemba’s musicians. So he knows a lot about rumba music. And then you have Youssoupha, who is Tabu Ley’s son, also living in France also. He has his own label, Bomayé Musik.
Bomayé. We know about that. That’s the phrase the Kinois shouted at Muhammad Ali in 1974. ["Ali boma ye!" Ali, kill him!]
Right. So Youssoupha did a remake of one of his dad’s songs. And then there’s also another of Tabu Ley’s sons, Pegguy, who lives in Amsterdam. All of them are very successful. But he does rumba. And he did a nice feature with Papa Wemba. Wemba is an elder giving advice to the younger Pegguy about his marriage, which is on the rocks. Pegguy’s sound is a bit like his dad, also a bit like Fally Ipupa.
How about Baloji, the rapper in Brussels. Where does he fit into this?
Baloji fits in next to Maitre Gims, that kind of stuff.
Who is his audience?
Mostly non-Congolese. Because he’s playing stuff that Congolese heard a long time ago. So Congolese see him as, “Ah, where were you when we were listening to that? Our parents were listening to that? Where were you?” But he has his own twist. He has his own touch to the old sound. But he hasn’t really taken off yet in Congo.
I interviewed him a few years ago, and he said an interesting thing. When he first came out, he wanted to be accepted as a hip-hop artist, and he told me that he found the mainstream American hip-hop scene to be so conservative. That was the word used. They wouldn’t accept anything that wasn’t exactly what they were doing. And he said that the Congolese audience was also so conservative. He was caught in the middle of these two very conservative, set-in-their-ways audiences.
He is so right. Absolutely. Then you have Maitre Gims who is trying to break that. Youssoupha tried too with his dad’s song. But Fally is definitely doing it. There is a song he did featuring another kid, KeBlack, and also Naza. The song is “Mannequin.” KeBlack is from where Baloji comes from, the southeast part. But this kid also lives in Paris and he works with Youssoupha and Fally. Amazing. They are the ones who are really packing venues in France. They are bringing Europeans and Congolese together. So it’s a whole new thing.
Now, Pierre Kwenders in Montreal is even further removed, and he wasn’t coming from music originally. He studied accounting. He was a tax collector and sang in a church choir. He remembers Congolese music, but only from when he was very young. He spent 20 of his 30 years in Canada. So he feels very free, and very grateful to the Montréal audience that has embraced him. He doesn’t feel in any way constrained to try to be a hip-hop artist or Congolese artist. He just does what he wants and he’s happy that people accept it.
That’s a little bit like Maitre Gims. Maitre Gims has the liberty to bring in Congo sound when he wants. There’s also Mohombi. His mother is from Sweden, but he was born in Kinshasa. He grew up there, and he started music in Kinshasa, like Congolese, and then he went to Europe and decided to become a hip-hop artist. And now, he’s going back to mixing both. He’s done some featuring with Jean Paul and people like that. So he is well received worldwide. And in Kinshasa, people want him to go back to what he used to do. So it is exactly what Baloji said. He’s caught in the middle.
So he’s in France?
No, he is back in Kinshasa.
Wow, so he’s facing this head on.
Yes. Right there. Head on.
You know, what I take away from all of this, is the remarkable force that Congolese music has exerted on the world. The conservatism really goes back to the Mobutu era when the country was cut off from a lot of outside influences.
The Rumble in the Jungle obviously was a big exception. But for the most part, Congolese were not getting a lot of exposure to the outside music, so that created this powerful sense of solidarity, and inward looking core of loyalty, and that has endured up to this time. But at the same time, all this stuff is happening out in the world. Even in Franco’s era, you had so many Congolese musicians getting away from the competition in Kinshasa and looking for greener fields and other countries.
Exactly. You know Remmy Ongala in Tanzania. People don’t know that he’s from Congo. A lot of people don’t know that. And Samba Mapangala. And Ndala Kasheba.
And Les Mangelepas in Kenya.
Exactly. So Franco would release a record, and people everywhere would do something similar. This is what’s going on right now a little bit. But it’s different now because it’s on the world stage: Paris, New York. So they do it like to do it there, but with Kinshasa stuff. And you see that in the dance moves. The dance moves that are taking over come out of ndombolo. They combine hip-hop and ndombolo, and that has driven the world crazy. You see ndombolo in Nigerian dance moves, Côte d’Ivoire, early coupé decalé. You see them dance. The kids in Europe. It’s ndombolo-based, and then you add hip-hop moves. And they become creative. If they do hip-hop moves, watch. You will see ndombolo moves coming up right after that. But the way they’ve combined those dance steps, it’s like something totally new. So really, it’s taking over. In early 2000s, nobody would think it would be what it is today.
And it is so ironic that all of this creativity and all this influence is coming out of a country that has so many problems.
Right. But also realize that it was when the country went down with the war, that’s when coupé decalé sprang up, and now Afrobeats.
Thank you so much, Lubangi. This has been an education. And it’s great to catch up with you. This interview is rich. I’ll be referring to it for years.