Who needs Madonna when you got Lingala?

"Music in the Congo is everything. It is the only thing we are applauded for, and without it we would have nothing to live for," says Lingala music star Kofi Olomide, descending the marble staircase of his Kinshasa home and heading toward the swimming pool.

Dressed in a black cape ("designed by Yohji Yamamoto"), black shiny pants ("Jean Paul Gaultier is the only designer I really trust"), a black turban and gold slippers, he nods to a dozen spandex-clad female dancers relaxing in a nearby gazebo and takes off his Ralph Lauren sunglasses.

"There is no good party in Africa without Congolese music," he says, motioning to his butler - a young woman who goes by the name of AC Milan - to bring over some orange juice - "Minute Maid, that's all I can drink."

In this country ravaged by civil war, where most people are surviving on $100 dollars a year, and where practically every young person knows disease, death and despair intimately - music and dance are a major form of escape and a rare source of national pride. While youth in other developing countries embrace the likes of Britney Spears or Backstreet Boys, Congolese are fiercely loyal to their own music and stars like Kofi or Papa Wemba.

"In our clubs, bars, and on our radio - if anything foreign, anything else at all, is put on, everyone yells at the DJ to give back Papa Wemba," says Carly Kanyinda, who is president of Expressions, a Kinshasa-based cultural association, and is writing a book on Congolese music.

"There is nothing for the young here," says the French cultural attache in Kinshasa, Jean Michel Champult. "No movies, no sports clubs, no libraries, no associations. So they listen to music and organize themselves into bands, make up dances, practice in the courtyards and dream of someday becoming stars like Kofi."

Outside of the Congo, meanwhile, throughout Africa as well as in Europe, the Lingala sound is becoming increasingly popular. Kofi and other stars such as J.B. Mpiana have taken on European agents and promoters, and say they, with their bands and dancers, are booked for the coming year.

These top singers have tens of recordings, several gold records, large fan clubs, second homes in Paris and substantial incomes. In the US, they are less known, but they all say they have hope "of making it big" there as well. Kofi is scheduled to play in New York July 16 as part of a Lincoln Center African music festival.

Called Lingala music because of the language - Lingala - in which it is sung, the Congolese sound results from a mix of influences over the years.

Traveling Cuban and Caribbean musicians of African origin arrived in the region in the 1940s and introduced the rumba to traditional African rhythms. The travelers brought in the guitar and the tam-tam drum and sowed the seeds for what later was to be called the African rumba or Afro-Cuban music.

Then, in the decade following, European rhythms and instruments - like the saxophone and big drums - brought to Kinshasa by Belgian colonialists found their way into the music, speeding up the beat.

Meanwhile, several enterprising Greek businessmen living in the Congo saw opportunity and began opening up recording studios, turning Kinshasa into the only place in black Africa at the time where records were cut.

In the 1960s, after independence, Congolese musicians began traveling to Europe and selling their records. Soon, they began producing higher quality recordings there, at times in cooperation with European singers and once again incorporating new sounds. Rock and roll became an influence, and instruments like the trumpet and the bass guitar made appearances.

Today, younger groups experiment with everything from rap to Arabian sounds and continue to create new versions of the music. Dance moves and combinations, in turn, have become an integral part of the music scene, with almost every new song spinning off a new dance.

"The Congolese are extremely proud of this music and dance created here," says Kanyinda, adding that once his association tried holding a festival of other more traditional music from the country's interior. "No one showed up," he recalls. "just a few music students and journalists."

Kofi says part of his music's appeal is that "we sing about the real things here - like cars and girls."

It is midnight on Saturday, and the crowd gathered at a rundown former manufacturing plant near the airport has been listening to warm-up bands and waiting for Kofi since 8 p.m.

"It's just like Michael Jackson. We just wait and wait and finally he will appear," says Noel Bomkodo, a serious fan who sports gold rings, dark glasses and a cape just like his hero's.

Sitting around plastic tables, almost no one in the crowd is drinking. There is an occasional cola passed around, a beer shared slowly by a couple, and a sole bottle of sweet milk purchased. "It's a money problem-thing," says the bored bartender.

Outside the gates, three times the number of those inside are wandering around - without means to pay the 1,000 Congolese francs ($6 on the black market) it costs to get in, but content to listen to the muffled sounds of the concert from afar.

At 1:30 a.m., Kofi appears, slowly swaying his hips as he walks on stage, surrounded by a bevy of midriff-bared dancers and buff bodyguards. His trademark turban in place, red cowboy boots - Caesar Paciotti - on his feet, a faux modest smile on his lips, Kofi begins. It is a love song for a girl he saw on the bus in Lubumbashi. His arms sweep up and down, the dancers pump their stomachs in and out and shake their legs, and the crowd smiles.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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