In the heart of African music
Plucking a way out of poverty, Congolese musicians find fame brings the 'fortune' of taking a crowded taxi instead of a bus to work.
Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo
Chances are, someone will recognize Gianni Mangoma as he strolls down bustling Oshwe Street, past the sidewalk cafes without names and the hawkers pushing everything from peanuts to neckties to tissue packs, past the stereo speakers thumping on every corner.Skip to next paragraph
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Someone might yell his name. Or maybe just "WaGianni" – "Gianni's people."
Mr. Mangoma might smile back – a boyish, sweet expression that masks a bit of ego – but he won't break his strut. He knows how to act cool, appropriate for an up-and-coming Kinshasa guitarist, a celebrity on these trash-strewn streets. He also knows the look: baggy jeans that sit below designer-name boxers, a chunky watch, a silver ring that catches the light when his fingers play the lilting notes that have long made this war-scarred city the center of African music.
"I'm a star," he says matter-of-factly.
This is how it is for musicians in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the third-largest city in Africa. They might not have money (that goes to band leaders who, true to the power dynamics in this country, rarely redistribute) or power (which everybody knows goes only to politicians and their friends). But Mangoma and the others who produce Kinshasa's soundtrack have something else: celebrity. And in this city, where almost everything is difficult, you take any edge you can get.
"Celebrity is really a resource in Kinshasa," says Bob W. White, an anthropology professor at the University of Montreal who has written a book – due out next year – on the Kinshasa music scene. "The musicians are well known, so they can drop in on someone and get something to eat; they can get picked up by a rich fan of the band and get a ride across town, and maybe some money for transport.... The way that people get ahead in Kinshasa today is either through politics or through music."
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Belgian colonialists helped spark modern Congolese music when, in the 1930s, they brought recordings of newly popular Cuban bands to booming Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). These Cuban tunes were familiar to the Congolese because, after all, African slaves brought those beats to the Caribbean in the first place. Over the next decade, Congolese musicians recaptured these sounds, molding the music into something uniquely Congolese – an Afro-Cuban base with a hip-swaying beat; high, flirting guitar notes; and long, poetic verses. During the African independence movements of the 1960s, Congolese music exploded across the continent.
"These guys were conquering musical heroes going from independence celebration to independence celebration," says Gary Stewart, who wrote the book "Rumba on the River: A History of the Popular Music of the Two Congos." "Local bands would see how the local people loved the music, and would pick up guitar licks and rhythms."
Individual Kinshasa musicians built their own loyal followings. Mr. Stewart says city residents would argue over guitar players the way Americans might feud about sports teams. This musical connection lasted during the long reign of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and survived the five-year second Congolese war that ended in 2003, and is still strong today, in the new era of official democracy. Locals know the names of the dozens of musicians in each of Kinshasa's competing bands. They also know the politics: The band leader who is poaching a backup singer from another group; the upstart who wants to go out on his own; the edgy competition for CDs, music videos, and dance moves.
It's no secret, then, that Mangoma is up and coming. Seven years ago, bandleader "King" Kester Emeneya tapped Mangoma to join Victoria Eleison, one of the big Kinshasa bands that emerged during the 1970s. Mangoma had family history on his side – his uncle was General Defao, one of the bandleaders of the 1980s, and his father played with OK Jazz, the famous Kinshasa ensemble led by Franco Luambo, who is considered the founder of modern Congolese music. But it was Mangoma's guitar skills – lightning quick fingers and easy improvisation – that caught Mr. Emeneya's attention.