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.
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"Usually, when people audition in front of Kester, they're shaking," recalls Serge Makobo, a journalist and former business manager for Victoria Eleison who is now a mentor to Mangoma. "Gianni was very calm, composed. It was striking."Skip to next paragraph
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Mangoma smiles in response. He had practiced two months for that audition. "I did a good job," he says.
Mangoma paid his dues – lugging equipment and staying in sweltering Kinshasa while others in the group flew off for gigs in Paris. For a time he lived in Emeneya's big ranch house with the rest of the Victoria Eleison musicians – Emeneya's way of controlling his impoverished musicians then and making sure no other bandleader poached his talent. Through it all, Mangoma kept playing and practicing – he was almost never without his $30 acoustic guitar – and he crept upward in the band hierarchy.
Now, Mangoma runs the band's rehearsals, and on the band's newest CD he plays on almost every track – a coup for a guitarist, since bandleaders usually distribute that honor sparingly and strategically.
Makobo, who has been in the music world here longer than Mangoma, shakes his head when his protégé talks about this accomplishment. "You can get yourself hurt like that,' he warns.
* * *
Wednesday is rehearsal day for Victoria Eleison. Mangoma pays someone the equivalent of a few cents to find him a spot in a sedan taxi, which will take him, along with five or six other crammed passengers, from his neighborhood near the airport toward downtown. (To maintain his image, he doesn't ride in the rusting, rickety minibus taxis that squeeze dozens of passengers together in the thick, motionless heat.)
It takes him two taxis and 45 minutes to get to the Citadella – the open air, concrete shell the band calls home. There's such a big crowd for rehearsal – a half-dozen singers, a drummer, other guitarists, a keyboardist, dancers, onlookers – that it's hard to know who's in the band and who's just watching. But as the beat gets stronger, the singers and male dancers start swaying.
In concert, the men will move in unison, following the animateur, who calls out the dance moves. The animateur also calls out names of people in the audience during the songs, a form of praise-singing that has evolved over the years into a political and moneymaking exercise. Patrons pay good money for an animateur to shout their names during a song. One top Kinshasa musician, Koffi Olomide, has representatives in London who can arrange these honors for $500 to $2,000.
But today, Victoria Eleison is just rehearsing. Across the room, the female dancers – all bands here have a requisite ensemble of scantily clad women who dance – watch intently as their coach introduces a new routine. Then they practice – their faces are serious, but their bodies move like Slinkys. Outside, little boys press their faces against the Citadella's chain-link windows.
After rehearsal, Mangoma walks out to the street, where all the lights are out. Power outages are one of the common uncertainties of life in Kinshasa, as are water stoppages and occasional political violence. But tonight Mangoma is enthusiastic. Emeneya, the bandleader, has been praising him, and says the band will soon go on tour in South Africa, Europe, and the US. He also said he bought Mangoma a car in Paris. But Makobo, the mentor, scoffs. Since they don't pay salaries, bandleaders deal in promises and lies to keep their musicians loyal, he says. Mangoma shrugs him off. He gives a quick nod to someone who shouts his name from across the crowded street and settles into another outdoor cafe.
From nearby speakers, Kinshasa music pumps into the thick, dark night.