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.

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.

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."

* * *

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.

"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."

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.

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