Reliving the Glory Days
Twice a week at Hôtel la Crèche in Matongé – one of the most bustling and culturally diverse neighbourhoods in the Congolese capital – the evening becomes a 1960s Kinshasa Rumba spectacle.
A rooftop bar is transformed and the scene evokes memories of what many Kinois call “la belle époque” of African Rumba music.
Many of the most celebrated exponents of this guitar-driven, Cuban-inspired style – such as François “Franco” Luambo Makiadi and his band OK Jazz; Joseph Kabasele and his band African Jazz; and Tabu Ley Rochereau – are no longer around, and today, the environment for musicians working in Kinshasa has changed considerably.
But despite the passing away of many of the rumba's seminal names, and despite the fact the golden age of Congolese record-making has ended, the styles and spirit of the 1960s live on.
And some of these have been updated in innovative new ways, such as the increasingly prominent and lucrative art of “throwing stones”.
Rise and Fall
One of the few remaining veterans of the Kinshasa music scene is René Rasta, who started his career as a bassist in Franco's band.
These days, he serves as a senior member in Orchestre de la Crèche.
Each time the band performs, overlooking Kinshasa's urban skyline, Rasta is the first to arrive.
“I have to organise with the bartender, check for good sound, and make sure that everything is ready for later”, he says, impeccably and classily dressed in a finely-embroidered brown suit with a red pocket square.
Rasta has been witness to the many changing faces of Kinshasa since the explosion of Rumba music. The city has lived through all manner of shocks, from regime change to economic downturns to rapid urbanisation.
These days many people in the city struggle to make a living and musicians are no exception, despite the enthusiasm of revellers.
The official record industry is virtually non-existent, and income for most artists is insignificant, particularly amongst the smaller names.
This bleak reality contrasts sharply with the 1950s and 60s, when Kinshasa was the home to “Africa's most energetic recording industry”.
In his book, “Rumba on the River”, Gary Stewart describes the many Greek-owned studios that existed in the capital at that time, where musicians could earn a decent living making records.
Over time, there also came to be many Congolese-owned and operated studios as music took hold at the centre of Congolese life.
Both among ordinary Congolese and the country's leaders, Congolese rumba gained prominence.
In 1960, for example, when delegates attended a conference in Brussels regarding Congolese independence, Joseph Kabasele and African Jazz provided the official entertainment.
And in 1971, dictator Mobutu Sese Seko had OK Jazz tour the country with him to promote his Authenticité campaign, a programme which aimed to foster the development of indigenous culture over foreign influences.
But this belle époque was not to last.
Mobutu's authoritarian rule also led to the decline of the lucrative music business in Kinshasa.
His policies contributed to a drop in the price of the country's main export, copper, high inflation and the loss of confidence of foreign investors.
And with the economic and political situation deteriorating, much of the recording industry emigrated to the likes of France, while smaller home-grown groups came to face growing challenges in their attempts to build a musical career at home.
Sing it Loud
This is also the story for many today – several rumba artists have found success abroad, while the domestic industry has battled on.
But fortunately, these struggles at home have not killed the art, but simply driven innovation.
One creative strategy that most bands now draw on to make a little extra money is known as Kobwaka mabanga.
Lingala for “throwing stones”, this practice refers to the way in which musicians “shout out” an individual's name during a song in return for a fee.
For some musicians, this brings in two-thirds of their earnings.
The practice of mabanga has been around since the late 1970s and early 1980s. It started in the classic rumba bars in Kinshasa's most popular boroughs – Matongé, Bandalungwa, Matete, Lingwala, and Lemba.
Initially, the most famous stone-throwers were Franco and the OK Jazz group, but it was a practice also adopted by smaller, now forgotten bands.
Back then, throwing stones was a way of generating additional revenue through flattering rich businessmen and politicians, but now the tradition has been extended to the general public.
Today there are two different types of mabanga: the classic one found in live music, and a more recent version utilised in recorded music.
Understandably, the fee for having your name immortalised in a recorded track is higher, and often very pricey.
For example, to be named in a song by Werrason, Fally Ipupa, Koffi Olomide, or Felix Wazekwa – today's biggest stars of ndombolo music – US$1 000 is often the minimum asking price.
This practice is therefore typically restricted to rich dignitaries and businessmen; and those opting to pay such a fee for mentions in songs include the likes of Kinshasa's governor, André Kimbuta, the executive secretary of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, Alphonse Ntumba Luaba, Ambassador Christophe Muzungu, or President Joseph Kabila (although it is difficult to trace whether he directly pays for the practice).
Say My Name
The more traditional mabanga, however, lives on more vibrantly in the quartiers populaires, and most notably in Matongé, Kinshasa's cultural and musical heart, where shout outs are less costly.
In Hôtel La Crèche, the orchestra performs rumba classics every Friday and Saturday from 9pm until early morning.
The rates surrounding the practice here tend to vary from around 70p to £3. Tourists with excess funds are also advised to increase payments to discourage the band from tiring, and beer or cigarettes are usually accepted too.
However, as with anything, prices can get inflated when those with more money to spare turn up.
Often local politicians, businessmen or other wealthy folk come to places like La Crèche to be noticed.
They do so by paying up to US$200 for their mabanga, which buys a much more embellished and extensive throwing out of their names and special treatment including invented titles for the generous few.
The practice of mabanga may have risen to such prominence due to financial need rather than musical creativity, but in Kinshasa, throwing stones today has become part of the very fabric of recorded and live music.
And as René Rasta commented as he leaned back in his crisply-embroidered suit, beer in one hand, cigarette in the other, the practice is also needed “to nourish our families”. – The Guardian (UK)