Congolese Sounds: A Lesson in Straight Talking

The Democratic Republic of Congo has brought forth some of the top-selling artists of the African continent, with the late 80s and early 90s famously dubbed the Belle Époque of African rumba music. Bands like Franco & Le T.P.O.K Jazz, Empire Bakuba and Afrisa International toured long distances to shake up the nightlife of cities like Nairobi, Luanda and even Paris and Amsterdam with their danceable Congolese rumba and soukous. Sung in Lingala – the lingua franca of capital city Kinshasa – the songs were naturally incomprehensible for those who did not speak it. But to the Congolese listener, they meant more than just a good night out. The music, with its accompanying diarrhée verbale was a lesson in straight talking.

Songi Songi

When Franco Luambo Makiadi, the bandleader of the T.P.O.K. Jazz died of AIDS in 1989, the government declared four days of national mourning. Schools closed down. The Congolese people went out into the streets singing his most famous song “Mario” (1985), causing a traffic jam on the main streets of Kinshasa that lasted over a month.

This song tells the story of Mario, a misbehaving husband who prefers the company of old wealthy women. Sang from the wife’s perspective, it provided a voice that was largely unheard of in the male-dominated Congolese music business. This isn’t a song about pretty women, riches or gold. This is rather a sad story about a beaten-up girl who finally decides to leave her cheating husband. She’s tired of bleaching her skin to attract him, tired of the violence and the disrespect. But Mario need not worry about her once she leaves, she proudly tells, for she can pay her own rent. He can even keep the stuff that she bought for him.

As one can imagine, the popularity of a song as this had huge implications for the emancipation of women in Congo, where cheating was something that people didn’t talk about.

“Mario” wasn’t the only song by Franco expressing the female gaze. For a short but very successful time he teamed up with starlet Jolie Detta, an act which received so much attention that it prompted 18-year-old Detta to withdraw from the music business afterwards. “Massu” (1986) appealed to a lot of young women, being a song about a friendship between girls ruined by dirty gossiping (in lingala: songi songi). Little is left to the imagination as Detta subjects her former best friend Massu to a merciless verbal beating with her savvy words.

What’s appealing about the collaboration between Jolie Detta and T.P.O.K Jazz is the humor in their songs. In “Layile” (1986), Detta sings of a wife who is sent by her husband Layile to a cold region of Europe. So says Layile: “I’m giving you this holiday to Europe as a present, my dear, because I love you so much.” But his wife knows the true reason she’s been sent far away to a place where the cold hurts her rheumatic fingers, where she’s losing weight from the inferior food, is just so he can prostitute himself to other women on the streets and at parties. “How could you do this to me, Layile? Do you think I do not know?” she laments as the song plays out like an episode of an overdramatized soap opera, nasty details and all. The whiny nature of the storyline bears a huge contrast to the angel-like voice of Detta and the calm glow of the song.

Don’t You Mess with Me

Another lesson in speaking your heart out comes from the queen of Congolese rumba M’bilia Bel, who started out as the backup singer of Afrisa International, the band behind songwriter Tabu Ley Rochereau (known for the 2014 festival season classic “Hafi Deo”). She updated her status later to lead singer and wife of Tabu Ley and prosperous years followed, in which they welcomed a daughter and toured together.

Already during her time with Afrisa International, M’bilia Bel used her influence on her husband’s songwriting to address subjects needing a voice. The song “Bafosami” (also known as Bokosami) is about a young woman forced into marriage, a very common occurrence in Congo. She speaks out, telling her parents that she wants only to marry out of love and if they were to truly love her, to stop forcing her to marry against her will.

This song was forbidden in most teenage bedrooms for fear of inspiring children with its undesirable message. But as everything Afrisa International had touched in the 80s turned into gold, once taboo subjects as these would suddenly become a serious point of discussion in the Congolese society.

Still, even when one marries for love, as was the case of M’bilia Bel and Tabu Ley, it doesn’t always last forever. Irked by the fact that Tabu Ley was carrying on a string of affairs with his ever-changing bouquet of background singers, M’bilia Bel eventually left him, but being M’bilia Bel, she couldn’t let it go unnoticed. The lyrics of “Faux-Pas” (1983) are about her rivals and their lack of beauty and brains compared to M’bilia Bel’s own abundance in those two capacities. Accompanied by a very expressive video, where on one hand she displays her ground-shaking anger and on the other her recently-embraced joie de vivre, this song made it clear that no one should mess with M’bilia Bel.

After the fall of dictator Mobutu in 1997, the republic’s focus shifted to the West. Artists like Koffi Olomide, Werrason and Fally Ipupa commanded the charts, but did so with songs of a different kind: dance tracks made up of yelling dance instructions and dropping names of the cool kids in town. Unwilling to alienate prospective worldwide fans, this newer generation of music is no longer about the lyrics. Addressing of important social matters are left to Congolese television programs, soap operas and films. Nevertheless, on New Year’s Eve every year, the streets will once again be filled with songs about gossiping girls, male prostitutes and cheating husbands.