Soukous for Francophonie (and for Kabila)

Big concert this week, October 10, in Kinshasa to honor the 2012 Francophonie summit. Performances by Papa Wemba and Werrason with their groups have already been posted online. Also on the program were Mbilia Bel, Tshala Muana, Nyoka Longo, Koffi Olomide and other titans of soukous and ndombolo, plus a few artists from other countries. Watch the clips: great fun. But the roster replicates the schism that has occurred in Congolese music over politics — specifically, whether to endorse President Joseph Kabila, and gain from official patronage; or whether to oppose him, either from outside the country, where numerous soukous veterans have sought shelter, or domestically, in the largely hip-hop-driven Kinshasa underground.

Indeed, in the run-up to the election of November 2011, which returned Kabila to power over perennial opposition figure Etienne Tshisekedi against a backdrop of violence and observed irregularities, a great many musicians had come on board with praise songs exhorting people to vote for the president. Here’s Olomide, for example, with this spoken intro: “Parce que son amour du Congo a fait ses preuves, Koffi chante Joseph Kabila” (“Because his love for Congo has been demonstrated, Koffi sings for Joseph Kabila”). The song sounds great, of course. So do the others in this terrific compendium on the Congo Siasa blog, with videos from Papa Wemba, Tshala Muana, Werrason and others, and an interesting discussion in the comments. (There’s another rich conversation on the same topic on this message board.) Whatever the sincerity of their political sentiments, artists who line up behind Kabila stand to benefit from patronage and opportunities like this gala concert.

This has not gone over well in the Congolese diaspora, where artists linked to the government have seen their concerts boycotted or their venues blockaded when attempting to perform in Belgium, France or elsewhere. (There’s a good summary here, in French.) These actions stretch back to 2005, when demonstrators succeeded in shutting down a JB Mpiana concert in London. Opponents have resorted to violence as well: Werrason, for instance, was ambushed in 2005 in a Brussels restaurant, and again in 2011 in a Congolese restaurant in St.-Denis, outside Paris. Although some of the more extreme incidents have given rise to controversy over motives and perpetrators, the self-styled “Combattants,” who want to shut down overseas performances and sales of artists they view as collaborators, maintain a proud presence online. They document their actions, which can be found by searching “combattants Congo” on YouTube or DailyMotion; here’s an example, where Combattants in Paris last year sought to have CDs by Olomide, Werrason and Mpiana removed from the shelves at the FNAC shop on the Champs-Elysées, and later in the video are seen handing out pirated copies of these artists’ discs, each stamped “COLLABO” on the front.

When I met the great soukous guitarist Diblo Dibala in New York recently, he mentioned the Combattants: “They’re shutting down the artists who are based in Congo, the ones who sing the praises of the government and who eat with the government,” he said. Dibala, who has been based in Paris for many years, said he keeps away from politics, but at the same time was clear about his view of Kabila and the recent election. “Those weren’t even elections,” he said. Dibala travels back to Congo, but won’t perform there until the situation changes. When it does, he said, he hopes all the expatriate artists can return home and play a concert together. “We don’t want to go and endorse this government. But as soon as things change we’ll be the first ones there.”

Of course, there is plenty of dissident music being made in Kinshasa right now. It largely takes the form of hip-hop, as documented for instance in this recent round-up by Radio Netherlands Worldwide. But what separates this youth underground from the soukous and ndombolo establishment, whether those on stage at the Francophonie concert or their opponents abroad, isn’t just politics, but the change of social outlook that comes with a new generation.

P.S.: Readers in New York City may want to check out “Congo in Harlem,” a very strong series of films and events that runs October 12-21.

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