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A Musical Revelation: Kongo Music Past and Present

Trumpeters appear in a seventeenth-century depiction of the court of the King of Loango, a neighbouring Kongo kingdom. King of Loango (Maloango) engraving from O[lfert] Dapper, Naukeurige Beschrijvinge (Amsterdam), p. 539, 1686. H. 14 9/16 x W. 9 13/16 x D. 2 9/16 in. (37 x 25 x 6.5 cm). Library Gigi Pezzoli, Milan

Intern Gabriel Kilongo recently spoke to author, composer, musicologist, and record producer Ned Sublette about the musical traditions of historic Kongo and its corresponding modern-day states for the recently closed exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty. As a 2012 Knight-Luce Fellow for Reporting on Global Religion at the University of Southern California, Sublette undertook research in Angola, and his four-episode Hip Deep Angola radio series was produced for the Peabody Award–winning public radio program Afropop Worldwide.

Gabriel Kilongo: The first gallery of the exhibition features several examples of horns that historically had a secular function at the royal Kongo court. Do these associations still exist?

Ned Sublette: They do, indeed. The two horns illustrated below are both mpungi, the trumpet that calls the people. No musician from northern Angola doesn't know the mpungi. Elephant trumpets are seen all over Africa, of course; this kind of one-note trumpet—made of ivory, wood, bamboo, or metal—is likely the African prototype of the instrument that in Haiti is known as vaksin.

Top: Oliphant, 16th century, inventoried 1553. Kongo peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kongo Kingdom; Republic of the Congo; Angola. Ivory; H. 32 5/8 in. (83 cm), Diam. 3 in. (7.5 cm). Palazzo Pitti, Museo degli Argenti, Florence (Bg. 1879 avori, n.2). Bottom: Horn (Pungi), 19th century, inventoried 1897. Kongo peoples, Cabinda, Angola. Wood, ivory, vegetable fiber; L. 40 1/8 in. (102 cm), Diam. 4 in. (10 cm). Museu da Ciência da Universidade de Coimbra, Portugal

My specialization is on northern Angola, which is ethnically different from the rest of Angola.[1] The region occupies a privileged position in Kongo history as the site of Mbanza-Kongo, the seat of the manikongo [King of Kongo] and capital of the largest empire in Africa in its day. Though there has not been a Kongo king for decades, the lumbu, the traditional tribunal of twenty-one elders that has advised the king for over five hundred years, still meets [at Mbanza-Kongo], and in their deliberations, they still sing the proverbs that are law.

With the help of Dr. Bárbaro Martínez-Ruiz, I was able to observe and document another Kongo court instrument, the lungoyi-ngoyi, a two-string fiddle that I have never seen described in any musicological literature. Though I don't know for certain, my guess is that it derives from one or more bowed instruments brought to Kongo in centuries past. It definitely qualifies as an endangered musical tradition.

Gabriel Kilongo: What was the impact of foreign instruments and cultural influences on traditional Kongo music making?

Ned Sublette: One of the most breathtaking objects in the show to me is the padrão—one of the heavy stone crosses that the Portuguese erected to mark what they considered their territory as they traversed the region on their voyage of exploration.

Padrão de Santo Agostinho (Standard of Saint Augustine), ca. 1482. Portugal. Limestone; H. 84 5/8 in. (215 cm), W. 12 1/4 in. (31 cm), D. 12 1/4 in. (31 cm). Museu Etnográfico–Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa, Lisbon

The manikongo's eager absorption of European patronage saw Kongo become catholicized in 1491, so that by the time the Bakongo began to be trafficked to the Americas in the transatlantic slave trade starting in the seventeenth century, the captives already partook in a Kongo-Catholic syncretism. This Kongo reinterpretation of Catholicism was transported up and down the western Atlantic for centuries, creating a kind of "wired" Kongo cultural unity throughout the Americas.[2] This deeply rooted fusion had all kinds of implications for music that scholars and musicians continue to explore.

Havana, the hub of the Spanish fleet, was already feeling this cultural circulation in the late sixteenth century. Kongo culture exerted an early and, perhaps, strongest single historical African influence on Cuba, while Kongo Saint-Domingue [the future Haiti] heavily provided the hemisphere's most dramatic and transformative moments after its revolution erupted in 1791. But there does not seem to have been a heavy musical backflow to Kongoland in the nineteenth century; whereas a number of formerly enslaved people from Cuba and Brazil returned to Nigeria and Dahomey [Benin], this phenomenon does not seem to have occurred in King Leopold's Congo Free State [1885–1908]. It took until 1933, with the arrival of the records that musicologists call the "GV series," for Kongo-derived music to be repatriated to Africa. This reverse transculturation [as Fernando Ortiz might have called it] was a musical revelation in Africa, and no place did more with this infusion of Cuban music than Congo.

Gabriel Kilongo: How did the popularity of Cuban-style music function as a bridging medium or a mode of passing for Congolese artists in terms of their integration into European and American vernacular cultures and adoption of Western values?

Ned Sublette: Traditional Kongo cosmology has been an inspiration to Cuban [and other] jazz musicians; for example, Chucho Valdés' magnificent 1999 album Briyumba Palo Congo or Ricardo Lemvo's La Rumba Soyo, playing on the name of Soyo, a key province and former slave-exporting port near the mouth of the Congo River. Kikongo words and names are part of the common vocabulary of Cuban rumba; in Matanzas, they sing: "a, e, Paula, tienes mayombe," meaning "Paula, you got mayombe." The Cuban-derived style that in Congo is called rumba is in turn part of the common vocabulary of modern African music.

Left: Album cover for Francophonic Vol. 2 (2008), an anthology of recordings by Congolese musical heavyweights Franco and dance band TPOK Jazz. © Photograph Jean DEPARA (1928–1997), Kinshasa (Léopoldville), Rep.Dem. du Congo/ Courtesy of Revue Noire, Paris

Perhaps the most striking twentieth-century adaptation in Congo was the embrace of the electric guitar, a North American innovation based on an Iberian instrument. Many of the most famous Afropop stars of the 1950s to 80s cut their teeth singing and playing Cuban-style music in various West and Central African countries. In the 1950s, a Congolese "rumba" style developed in the hands of musicians Franco, Dr. Nico, Tabu Ley Rochereau, and others, which later developed into soukous, a style marked by high-register, precisely articulated electric guitar leads that had not existed to any notable degree in Cuban music, where dance bands rarely have an electric guitar.

Singers Salutation, ca. 1955–65. Kinshasa, RDCongo. © Photograph Jean DEPARA (1928–1997), Kinshasa (Léopoldville), Rep. Dem. du Congo / Courtesy of Revue Noire, Paris

Gabriel Kilongo: What role did music play during the colonial era in this region of Central Africa and in the transition to independence?

Ned Sublette: Brazzaville had a fifty-thousand-watt radio station as of 1943. It became a major diffuser of modern Congo music, which by then was very heavily Cuban-influenced. Both politically and musically, it is hard to overemphasize the importance of Cuba. Synonymous with world revolution following 1959, Che Guevara tried to revolutionize Congo and embarked on an exceptionally decisive intervention into Angola, not only preventing the installation of South African apartheid in Luanda, but also breaking the myth of white invincibility and bringing about the end of apartheid in South Africa.[3] Orquesta Aragón, the major popularizers of the cha-cha-cha in fifties Cuba, concertized in seventies Congo, and recorded Franklin Bukaka's tune "Mwanga." This had political significance, as Bukaka was a leftist who was executed in 1972 for his role in a coup plot in Congo-Brazzaville.

Regarding lusophone Angola, Marissa Moorman's [Intonations: A Social History of Music and Nation in Luanda, Angola, from 1945 to Recent Times] is an indispensable work; a historian rather than an ethnomusicologist, she reads history in music. I produced a radio podcast episode for Afropop Worldwide Hip Deep, in collaboration with Dr. Moorman, that took on the question of music and political discourse in Angola.

Gabriel Kilongo: Is there a link between Congo communities' self-perception as a people, and the widespread popularity of Congolese rumba? Did this signature musical style play a role in constructing and communicating a desired Congolese identity in the era of independence?

Ned Sublette: Certainly. It isn't necessary to have lyrics laden with political rhetoric for a song to have political significance. Even the language it's sung in can be a political statement. In Angola, as Dr. Moorman documents, singing in Kimbundu became a statement of resistance to Portuguese-colonial status; even when singers were not necessarily able to converse in the vernacular language, they sang in it as an expression of pride in a future nation.

Left: Young Boy with his Girl Friend in a Night-Club, ca. 1955–65. Kinshasa. Right: Encounter in the Night, ca. 1955–65. Kinshasa. © Photographs Jean DEPARA (1928–1997), Kinshasa (Léopoldville), Rep. Dem. du Congo / Courtesy of Revue Noire, Paris

In Congo, singing in Lingala or Kikongo while playing Cuban-based music had a similar fundamental importance: it wasn't French. Benedict Anderson's notion of print capitalism as stimulative of the "imagined communities" of nationhood has a nephew in the music business. In African communities where only the colonial language is taught in schools, creating popular music in vernacular languages can be constitutive of a kind of nationhood—one that is sung and danced.

Editors' Note: This interview has been edited and condensed from the original. Please refer to the following playlist for a taste of Congolese music:


[1] A note from Sublette: "I'd like to begin with a disclaimer: I can only speak of the case of northern Angola; once called by the Europeans the 'Portuguese Congo.' Unfortunately, I have never been to what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire; formerly the 'Belgian Congo') or to the Republic of the Congo (formerly Congo-Brazzaville; formerly the 'French Congo'). Indeed, there seems to be something of a cleavage between scholarly literature based on Democratic Republic of the Congo fieldwork and the much smaller body of work based in Angola."

[2] "Wired" is Robert Farris Thompson's term.

[3] See Piero Gleijeses's Visions of Freedom; Gary Stewart's Rumba on the River is another indispensable history of pop music in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Related Link

Fondation Cartier pour l'Art Contemporain: Vincent Kenis and Césarine Sinatu Bolya, "Musical program for the exhibition Beauté Congo – 1926–2015 – Congo Kitoko" (2015)

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