Growing up in the close knit Nigerian diaspora community of metro- Atlanta in the United States, I was surrounded by African influences. My mother wore her beautiful headties like a queen and nurtured my appreciation for the various fashion styles across Africa. My Ethiopian, Ghanaian, Kenyan, South African, Togolese, Gambian classmates expanded by culinary paradigm. My father would play albums of popular African music artists so I grew up listening to South Africa’s Miriam Makeba, Nigeria’s Sonny Okosun, and of course, Congo’s lilting soukous and rumba music.
As a Nigerian, I can authoritatively say that Congolese music is well appreciated by many Nigerians. But not only by Nigerians. Across Africa, Congolese rhythms are heard blasting from nightclubs, wedding receptions, radio waves, and birthday parties. I hear it in pretty much every city and village I’ve visited in African countries.
And what’s not to love about Congo’s soukous and rumba music! Both of these music styles, which now symbolize Congo’s music, are lively with sweet harmonies and dance-ready rhythms.
So, I was excited about my first visit to Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of Africa’s music capitals.
And Kinshasa did not disappoint me at all.
This city lives and breathes music.
Almost every night, I’d hear music blasting from the joint across the street from the hotel I was staying in in the Gombe neighborhood. Driving through Kinshasa’s standstill traffic, you’ll hear the lovely soukous and rumba melodies floating in the air. One of the drivers I was with kept his car radio permanently on 91.6FM. I learned that that’s Fally Ipupa’s radio station. Fally Ipupa is perhaps, the biggest contemporary Congolese soukous music artist. The people adore him and for goodness sake, so do I. Check him out:
I visited the office of the ruling political party and there in the compound was a band of dancers and musicians and they started playing and dancing in that famous Congolese dance style of slowly winding waists, stiff upper bodies, and leg kicks and singing in that sonorous vibrating tone, that typifies Congo’s vocal tradition.
I enjoyed every minute of it. Here’s a photo:
Finally, I interviewed an up-and-coming music artist from a group called Star Music. The lead singer’s voice was ridiculously beautiful, so pure, fresh…hopeful.
And as I listened to her, I thought about Congo’s enduring development challenges that are so endemic, so corrosive, so convoluted. I can insert here some statistics that quantify the pervasive problems, but there’s no need.
In Congo, music is therapy, it’s life. It’s a time to dance and sing through those problems that are bigger than yourself, but seem to affect every element in the lives of the people who call this place home.
The music of Congo is more than feverish beats, gyrating hips and sexy lyrics. The music is about living in the moment, delighting in the sweet pleasures of life while you can.
I regret that I was not able to dance in a local joint during my reporting trip, but I’m glad was able to appreciate the music.
Long live rumba!
Long live soukous!
— Chika Oduah, 2018 Democratic Republic of Congo Fellow