A glimmer of hope from a dying country

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Beyond the bitterness stirred by the dramatic events of the civil war in Brazzaville, writer Patrice Yengo, director of the excellent Congolese magazine Rupture, points to the glimmer of hope in recent art forms.

Pépé Kallé is dead. The man we used to call the elephant of Zaïrian music, the head of the Bakuba Empire, is no more. And as if emperors never go alone, Mamky Kulandia is dead too. The news from Abidjan came down like a ton of bricks: the empress has left us. All of a sudden, Brazza has become even more sombre. It’s a funny old country where people celebrate 1 November (day of the dead) more than the 25 December (day of children), a funny old town where dignitaries drive around in anthracite-coloured cars, as black as hearses, if not blacker still. Meanwhile, the artists walk, walk, and carry on walking. On their way to rehearsals, concerts. Fortunately, the distances have become shorter. In the past we used to head off from Bacongo in Mpila to go to Zaïko Langa-Langa or Kamikaze de Youlou Mabiala concerts at the « Congolaise », or in the opposite direction from Talanga to Makélékélé to visit Sony Labou Tansi, before stopping at the French Cultural Centre on the way back to watch a performance of Gods Bits of Wood by the Ngunga. The distances have diminished, Brazza has shrivelled. Everybody at home after 8 pm. And it’s better that way at that. Sony is dead and Matondo Kubuture, an older Ngunga actor, is ill. A bout of typhoid that has sent him running from house to house trying to get a little money together to get himself properly treated. And, as if that weren’t enough, he didn’t get his visa for Avignon.
« No body gives a damn! Art is not an anthropometry office », Léo Ferré declared. And in Congo, even though the Minister of Culture harps on about artists being misunderstood, all the officials know full well that a useful artist is a dead artist. They sing his/her praises, glorify him/her against his/her image, against his/her work, in the name of the « artistic or literary grandeur of the country ». Ah! That national grandeur which only engenders petty people!
It may be to escape this that Congolese artists have decided to distance themselves from the State and to invent their own cultural sites beyond all political pressurizing. In any case, there aren’t any more buildings left standing in the town centre, buildings which could have served as an agora. Other than the French Cultural Centre, that baker’s as we still used to call it not so very long ago, no saving grace. What kind of bread are they making there now?
Congo’s artists have thus decided to invent their own cultural sites. Bill Kouelany, Rémy Mongo-Etsion, Nicolas Bissi set up an original exhibition in someone’s home in Mansimou. A week (or two) in which these three artists’ paintings and sculptures illuminated an otherwise dowdy neighbourhood. The inhabitants of Mansimou weren’t the only surprised ones, nor the only ones invited. Two ministers of Culture (a former and a new one) made the effort to come, sizing up the event and shopping for the Luanda Bantou Biennial. Mansimou was indeed the pictorial event of 1998. As an initiative, it allowed the artists to free themselves from the stifling atmosphere of the habitual circuits. As a site, it enabled people to see Brazza’s most creative current work. At the opening, Matondo Kubuture read one of his poems of a rare intensity and Matsiona Mathus played the sanza heart-rendingly. Whilst Kouelany and Bissi came alone (with their works), Mongo-Etsion trumped up all his Tsieme school: Léandre, Itoua, Nzonzi, Nsondé. Only Anicet Malonga was absent, having gone into exile in Pointe-Noire with Ouaboulé, Trigo Piula and Zekid until Brazzaville comes back to its senses. Who had heard of the Tsieme school? In Brazzaville, people only talk about the Poto-Poto art school, that mythical place that has seen the likes of the greatest Congolese masters such as Ondongo, Zigoma, Ngavouka, Iloki, and young talented painters like Bokotaka, Mpo Gerly, and Dimi pass through, but whose influence is now over-rated given that nothing innovative or even simply important has gone on there for ten years now, even if the school has embraced several exiled artists like Ouassa.
It is the workshops of the masters that now prime the new generations. There is the R. Mongo-Etsion painting workshop, of course, but also Hengo’s, the only survivor of the golden era of Congolese painting to question himself and to innovate as very few artists know how.
It is very strange how Brazzaville now functions on the peripheries. From two points of view: the geographic periphery (the districts versus the town centre), and the institutional periphery (the margins versus the official). From a geographic point of view, the civil war has practically consecrated the division of the town into the northern neighbourhoods (Poto-Poto, Moungali, Ouenzé, Talangaï) and the southern districts (Bacongo, Makélékélé). A division that is translated in cultural terms. Indeed, literature is based in the « south », and music is found in the « north ». Poto-Poto has maintained its Fifties’ reputation of the Poto Moyindo (Black France) where Saturday nights are cloaked with the importance of the Colonial « 14 July ». Mikolo nionso feti nafeti: every day is party time!
And despite its apocalyptic aspect, Poto-Poto is doing itself, and especially its musical health, up. The great Zaïko de Nioka Longo is scheduled there for the end of year celebrations with the unavoidable Extra-Musica, the great revelation of the last two years. Thought to be just a pale copy of Wenge-Musica, they have proven themselves to be an authentic band who, whilst placing themselves in the Wenge vein, are no less original. Originality and success have not spared them from divisions, however. There have been one, two, then three Zaïkos, one then two Wenges, and there are now two Extra-Musicas. A Super-Extra, I am told, of the former Extra-Musica.
It is not without a smile that the Congolese call this scissiparity phenomenon the Familia Dei syndrome after the name of the latest of the Zaïko factions. This quasi-pathological phenomenon has even been exported beyond the boundaries of Congolese Rumba. Young hip-hip groups split up one after the other, and the reggae musicians have been left inactive by all the internal battles. A word about hip-hop. People only ever mention Senegal’s Positive Black Soul in Africa. Have you ever listened to the Warriors F.T, Peace de Scherzo, or Metropolis? Their lyrics on AIDS, Sony Labou Tansi, or the civil war are worth the detour with a play on words that their « brother » Passi from Sarcelles’ Secteur A would not be ashamed of.
« Atif was one of ours, in all the struggles, all the battles. Victim of the rut, Atif is dead. Son of the suburbs, It’s for him we pray. Oh God! Preserve Atif (play on the word « préservatif »: condom – NDLR) and deliver us from evil. » Métropolis.
Houdji Raper of Métropolis is one of the pillars of this music in Brazza, but it is D.J Arth of Warriors who is the most astonishing. This true turntables wizard puts the DJs of Positive Black Soul and other groups who tour in Africa to shame. D.J. Arth is the jack of all trades of this music: bass player, DJ, sounds inventor and a gifted dabbler, he innovates and is an orchestra unto himself.
The Congolese youth is not at all interested in arms as people would like to have you believe. Frank Bitemo’s dynamism, for example, led to the creation, right in the midst of the 1997 combats, of Rank’art, an association grouping together music artist of all kinds and which holds concerts three to four times a year. The last one saw the emergence of the groups Emelode Valentina, Viva Mélodia, Any Flore et les Speakers, Tchillembi, Press Mayindou. The group Tchielly de Saintrick Mayitoukou, which was formerly part of the association, had headed off for West Africa.
Dakar, Cotonou, Abidjan. Rumour has it that that’s where it’s happening. That’s what currently touring Emile Biayenda of the Tambours de Brazza affirms, adding, « when it’s not in the West, it’s in South Africa or Namibia. »
It is true that Congolese musicians are fascinated by the regions and keep on going there: Top Musica, Africa-Brass, Zao. Yes, even Zao. Since he narrowly escaped death, Zao spends half his time abroad. The other half he spends running his Nganda Dio Dio, a kind of open bar that he has set up next to Madibou. They play Sixties music there and it’s not unusual to bump into musicians in search of inspiration like Philippe Sita who, since he abandoned his classical repertoire, has turned to religious funeral wake or wedding music. Two enterprises that are doing well in Brazza.
We could speak about music for hours. And God only knows, Brazza is full of it. There appear to be no worries for the new generations in this town visibly drifting towards political dementia. One only need think of Mabonzo Dedina on percussion, that little primary school angel whose mastering of the skins puts professional drummers to shame.
As the State has resigned and the older artists lost their bearings, young people are setting out on hitherto unfrequented paths. It is the case with film. No cinemas show « normal » films anymore. There are only X-rated movies. Even karate films have disappeared from the screens. To such and extent that the neighbourhood youth have invested the video-clubs which are becoming as much social hang-outs as places of entertainment. For 25 or 50 FCFA, you can see an adventure film compared with 500 F at the cinema. What should we thus make of Léandre-Alain Bakers shooting Diogène in Brazzaville, or Camille Mouyeké location scouting for Voyage à Ouaga?
Congolese cinema is dead, long live the cinema! There have never been so many potential film directors as at present. Far from the official spheres of State culture. Never have there been so many theatre workshops as since the civil war either. Jonas Labou, Sony’s brother, performs at home. The U Tam’si company directed by Antoine Yirrika continually rehearses popular education plays: against sexual violence, for peace. New gowns for old dreams. After all, there is urgent need: the war has not stopped finishing. As the haiku posted up at the Sony Labou Tansi Cultural Centre reads:
« Whether or not I have a balaphone
To chant the cry of the blood
In my veins
Tomorrow, it will flow silently
On the cobblestones. »
Who is this poem by? No matter! A country that has so many writers per square kilometre and which raises them to the ranks of minister so often, is hardly interested in the blood of an illustrious stranger.
PS : Brazza is planning to party. People are talking Fespam in a few months. But does Brazza still know how to party?

///Article N° : 5574

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