N’Dombolo: the identity-based postulation of the post-Zaïko generation

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N’dombolo is undoubtedly the Wenge generation’s most emblematic creation. But what exactly is N’dombolo? First and foremost, an artistic secretion (the magical respiration of an entire generation of young Congolese), a form of humour and a playful ape-like mimicry. What else need we add, other than that this dance is one place’s outpouring: Kinshasa, town of dreams, town of turmoil.

Everything, in this vibrant town’s run-down neighbourhoods – neighbourhoods that are constantly a-buzz with thundering music which blares out with all the force of its decibels from Kin’s jam-packed famous « nganda« , or open-air terraces – everything blends and bubbles forth in a torrent of shouts.
And, each time, the town is recharged with new ardour, re-inventing itself through its artists’ vitality and fertile creativity. Nothing is missing here. You can’t help but be fascinated by this damned, godforsaken hole of poverty and opulence, vulgarity and ignorance, with its harebrained music fans who hotly debate all day long on street corners – at risk of coming to blows – about the latest « label » (out of the finest in-vogue Italian, French or Japanese designers) or the latest car « adopted » by their « stars ». There are the « Shégué » (street children) too, contaminated up to the hilt by the music virus. They have invested the town’s symbolic sites (the Victoire, Kimpwanza, Mandela, and Kitambo roundabouts, the newspaper stands, the swanky avenues, the market areas, and the nganda…) and won’t leave you alone as they try to eek out a small pittance.
Along with its « chauvinistic » music, this town’s aural emblem has to be its « creolised » language invented by its youths in an effort to distinguish themselves from the terribly puritanical Kinois rearguard, which is modelled by a handful of intellectuals resistant to the rise of this new wave of uncouth Kinois. Too late! Television has opened the floodgates and the young Kinois’ new « ideology » (whose content has yet to be defined) spurts forth from the « neo-Kinicity » tap.
This is the lot of a town that is nightmarish, extravagant, and incredible all in one. These are the layers of a pugnacious existence that people inevitably escape through magic and music. Music is perceived here as the essential outpouring of a town inhabited by incandescent imaginations cooped up in an unrivalled sybaritic energy inherited from their « MC » ancestors. The dazzling character of this town’s youth’s inventiveness is the site of all utopias, all extravagances, and inspiration.
Coming on to N’dombolo, there is indeed a desire to « folklorise » this artistic body language that precisely seeks to rid itself of this kind of simian banality people have tended to caricature it with.
What could be more understandable! In this joyous existential disorder, everything is indeed devised in a vacuous state of jubilation. The « danced territory » knows no limits. It sometimes even passionately makes overtures to the animal world, as was previously the case with Minzoto Wella Wella’s « Eséma duckling » dance inspired by the « duck waddle », or nowadays with young people’s famous emblematic dance, N’dombolo, which, people have it, was inspired by the antics of a certain « Old Marcel ».
« Old Marcel »? Yes, Kinshasa zoo’s one and only (now defunct) « star primate ». But his cage is still there. Empty, but full of wonderful memories – memories of an incomparable N’domb… – what am I saying? – I mean « rumba » dancer. Old Marcel style, of course. That good old languid and swaying Congolese rumba that youngsters adapted to their « mechanical » choreographies – enriching it in its softer version, N’dombolo, with a staggering velocity.
Only « Old Marcel » is long gone. All of a sudden, there is no one who can « n’dombolise » like him. He was not just any old ape. He was one music-loving monkey. And Kinois by birth. A performer or minstrel in his own right. A real music and dance lover who knew, like nobody else in the world, how to draw his resources from the oval and misshapen lines of his body. And it is to him that we owe the young Kinois’ favourite dance, N’dombolo.
The new generation strikes back
N’dombolo? A name like any other, drawn from youth idioms nearly five years ago now. Here, however, the name is charged with a double symbolism. It first of all symbolises the craziness born out of a consensual poaching in the animal world – a bit as if to give a human soul and face to what, previously, came under the sole sovereignty of our old « cousin » Marcel. Secondly, it is a way of transcending the excessively conformist language of urban dance to give it a meaning that goes well beyond the human, mid-way between contemporary creation and the desire to escape beyond consensual limits. Somewhere between a corporal expression that activates all its limbs, all its emotions, and creative freedom.
Wasn’t it also (always) young people who, in the past, created the « Kwasa Kwasa » (started by Lingwala’s enfant terrible, Janora) by imitating the ritual body language of the mechanic? Out of this was born the « Kuku Turkey » (the dance of the turkey), signed Papa Wemba’s Viva la Musica in 1979…
In general, all of these dances’ syntax (including N’dombolo) is largely elaborated through collective, intuitive sessions where each band’s singer-dancer makes up his or her own steps during the paying rehearsals (in local neighbourhood bars) open to the public, who learn the new dance-in-progress at the same time as the musicians. On stage, the dance itself bursts forth in all its splendour, unleashing all its energy. It captivates with its virile steps (between two head sways and several whirling body rotations around the dancer’s axis). It thrills with its intricate steps, its complex combinations (alternating floating arm movements and the more rigid, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, leg movements), miming a few ape-like poses and ticks in the process. And it is impossible to remain indifferent before the circular swaying of hips (the young women and men dancers in the band) which, according to some immutable ritual, go from top to bottom and back up again, and the shuddering of those well-curved posteriors that swing between elegance and virtuosity, erotic suggestion and measured « savageness »… Here, N’dombolo unleashes its magic, enchants, and leaves you absent. Ultimately, it recalls man’s genetic origin, his relationship to the primates.
Meanwhile, N’dombolo‘s aural ingredients unfurl frenetically in a searing « sebene« , over and over, biting into a redundant sound environment in a torrid and voluble flurry of shouting, in which it is pointless trying to identify any kind of semantic coherence, poetic improvement, not to mention any kind of clearly asserted ideological postulation. The « raw » flights of words and phrases gush intuitively from the atalaku‘s mouth like lava from a volcano. The MC harangues the dancers, incites them to show more ardour, more creativity, more virtuosity. The « atalaku » (main MC) specially whips up the ambiance for this new dance. And it’s with good reason that this MC cry, its words and magic phrases, have been kept a secret for so long (for fear of being « pirated » by rivals). Regular breaks and syncopation alternate, punctuating the « sebene » with a virtuous and suggestive play of guitars and synthesisers. They top off the dance, sometimes embroidering it and overloading it with imaginative finds and other sophisticated sound trills better to build it up to its pinnacle. Having barely faded away, the drum rhythm is relayed by the atalaku‘s hysterical MC harangue – in association this time round with an extremely inveterate chorus – the MC constructing his shouted-out phraseology around a theme that echoes that of the work’s main text. This rides the dancer’s virtuosity in the mysterious journey between gesture and being, his or her being. Imagine a thousand bodylines that blend, swell, deflate, fold, unfold, and then open out like a corolla. The illusion of imitating the other finally blends into the desire to please. It’s ecstasy! You really wonder, at the end of the day, whether the atalaku isn’t in fact a spare part. Either that or another composer, second only to the author of the original work.
« Listen to this! Now this is what I call real N’dombolo »
Carried entirely by Tutu Kaludji, Wenge Musica bcbg (the original line-up)’s incomparable atalaku, N’dombolo immediately conquered the whole of the Congo, then Africa between 1995 and 2000. An absolute record! With his bewitching power, he mobilised all 20- to 25-year-olds around a concept that has now been declined into three realities – dance, rhythm and musical style. It was thus that this wave dethroned its elders (Zaïko Langa Langa, Victoria Eleison, Viva La Musica, Choc Stars, Anti Choc, etc.), who, until then, were considered the only « machines capable of creating and imposing their dance styles ».
It was precisely here that the Bcbg generation would also have to meet new challenges – how to stay at the top for a decent length of time? Would it be wise, as tradition had it, already to think about creating a new dance (as the season drew to an end) without running the risk of collective suicide?
After all, wasn’t N’dombolo the most visible mark of a new generation’s taker over of the Congolese musical space (after the clearly stalling « old » generation), a generation forced in spite of everything to make a Cornelian choice between self-flagellation, chauvinism, and denial? And thus logically, the victory of youth over their elders.
Nothing, however, at this point threatened this dance, which, in the space of four seasons, had become the show-stealer of every ball, of every band, and, moreover, a musical style unto itself. For people now no longer said, « I listen to Congolese music », but rather « I love N’dombolo« . « Listen to this! Now this is what I call real N’dombolo« , yelled Claudy Siar every night on RFI’s « Couleurs tropicales » radio show, N’dombolo‘s other sanctuary. Caught up in this impetuous trend, young and old therefore had no other choice but to jump on the gravy train or to get left behind. Never, since the oldest Kinois’ rumba and Cha-cha-cha, had a dance achieved such unanimity. That is, right up until the day when, from the depths of the populous Ndjilli ‘hood, Kin’s very own « Chinese People’s Republic » (in reference to its overpopulation), a new dance burst forth, miming the parrot’s movements through the body language fantasies of the « Shégué »: « Tshaku libondas« .
Created by the intrepid Enrica Mboma, and later popularised by King Kester Emeneya (with the complicity of his « Shégué » fans), this dance-theatre, characterised by out-thrust chests and very mechanical, thrusting arm movements, like the crank arms on a steam train, was what finally managed in turn to dethrone the « eternal » N’dombolo. It came hard on its trail, hounding it out of its very last haven – the Zénith in Paris. Here, alongside his « Shégué » brought straight from the Kin ghettos, King Kester Emeneya signed his come back on the international circuit that night in November 2001 in front of more than 8000 people, taking on a dance that still embodies the nostalgia of a youth who would have loved it to be eternal.

This article is an extract from Manda Tchebwa’s forthcoming book, Sur les berges du Congo.///Article N° : 5655


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