Kinshasa, a cultural scandal

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The people of Kinshasa’s hot spots, incredible resourcefulness, and personal initiatives. Where anything is possible.

It’s in the « Cité » (Kin’s outlying, suburban « problem » neighbourhoods and communes) and nowhere else in the capital that the « Kinois » find all the possible combinations to « make things happen ». Hip hop, rap, world music and other music forms, theatre, traditional, modern, contemporary, and urban dance, the fine arts, are all territories that only really meet in Kinshasa’s ‘hoods. But this paradoxical town, this permanent spectacle, proliferates in all directions. Shégués (street children), shayeurs (hawkers), madmen, urban dances, Mercedes, kaddafis (black market petrol traffickers), cambistes (black market foreign currency dealers), musicians, pastors and evangelical churches – Kin offers a vision of a very harsh reality for a country with such huge potential.
After decades of short-sightedness and self-importance in the mining scandal that is (was?) this country, the great walls of illusion are crumbling, particularly beneath the barrage of wars, revolutions, and liberations that have periodically sped up this process of casting off our illusions …
Kinshasa, my town, 9965 km2 for six million inhabitants, is just about as comfortable as sardine tin…
In the DRC, music is the divine ruler. To prove it, it’s the only art which, along with popular slapstick theatre, is indefinitely and unlimitedly broadcast on both national and private television. And God only knows how quite how many private stations there are in Kinshasa!
In a society that is as at loss for values and models as Congolese society, it’s the musicians who rule now. Every kid dreams of becoming a musician and going to Europe, of decking themselves out in famous designer labels and bringing back Mercedes cars to « heat » (impress) their rivals and all those who stayed behind (the uncles who dissed them, the friends who dropped them, and the parents who disowned them…).
Every band has a rehearsal space that doubles up as the group’s head offices. They sometimes give concerts there, or make people pay to watch rehearsals. But, more practically, the bands all play the town’s public halls and venues, such as the stadiums, movie theatres, the big hotel meeting and conference rooms, foreign cultural centres, schools, local cultural centres – most of which are run by theatre people – and in the open air out in the « Cité« . That’s where there’s the most space!
World music has descended into controversy of late: « I’m better than you, I’m better-looking than you, I dress better than you, my car is better than yours, my wife/wives and my house are better than yours, I’m the best! » After the Docteur Nico generation, the Luambo Franco and the Tabou Ley generation, the third Zaïko and Viva la Musica generation, we have the obligatory Wenge generation which fuels the Kinois’ dreams. They offer the illusion of material comfort. They are the best-known young group in the country. Today the group has divided into several formations, the best of which are the Wera Son Wenge, who are fiercely opposed to the JB Mpiana Wenge…
Rap has an increasingly strong following and hip-hop is still finding its way. Bebson has found his. He performs in terrible conditions in Kinshasa (the commune). He « squats » a corner of the family « turf » (home), but at least he does what he loves and believes in. « Other music » (which is not N’dombolo, but something that is above all in the creative spirit) is also making its mark, some people having grown tired of finding more gibes than thought-out themes in a World music that is nosier than it is well-made.
Theatre has an intense existence in Kinshasa. The major creations that can be seen travelling from festival to festival in Africa and Europe are not flashes in the pan, but the result of hard toil. With greater means, the DRC’s theatre artists could give far more. But already, existing on a shoestring, each professional theatre structure has its offices which more often than not double up as rehearsal and performance space. To such an extent that a local network has informally emerged…
Most of the local cultural venues sprang up on the many occasions that the foreign powers broke off all technical assistance to ex-Zaire. The other, already existing venues took advantage of the situation to establish themselves and inject new dynamism into their activities. They finally became indispensable, the Kinois being very fond of shows, and the foreign cultural centres being closed. « We couldn’t let that stop us from escaping from time to time, from helping us forget our daily hardships », says one 53-year-old civil servant who lives in Kasa Vubu, the commune next to Bandal.
The majority of these venues are non profit-making organisations. They receive no state backing and survive more or less successfully thanks to members’ subscriptions and occasionally donations, bequests, or subscriptions from the audience as a token of their attachment. The majority of the funding for the festivals they run comes from the international organisations who back the arts, such as the AFAA, Agence de la Francophonie, Coopération Française, Centre Wallonie Bruxelles, Goethe Institute, Unesco, and so forth.
As soon as you enter Kinshasa coming from the international airport in N’djili, the first venue you come to is the Centre for Artistic Initiation for Young People, the CIAJ, the Théâtre des Intrigants’ headquarters. Its activities can be seen there right in the heart of the Kinois suburban ‘hood of N’djili. Every year, the Intrigants organise an international theatre festival, the Journées Congoloaises de Théâtre par et pour l’Enfance, Joucotej. Further on, near the Kin interchange, as you head towards the district of Ngaba, are the headquarters of the Marabout Theatre, which also holds a yearly festival, known as the Carrefour de Rencontres d’artistes, or Carre. Further along still, near Yolo (another district), towards the Rond Point Victoire, one of the town’s two central hubs, are the Tam-Tam Theatre’s offices. The Ecurie Malboa is located at the Mutombo Buitshi venue in the commune of Bandal, which holds a biannual Festival International de l’Acteur (Fia). The National Theatre is located in the Mongita venue, nearer to the town centre. From Mondays to Sundays, it is thus possible to go to shows right across the town. Lying at opposite ends of the town, The Intrigants and the National Theatre both perform every Thursday. Ecurie Maloba and Tam-Tam Theatre perform on Fridays, and the Marabout Theatre on Sundays. In addition to these are the Kin French Cultural Centre, the Halle de la Gombe, and the Centre Wallonie-Bruxelles, which offer performance spaces to all the artists in the capital.
There is a real spirit of rotation between all these companies, their venues and the shows themselves. A cause for hope!
Urban dance has evolved hand-in-hand with World music (the Congolese music that everybody knows and plays). N’dombolo has now had its day and is increasingly being overtaken by Bo na bo (the dance characterised by vivid hip contortions)… Traditional dance remains strictly in the domain of folklore, targeting foreigners and « expats » in particular. I bet, for that matter, that it only really goes down well on their first trip. After that, they get to see the « Cité » and to discover Congolese culture in all its diversity as well as the people who move and live as they are, people who do what they do simply for pleasure, not for money
Kinshasa is a town full of noises and smells. There’s always music in the air, a child shouting, horns, or cell phones singing. There’s always the smell of food coming from a cooking pot or a nganda (eatery), or the smell of car fumes or sewers, or urine at the foot of a wall or a tree marked « no urinating here »…
Contemporary dance is a completely unknown entity. I myself only really discovered it at the Masa 2001, and I was completely blown away when I came across a Congolese contemporary dancer! We were so into our N’dombolo that I never really believed it existed… Today, one contemporary dance structure – the Studios Kabako – now exists in Kin, to the great displeasure of the classically traditional or modern dance bigwigs who teach at the Institut National des Arts or in their own schools. The Kabako studios are open to dancers and all those interested in dance and visual theatre – a truly inclusive programme! Another dance structure, Cie Diba Dance, which has gone over to contemporary dance, has its premises in a district that straddles a residential zone and the « Cité« . It is a large sandy walled courtyard where the dancers can give free reign to their inspiration.
As for the fine arts, many artists are self-employed. Two organisations work in conjunction however – the Botembe studios (named after their creator), where a group of artists have joined forces to work together; and the Espace Akenathon, which supervises artists and art students. This artists’ space lies right in the heart of a poor district, thereby helping to bring art to the masses, who rarely make the effort when there is no music or popular slap-stick theatre which they consider more related to their day-to-day lives. As this type of theatre draws its inspiration from daily events, people get the impression that you have to think a lot to contemplate a painting, a sculpture, or a contemporary dance piece…
Kinshasa is thus chock-a-block with naturally talented artists. From the N’djili to Gombe, Binza to Bandal, or even Lemba to Kingabwa districts, you can scoop them up by the bucket-full. And yet the government remains blind, too busy dealing with a war that refuses to go away! Unhurriedly…
For none of that significantly dampens the Kinois’ spirit, who struggle to inject beauty into their quotidian lives. Despite the current socio-economic and socio-political configuration, Kin remains as lively as it is reputed to be. Matonge, and Bandal now too, still bombard the capital with their goat meat, kamundele, turkey, and « ya jean » (the latest find in the meat department). With its proliferation of theatre troupes, evangelical churches and bands, in many people’s minds, Kin remains a dream-merchant. The town is a bit like a village – convivial and cheerful, harsh and free, inventive and frenetic, where an endless stream of artists flourish.
It’s hard to get lost in the Congolese capital, as people move between its two major hubs, the Rond Point Victoire and Place Kintambo Magasin. They are the obligatory routes for staying on course in Kinshasa, one being right in the east, the other further to the west. Each commune has at least one local band. Theatre is well implanted, whether classical (adaptations of well-known classics, or works based on a given text), or popular (based on the quotidian), amateur or professional.
It is thus in these 9 965 km2, with its six million inhabitants and their incredible feel, that a colourful, unpredictable, unbridled and rebellious culture is cooked up. Kinshasa the all-devouring town makes no concessions to the faint-hearted and lives at the expense of those who accept it. The musicians and pastors have understood this, they who each and every day defy Kin, which now idolizes them in gay abandon, every concert or prayer meeting drawing incredible crowds.

///Article N° : 5654


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