When it comes to diversity, there is multi-cultural and there is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The third largest country in Africa, the Congo is home to roughly 69 million people, encompassing several hundred distinct ethnic and tribal groups, perhaps as many as 700. As many as 200 languages are spoken within the country, with French being the official language.
Generalizing about the musical traditions of a country like the Congo is problematic. Each of those 700 ethnic groups has its own cultural traditions — of dance, music, singing, costumes and masks — and while there are similarities and overlap between the traditions, there is much that is unique in each tradition. Suffice it to say that the musical culture of the Congo is incredibly rich, complex and impossible to unravel.
The Wacongo Dance Company, which performs at UD’s Boll Theatre April 7, was founded in 1998 in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by Elie Kihonia, a multi-instrumentalist and choir veteran. Wacongo’s repertoire of music, dance and drumming represents some 400 of these traditional groups, including the Luba, Mongo, Kongo, Mbala, Bantu, Pende, Kuba, Mbunda and many more.
Like the Eskimos, who reportedly have no word for “snow,” people in the Congo have no particular name for Congolese music. The closest is “muziki na biso,” which means “our music,” as opposed to foreign music. To people outside of the country, most Congolese music is known as soukous, though technically soukous is just one of the many genres of Congolese music; others include rumba, madiaba and mutuashi.
There’s a remarkably fluid line in the Congo between traditional music and pop music. Even the most pop-oriented music has its traditional elements. Many of the core members of Wacongo have worked with Afro-pop artists, including such artists as Papa Wemba, Koffi Olomide, Kanda Bongo Man, Franco (guitarist Francois Luambo Makiadi), Soukous Stars and Orchestre Afrisa International, the influential band led by soukous pioneer Tabu Ley Rochereau.
This interplay between pop and traditional music has influenced and enriched both styles. It seems unforced in a place where the traditional is never far from the surface, but it was once a matter of state policy.
During the late 1960s and 1970s, the country (then known as Zaire) struggled with President Mobutu’s infamous retour à l’authenticité (return to authenticity) policies. Based on China’s Cultural Revolution, Mobutu’s idea was to renounce all “foreign” influences, purge the country of the last vestiges of its colonial past, re-Africanize Africa and return to some dimly remembered time when everything was better. The policies worked about as well as you’d expect — the Mao-jacket-inspired dress code for public employees went over really well — but traditional music did gain a somewhat higher profile as a result.
The music of the Wacongo Dance Company is high-energy, exciting and woven from many, many strands, both traditional and modern. My advice is to go to the show and open your ears and mind. Don’t try to figure it out. Just enjoy it.