Composer for Every Country: Republic of the Congo

If you’re looking up the Republic of the Congo and find yourself confused because you’re reading something about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, well… Even Google gets confused. A number of the musicians I read about while searching for “Republic of the Congo musicians” ended up being from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Made finding a composer for today a bit of a mess, it did. In more colloquial terms, the Republic of the Congo is often called Congo-Brazzaville (Brazzaville being its capital) to differentiate it from Congo-Kinshasa.

Like many countries in Africa, Congo-Brazzaville is quite new. It gained its independence in 1960 after having been part of French Equatorial Africa since 1880. Focused on resource extraction and “infrastructure modernization,” French colonial rule led to some truly brutal projects like the Congo-Ocean Railway, a building project which led to the deaths of almost 14,000 people under the guise of humanitarian aid. Given that, it is somewhat bizarre that French Congo became a bastion of Free France during the Nazi occupation of Paris with Brazzaville serving as a symbol for de Gaulle’s fight against the Germans in Africa.

Information prior to Portuguese contact is scarce, but the main political power in the area, starting around 1400, was the Kingdom of Kongo. From what I have read, the Kingdom of Kongo had a complex relationship with the trans-Atlantic trade of slaves, mostly participating under Portuguese duress, although attempts were made to cease the practice. Ultimately, the slave trade utterly transformed and destroyed the Kingdom of Kongo, leaving it vulnerable to conquest during the so-called Scramble for Africa.

Culturally, the people of Congo-Brazzaville are Bantu, with a majority being of Kongo ethnicity. Religion tends to be syncretic, a combination of local practices and Catholicism. Artistic products of note include Bembe statuettes and a variety of nail fetishes called nkondi, part of a religious practice of hammering nails into statues to secure oaths or to hunt-down and punish wrong-doers. I guess there is a huge market for tribal art from the Congo because most of the websites I found while searching for examples were Etsy, Ebay, and Pinterest pages.

Musically, xylophones and the mvet (a zither related somewhat to the kora, of which I wrote months ago) are traditional instruments. The Republic of the Congo shares the popular genre, soukous, with its similarly named neighbor. Some will find the travel of African music to the Americas and then back to Africa an interesting trip, and the Congo has close ties with Cuban music in both directions. Like everywhere else in the world, hip-hop is also popular.

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Our composer today is Spirita Nanda (b.1985), a woman from Brazzaville. She wrote her first song in 1997, not long after the end of the First Congo War (I’ll get to that when I write about the DRC). It apparently impressed her father so much, he wanted to give it to Kofi Annan, a famous Ghanian politician and diplomat. In the one interview I could find with her, she says that everything she does is in support of her family. The song linked below, Kitoko, is a call for African women to see and celebrate their beauty and power.

For today, I also have a double feature! Almost all of the Congolese musicians I found are from the DRC, so I want to at least give a shout out to Bisso na Bisso, a hip-hop collective that performed during the 90’s.