Composer for Every Country: Democratic Republic of Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo is a huge country, the area of which is comparable to most of Western Europe. Gaining independence from Belgium in 1960, the DRC underwent a number of name changes. I still remember having a globe which labelled the country 'Zaire.'. Like many African countries, there’s not much written history prior to European contact, but there were a number of kingdoms in the region prior to colonization. Among these were the Kongo, Luba, Yaka, Lunda, and Kuba people.

A note before moving on: I am abashed to say that the Second Congo War happened while I was in junior high and high school, and it somehow never penetrated my awareness. I have vague memories of the Rwandan civil war and genocide on the news, but you’d think that a war which involved almost every country between Libya and South Africa would have made a bigger impression. Then it occurred to me - how many African current events am I aware of right now? Not many. I can think of many reasons why this might be the case, and that might become a blog post later, but for now it’s worth remembering how insular our lives can be.

In the DRC we find a dizzying array of languages and cultures. The major language group is Bantu, and of the languages within that group, the four that stand out are Kikongo, Lingala, Tshiluba, and Swahili. Groups outside the Bantu languages include the Pygmies, Adamawa-Ubangi, and Central Sudanic peoples. French is used as an official language, owing to the history of colonization by Belgium, and just about everybody is multilingual by necessity.

Christianity is the dominant religion, by far, but it is often blended with local practices and beliefs. One religion unique to the area is Kimbanguism, named after its founder Simon Kimbangu. Growing out of a number of prophetic religions at the beginning of the 20th-century, Kimbanguism had a strong anti-colonial bent, and continued to flourish even after Kimbangu died in prison in 1951. It remains a popular form of Christianity to this day.

Musically, there’s one genre which is especially associated with the DRC, and that is soukous. It has roots in the Congolese rumba, drawing on folk music, soul, Caribbean, and Latin American rhythms and instrumentation. Soukous spread as a popular genre across Africa, becoming a great influence on highlife, palm-wine music, and many others.

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Today’s composer is Joseph Kabasele (1930-1986), known more by his stage name Le Grande Kallé. The main progenitor of soukous, Kabasele started his music career with a group they called OTC. In 1953, he founded the group that would make his fame, L’African Jazz. The band rose in tandem with a growing middle class during the 1950’s. As part of this, they became intertwined with increasing national pride and the independence movement, and Kabasele wrote the song, Independence Cha-Cha, to celebrate the independence of the Congo from Belgium.