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Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 228-230

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Le panégyrique mbiimbi: Etude d'un genre poétique oral yaka, by Joseph N'Soko Swa-Kabamba. Leiden: Research School CNWS, 1997. iv + 336 pp. ISBN 90-73782-91-0 paper.

This book is a challenge to decipher from first contact with it. Indeed, the cover shows a group of nine men, with grave expressions on their faces; the one who appears to be the leader, sitting in the foreground, wears some adornments around his head. He also bears a bandoleer of leopard-skin, and on his right arm is a decorated armband atop a European-cut jacket. This jacket and his tinted glasses are in obvious contrast to other aspects of the man's apparel: an African bracelet, a few ritual objects upon him, the [End Page 228] lower part of his outfit in a material with African motifs. This man is Kyambvu, twenty-seventh king of the Bayaka; this king, whose reign is recent (1974-96), was chief of the "Yaka" kingdom, which can be found in the Republic of Congo to the southeast of the capital, Kinshasa.

This cover seems to pose such questions as: a kingdom in the middle of a republic? what kind of relationships exist between the two institutions? Is it a "country" (71)? a "region" (75)? a "community" (79)? a "territory" (82)? The ambiguity is never erased. On the contrary, starting from the premise of a kingdom (101) with a secular dynasty, the book, in the manner of an initiation, offers information on Yaka culture and traditional literature. It explains the poetics of the panegyrical mbiimbi and the sociopolitical and ethnographic contexts of its production. A dynastic song, the mbiimbi is a lyrical declamation exalting the king or the feudal chief by citing the titles, mottoes, high deeds, and noble origins of the hero. Through its political and institutionalized aspect, this panegyric constitutes the official Yaka literature. It is performed by the buvwala, dynastic singers, exclusively male, whose art is "to exalt power through song and instrument [the lamellophone]" (75).

The book is divided into two sections. The first (pp. 1-174), a "description," deals with the panegyric by emphasizing the contexts of its production, its poetic characteristics, and the means of its institutionalization as a specific oral genre among the Bayaka of Congo. The second part (pp. 180-336) presents selections of mbiimbi texts: "1663 verses escape thereby the disappearance threatening oral literary genres" (7). The author even seems to succeed in transcribing the tones—including those on the consonants (66, 76, 208)—of this "Bantu" language with its tonalities laden with semantic pertinence. He first describes his methodology for collecting the texts and his protocol for transcribing them. Next come the "textual commentaries" explaining the cultural allusions invoked in a poem's embellishments, metaphors, and other coded messages: "the lion who . . . ," "the leopard who . . . ," "the chameleon who . . . ." Despite the methodological aspect which is approximate and unconvincing, the author presents a fluid translation that he terms "intermediary," one that is situated between word-for-word and free and literary translations.

This study is a work that safeguards and analyzes texts of oral poetry and shows the possibilities for transcription. It is inscribed within the perspectives of research on the "oral-written" interface of African literatures (see RAL 28.1 [1997]), and in this regard we are offered an important theoretical tool for the "panegyrical" genre and an anthological resource for the mbiimbi repertoire of the Bayaka of Congo: a treasure for Africa's literary heritage.

There are, nevertheless, certain regrettable aspects to the book: a bibliography lacking headings, grammatical errors ("nous sommes en enclin à" [for "nous sommes enclins à" 'we are inclined to']; "les jeune [sic] des villages" 'the village youth' [sg.]), and "padding." It would have been better to depart from the work's origin as a university thesis and present a revised version, in which the reader could avoid useless passages such as "After having given a general overview[. . . ]now is the time to...


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