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Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 156-175

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Modernity's Trickster:
"Dipping" and "Throwing" in Congolese Popular Dance Music 1

Bob W. White


During a recent trip to Kinshasa, I was surprised to see a high-level minister in the newly formed Kabila government walking around the airplane shaking hands and chatting with the other passengers. When he approached my seat I stood up, introduced myself and my wife, and told him I was returning to Kinshasa to continue my research on popular music. 2 "Popular music? Wonderful!" he said, turning to my wife. "Madame, you must be careful, you know. Keep a close watch on your husband, because as soon as he sees the dombolo he will never be the same." The minister's marital advice did not reference the fact that this highly eroticized widely commercialized dance step had been banned in other parts of Africa for "political reasons," but it did echo the growing fear in Kinshasa that the dances and shouts of young musicians represent the final assault against African "traditional" values; popular ways of speaking about the moral crisis in the Congo have gone from an emphasis on "démocratisation" to "dollarisation" and now "dombolisation." Who is to blame for this state of moral decay? No one knows. In fact, no one even knows what dombolo means, except, of course, the atalaku.

The contagious sound of Congo-Zairian popular dance music has made it in some sense the musica franca of much of sub-Saharan Africa (see Ewens). 3 Over a period of more than fifty years, this peculiar cultural commodity has imposed itself in local markets throughout Africa, and in many places—not only in its place of origin—it is clearly attached to local notions of "Africanness" (see my "Soukouss"). Outside of its place of origin, Congolese popular music is variously known as soukouss, rumba, and Congo Jazz, but within the Congo it is simply referred to as "la musique moderne." 4 This label distinguishes popular dance music from various types of religious and "traditional" music (in Lingala, "foklore"), but it also speaks to a modernist aesthetic implicit in the music that manifests itself most visibly in the form of electric guitars and music videos, expensive cars with cellular phones, declarations of romantic love, and European high fashion. 5 People in Kinshasa often say that popular music and the city "grew up" together and that their special relationship constitutes an important part of what it means to be urban and modern. 6

The atalaku is the musician in Congolese popular music who creates and strings together the seemingly random series of short percussive phrases known as "shouts" that drive the fast-paced dance sequences of contemporary Congolese popular music. Of the scattered sentences written about the atalaku, they all in one way or another capture the contradictory nature of his persona. The atalaku rarely appears in music videos, and despite the fact that most people are familiar with his "song," he is not classified as a singer. He shares the spotlight with some of the biggest names in the Kinshasa [End Page 156] music scene, but he is stigmatized relative to his fellow bandmembers. People criticize him for his crass behavior on stage and for his uglification of the fluid sentimentality of old-school rumba, but he has somehow become the necessary ingredient to every Kinshasa dance sequence. Given the atalaku's ambiguous position in society and also given the humor and embarrassment that often surround his persona, is it possible to see the atalaku as a kind of living, live-time trickster? If so, what does this trickster status reveal about the way that "tradition" is objectified within an African "modernity"?

The few book-length studies about Congolese popular music either were written before the emergence of the atalaku (see Lonoh) or, for one reason or another, fail to see the phenomenon of atalaku as sociologically significant (see Bemba; Tchebwa). Of the dozen or so articles published on Congolese popular dance music, only two make any...


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