- Rumba Rules: The Politics of Dance Music in Mobutu’s Zaire
Bob White’s study of the relationship between Congolese music and the tumultuous politics of the three-decade regime of Mobutu Sese Sekou is a masterful example of participant ethnography. It is a welcome addition to the works of such scholars as Gary Stewart and Graeme Ewens, both of whom have also written informative texts on Congolese music—the former having written an encyclopedic work on the music of the two Congos, the latter a text on one of the giants of Congolese music, Franco Luambo Makiadi.
White explained the central relevance of the topic for African studies in a recent interview for The Voice of America’s African Beat (August 8, 2008), in which he noted that he settled on the research topic while in the Comoros—where he was exposed to Congolese music for the first time by Comorian enthusiasts who presented the music to him as “African music.” This pan-African nature of the music and the force it carries throughout the continent are, as White’s study makes clear, related to the ways in which the music succeeds in insinuating itself into both mundane and more formal conversations among diverse populations.
The book is composed of eight chapters, and includes a brief discography listing the musical works cited within the text. The chapters effectively draw readers progressively into the complexity of the music and its profound involvement with the lives of its audience members. White strengthens his arguments about lived and enacted discourses by reference to the works of his predecessors, such as Johannes Fabian, and that of his contemporaries, such as Kelly Askew. But he does not simply reiterate their work in a new time and place; his ability to build upon their ideas through his own experiences and observations is what makes this a significant work. For example, he provides crucial insight into the intertwined nature of popular culture and social action in Congolese contexts through his consideration of the liminal space inhabited, exploited, and celebrated by particular musicians—called atalaku—who string together a seemingly random series of short percussive phrases. Understanding atalaku is an important entry to understanding Congolese music, for they provide “particular ways of [End Page 219] understanding popular music in Kinshasa, not only in terms of the third space that music creates between tradition and modernity but also because of the degree to which it is embedded in local ways of doing and thinking about politics” (151–52).
White’s major contributions to this field of scholarship lie in his hands-on approach: during his research he lived and worked in Kinshasa as a member of Defao’s group “Les Big Stars.” This allowed him to use music to enter deeply into the performative nature of identity, politics, and culture in central Africa, and to understand the role of the atalaku as a major force in the expression and development of that culture. By referring to specific instances in which the concepts he develops are enacted by those around him, he validates his propositions and demonstrates their relevance to the Congolese people themselves. His intense focus on a particular epoch in Congolese history in no way detracts from the relevance of his topic to broader implications within Africanist scholarship and within the larger fields of ethnomusicology, cultural studies, and political science. Rather, such a tight focus provides the reader with both a sense of actual events and the ability to extrapolate from those events, based on the theoretical framework which the author provides.
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