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  • Rumba Rules: The Politics of Dance Music in Mobutu's Zaire
  • Mwenda Ntarangwi
Bob. W. White , Rumba Rules: The Politics of Dance Music in Mobutu's Zaire. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008, 300 pp.

Even though I have never been to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Bob White, in Rumba Rules (2008), takes me to the heart of Kinshasa and makes me feel, see, and even hear Zairian music in its place of origin. The narrative and analysis brings to life my own memories of Zairian music while growing up in Kenya listening to the music on radio, gramophone, or live concerts by Zairian immigrant musicians or bands touring our cities. White's book covers a lot of territory in the ethnography of popular music and brings to the fore the intricacies of making music in a challenging socio-economic and political context in one of the wealthiest and yet poorest nations in Central Africa. White's central goal is to show why popular music continues to have relevance for so many people in Kinshasa and how, at the same time, it has come to be synonymous with bad leadership and various forms of economic and moral decay (pp. xiv). To accomplish this White divides up the book into eight chapters through which he weaves the history of Zairian music, the politics of bands and band members, the intricacies of live performance, [End Page 855] and the socio-political and economic realities and how they shape and are shaped invariably by music.

What makes this book so important and relevant is that White started the research for the book in 1995, two years before the fall of Mobutu and continued with intermittent research (except for 1997, 1998, and 2000) until 2004. He was able, therefore, to observe critical Zairian political changes—such as the ouster of Mobutu by Laurent Kabila, the assassination of Laurent Kabila, and the takeover by Joseph Kabila, Laurent's son—and how Zairian music responded to or reflected these changes. White also extended his research to DRC nationals living abroad as well as band members touring North America. Through this rich tapestry of research, including his own participation as a struggling guitar player and later animator for one of the main groups in Kinshasa, White takes the reader not only into the heart of music making in Kinshasa but also into the individual lives of bands and their members. This allows him to write with authority about the complexity of the phenomenon of Zairian music and show how one cannot quickly dismiss popular Zairian musicians as Mobutu's sycophants but rather look at their struggles to survive economically while also being true to their musical talents that otherwise would not flourish without the support of an ever-stifling state machinery. White convincingly shows, for instance, that legendary musician Franco Luambo Luanzo Makiadi of the T.P. OK Jazz, even though Mobutu's most favored musician, performed songs that challenged Mobutu's regime while also realigning himself with an anti-elitist social class that Mobutu seemed to represent. Indeed, one can argue that Mobutu's idea of authenticité (the local version of Negritude and Afrocentricity) was attractive to many Africans including Franco and the idea of patronage or sponsorship that Mobutu instituted, as White clearly shows, is not alien to much of African folklore.

Throughout the entire book White maintains a good balance between analysis and theory often sharing some excerpts from his fieldwork that breathe life into the text. He also balances some of his arguments with counter-arguments as especially evident in chapters one and eight. In the former, he outlines clearly the intimate relationship between musical structure and political power that often determines the length of a song, where it will be performed, whose names will be mentioned in it, and the intricacies of fieldwork. In the latter, the reader is made to see Mobutu's regime within the larger global framework of expanded capitalism and neoliberal economics, revealing how Mobutu's grip of power was as much locally mobilized [End Page 856] as it was externally supported and encouraged. The musicians in this context are therefore both local players...


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