National Geographic : 2013 Sep
Kinshasa 117 with surrender, her hands extended in offering. And then, suddenly, the lights go out and the guitars fall silent. The generator providing the electricity for La Porte Rouge has sucked up its last drop of gas. Basokin disappears into dark- ness, while someone grabs a plastic container and runs down the street to fetch more fuel. A half hour later the nightclub is alight, the band returns to the stage with stoic composure, and a new 20-minute spiral of sound and motion fills the garage and, I find myself believing, the city beyond. A few days later I meet the singer Mi Amor for a beer in Matonge. The streets are tame in the sunlight, and the band leader is, like Freddy Tsimba, both amiable and gravely earnest about his art. He tells me that Basokin has performed together for 30 years. Two of the dancers are daughters of the musicians. Since 1987 Basokin has played at La Porte Rouge every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Mi Amor and one of the other members have government jobs; the rest, he explained to me, “work in the informal structure,” which is to say that like the vast ma- jority of Kinois, they scrape by however they can, including on tips from the audience. The pressure to survive as an artist in Kin- shasa has compelled even famous musicians like Papa Wemba to accept corporate sponsors and insert commercial jingles into their repertoire. (In the case of Papa Wemba: “Drink Mützig beer!”) Basokin has resisted such impulses. “ The band members are all from the tribes that rep- resent Songye culture, and what we try to do is preserve basic folk traditions,” Mi Amor tells me. “Folk songs are static, not dynamic. We replace a few words, and we replace a traditional instru- ment like the xylophone with a modern one like the guitar. But our songs talk about returning to the traditional values that we’re losing. For example, one of the songs you heard us play talks about a poor man, and how you shouldn’t mock him for his poverty, because you can never tell where he’ll be tomorrow. We are all granted wealth, each person in his own time.” The music itself, the singer tells me, is intended to evoke the supernatural—the bedrock of Songye spirituality, replete with sorcery and venera- tion of the dead. “When the dancers join in, and we’re improvising, it’s a mix of forces,” he says. “We’re addressing ourselves to the deceased Songye elders. It’s as if we’re back in our villages, talking to the people in the world of the dead, and they’re listening.” A Belgian music producer and manager, Mi- chel Winter, has been to Kinshasa numerous times and plucked from obscurity remarkable acts such as Konono No. 1 (a band that employs in its music an electronic version of the tradition- al thumb piano known as the likembe) and Staff Benda Bilili (a group featuring several paraplegic street singers that became an international sen- sation and that spawned an engaging offshoot band of physically challenged musicians called Handi-Folk). Winter discovered Basokin back in 2002 and has since toured the band throughout Europe. “For me, Basokin is just incredible, hyp- notic,” Winter says. “They make no money, and they show a lot of courage playing three times a week. Kinshasa is full of crazy dreamers like Basokin and Staff—rehearsing and rehearsing day after day. I think there is no other place on Earth like that.” The problem, says Winter, is how to convey to a wider audience the primal intensity Freddy Tsimba and I witnessed at La Porte Rouge. “I don’t know how you can reproduce the impact you feel when you’re there on a clean and pure recording system,” he sighs. “I don’t know the solution. I just know that we need to get them on a recording before it’s too late.” It is possible to overly rhapsodize the city’s magic—to conjure up Kinshasa, as Yoka does, as “sexy and unpredictable, like a woman,” as a land- scape of “breakers of stones and artists of struggle, who confront misfortune with a smile, taking it in their own style—that is, with humor and satire.” But the author admits that the “informal system” is far from an ideal one. “I’m not apologizing for our city,” he says. “We’re in the modern era, and there are modern standards we need to adapt to.” Because the raw and rich tableau of Kinsha- sa’s compulsive entrepreneurship can quickly tom-tom with Keith Moon-like fury.