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Music. DR Congo. Rhythm from the mines

Times have changed and even the performers’ faces have, but more than fifty years later, the ‘Jecoke’ are still there, in Lubumbashi.

This Congolese city is mostly known for being the capital of the resource-rich province of Katanga (which, according to a recently approved law, is due to be split in four in the near future), but minerals are not its only noteworthy product. The southeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in fact, has given birth to one of the most fascinating musical genres in the country, although even in its best years it was almost, but undeservedly, overshadowed by the most popular Congolese rumba.

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However, when artists such as Joseph Kabaselé, Franco Luambo and Tabu Ley ‘Rochereau’ began recording their songs in Kinshasa, the ‘Jecoke’ (an acronym standing for ‘Jeunes Congolaises du Kenya’, the latter being a neighbourhood of the city then known as Elizabethville) were already performing in Katanga. Part comedians, part singers, they were deeply influenced by artists such as Jean Bosco Mwenda wa Bayeke and   most of all, Edouard Masengo Katiti, a guitarist who later moved to Nairobi and contributed – together with another exile, South Africa’s Miriam Makeba – to composing the still well-known and much covered song Malaika.

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Using the Swahili language (widespread in eastern Congo) instead of Lingala (mostly used in the West and later associated with the Mobutu regime) the ‘Young Congolese from Kenya’ – as their name would sound in English – combined music with dance and sketches, getting many a laugh from their audience of ‘copper eaters’, as the miners were called. However, their artistic career was partly hampered for political reasons: the groups’ music and way of dressing – remindful of some aspects of the U.S. country culture – did not cope well with the ‘authenticity’ policy that president Mobutu Sese Seko wished to impose on the young state. So, the band shared the fate of some other cultural movements that were perceived as too much linked to the west and, in particular, to the colonial past of the country, such as the sapeurs (also known as Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes), who were fascinated with the French and Belgian fashion of the time and tried to imitate some of its most notable aspects. All these tendencies, in fact were practically erased by the strict provisions of the Mobutu regime, which forced all men to wear the so called ‘abacost’, a short-sleeved suit perceived as truly African, unlike ties, jackets and shirts.

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Such dispositions were particularly detrimental to the ‘Jecoke’ and greatly limited the development of a musical genre that, at a certain point, could also have represented a potential alternative to the beloved rumba, as Masengo and his fellow musicians showed when, in January 1956, they managed to perform in Kinsasa and to take part in a music contest. Both the public and the jury were so impressed by what they heard and saw that the group was declared the overall winner, leaving behind it the most renowned stars of the time, such as Franco Luambo himself and even Joseph Kabaselé and his orchestra, whose Independance Cha Cha, a few years later, was to become an iconic tune in the country.

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The Mobutu era, however, represented such a step forward for many kinds of music that even Masengo, when he came back in the country in 1972 after 12 years spent in Nairobi, couldn’t enjoy much success. He died in 2003, when Congo was under many aspects very far from the land that he had left many decades earlier. However, the tradition he had contributed to start up did not die with him: nowadays the ‘Jecoke’ might attract smaller crowds than in the past but, except for the group members, not much else has changed. Their swing-like music, for instance, is still based on a local style, drawing much from South African and Zambian tradition, which reached Lubumbashi through the southern border of Congo. The nostalgic ballads sung by the oldest members of the band are accompanied by the acrobatic dance of the younger ones. The unique features of this musical genre, therefore, have drawn attention even beyond its home continent and at present, Masengo’s ‘heirs’ are widely regarded as one of the most interesting cultural phenomena in Congo and, perhaps, in the whole of Africa.

(D.M. – Photos: Gwenn Dubourtoumieu)

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