‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
Somebody once said that — my money’s on Thelonius Monk, but Quote Investigator credits an obscure US comedian called Martin Mull — and now everybody cites it.
If you, too, define such activities as category errors, what on earth will you make of the latest Chimurenga Chronic: Who Killed Kabila II, which — despite being a silent, extremely solid, board-bound text — is “conceived as a sebene … it might make you weep but you can dance to it”?
But then the Chronic always messes with our heads: that’s part of the reason it exists. So let’s consider why somebody might want to frame a book as a piece of music; why that text and that music in particular —and do we end up dancing?
When, in 1989, conservative ideologue Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history”, the history he had in mind was linear and unidirectional, and its end, “the universalisation of Western liberal democracy”. Or, as others might put it, a masked version of the hegemonic neoliberalism that naturalises rigged markets as free markets and freedom for some as freedom for all (rather than, as musician Jonas Gwangwa more correctly puts it, freedom for none).
Step outside a straight-line history text to explore who killed Kabila and you find yourself in a very different space. Jump aboard sebene as an alternative mode of transport, and you land up somewhere far more interesting and liminal. It’s not simply that Kabila is Congolese, and sebene is part of Congolese music — it’s what that music is, says and does.
The sebene, explains Rough Guide’s Graeme Ewens, is that part of a number “when the slow rumba breaks, singers stand back and the multiple guitars go to work on the dancers.” But what sebene really is, is anticolonial praxis.
In early rumba it was the passage where so-called “Latin” musical elements were most dramatically re-indigenised — they originated in Africa — and repurposed. Guitar master Franco Luambo Makiadi told several interviewers (I’m paraphrasing): “None of us understood Spanish, but we pulled words that sounded good out of the Spanish dictionary and used them, whatever they meant.” Colonial words and sonic gestures were being stormed and occupied long before Government House was.
Sebene, rather than the straight line of the melody, was how, through the genius of the guitarists, audiences could experience the excitement of the new, in punctuations, tensions and antiphonies that inspired the invention of dance moves. Change is coming, sang the chiming guitars.
But those tensions were resolved: a slogan-shouting animateur — “Kwassa kwassa!” — brought the moves together on the floor; repetitive call-and-response between instruments shaped communal conversations; then the singers returned with their sweet, unifying harmonies. Who cares about colonial divide-and-rule when we know who we are, asked the discourse of the dance.
That’s pretty much what this edition of the Chronic does.
The history displaced by colonialists’ praise-songs to their own victories was polyphonic and multifarious: oral and written, poetic, sung, meticulously researched, memorised and dreamed. The history explored by Who Killed Kabila II is presented as fiction, faction, investigation, letter and lyric. It comes from eight distinctive voices and half-a-dozen country perspectives, alluding to more than a hundred characters (Kwame Nkrumah, Thomas Sankara, Walter Rodney, Emmerson Mnangagwa and more). This is the Tout Puissant OK band that storms, occupies and displaces linear history and historiography.
It’s invidious to select among eight breathtakingly innovative solos, but the two that really got me dancing were by Percy Zvomuya and Yvonne Owuor. Zvomuya’s thoughtful tango, “Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa”, plays out the dance of army-state relations within and between Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo: sometimes intimately touching; sometimes aloof; often taking orders from the same animateurs. Owuor’s is a classic sebene — almost the whole volume in miniature — that uses Makiadi’s lyrics as soundtrack, leitmotif and launching pad for a 13-part tone poem about the illusions of postcolonial statehood and the pain of seeking truth.
“This tale,” she says, “pokes at the thick walls of our suppressed collective keening, the hidden tearing of hairs, the scarring/ marring of our skins, the pleading for forgiveness, the wondering how to forgive the betrayal, how to dream anew even when the memories of what have gone before battle with the future.”
I had not read anything of Caine prize-winner Owuor’s before: her lyrical virtuosity will send me to a bookshop for more.
We all know, in the law-court sense, “who” killed Kabila. Yet the Chronic investigation unveils things and people we did not know, offering memorable little riffs on, for example, Mama Nelly Ngoie, Kabila’s powerful private secretary, and multiple other, until now faceless, factotums and victims.
Presenting such a pan-African panorama is one of the ways Who Killed Kabila II fulfils the final function of rumba, in bringing us together. The narrative locates us all in African Time — not in the lazy, pejorative sense of that term, but as Owuor plays it: a chronology where memories of the past “battle with the future” in the now, on this continent.
The story of Kabila’s demise jumps all the borders colonialists drew and ignored as it suited them; it was never a Congolese story alone. Chimurenga’s sebene unites us, too, in understanding who and what the enemy is, because that enemy didn’t die with Kabila.
Makiadi had a song for that too: one of his most famous, a lament about a greedy, brutal, domineering partner. In the song the man is called Mario, but he could have as easily have been called France, or America, or International Diamond Industries or the International Monetary Fund:
Mobali akuti ngai na bangenge/ Asengi adiriger ngai na ndimi (He found me enjoying wealth. He asked me if he could take control of it — and I said yes!)