A mighty sound
Mobutu and the Musicians, 1997

In the early morning hours of Friday, May 16, 1997, Zaire's president, Mobutu Sese Seko, left his stronghold at Camp Tshatshi on Kinshasa's western outskirts for the last time.  He slipped into the back seat of an inconspicuous sedan for a hasty motorcade to the capital's international airport where a jetliner waited to carry him into exile.  Only a few short miles beyond the airport's perimeter the soldiers of Laurent Kabila's rebellion readied themselves for one final campaign—a celebratory parade really—to take the capital and put an end to nearly thirty-two years of Mobutu's corrupt dictatorship.

Mobutu was embarking, albeit in more luxurious fashion, on a journey that many of his country's musicians had already taken.  Theirs was compelled by a collapsing economy, which in turn forced his at gunpoint.  The former Zaïrean president would settle into his comfortable villa in Morocco to live out the days numbered by a spreading cancer.

The musicians whose livelihoods he all but destroyed had moved to more modest surroundings in Paris and Brussels.  Sam Mangwana, Abeti Masikini, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Papa Wemba, Tshala Muana, and scores of others joined their counterparts from across the river in Congo-Brazzaville and from West Africa and the Caribbean to transform the former metropolises of Europe's colonial empires into fertile musical crossroads.  The confluence of styles and ideas produced another music industry flavor of the moment, "world beat."

Despite the misleading label, most "world beat" recorded in Paris and Brussels is African.  Much of that comes from Congo and Zaïre—the latter called Congo too since Mobutu's departure.  The ironic truth is that Congolese music's inroads abroad developed in proportion to how badly things went at home.  Like canaries in a coal mine whose silence foreshadows disaster, the flight of Congolese musicians presaged the chaos that would consume both Congos in the decade of the nineties.

That the migration of musicians would serve as a warning seemed only natural.  Congolese music itself was the product of upheavals that had engulfed central Africa for hundreds of years.  The encounters that gave it life were often less joyful than their offspring.  Some played out in the spirit of curiosity and good will.  Others bore the scars of ignorance and greed.  Together they produced a legacy of suffering, and of joy, and a new popular music that would reach far beyond the boundaries of its birthplace.

Copyright © 2000 by Gary Stewart