‘Libanga’ system: DRC’s phenomenon of commercialised praise-singing
By Andrew Mulenga
Koffi Olomide, JB Mpiana, Werrason and more recently Fali Ipupa are household names of Congolese artistes that always manage to draw huge crowds whenever they visit Zambia for live performances.
But what the majority of Zambia's carefree Congolese music (Rhumba) fans do not know, is that while they attempt to outclass the so-called dancing queens, and sing along with the artistes they have paid so handsomely to watch, there is much more to Rhumba than the writhing of waists during trouser-tearing dance antics.
In a recent interview, Lubumbashi-based Congolese author and cultural operator Patrick Mudekereza explains the phenomenon of money-oriented praise-singing popularly known as 'Libanga' that is at the very core of Rhumba music.
"The Libanga system is one of the most important ways of making money.
'Libanga' means a small stone in Lingala and 'Kobwaka Libanga' means to throw a stone," explains Mudekereza who was recently invited as an advisor for the World Event Young Artists, part of the Cultural Olympiad in the UK.
He was ironically denied a visa despite it being a publicly funded event.
"Traditionally, 'Kobwaka Libanga' is an expression that can be used to describe a small child who throws a stone to get a parent or an older person's attention."
According to Mudekereza, in the musical context, the term 'Libanga' is however most frequently used to explain what musicians or singers do in a recorded song or live performance when they mention or sing the names of sponsors or wealthy businessmen, most preferably at the beginning of the performance. Individual names can be sang or shouted in between verses and choruses.
"I can say everyone is involved except for artistes like Lokua Kanza who are not really in the Congolese music system. Fali Ipupa, JB Mpiana, Werrason, Papa Wemba and Koffi Olomide are all into this system", he reveals.
"For instance, you can hear a name like Didi Kinuani; and most of the time it is followed by an adjective such as 'Didi Kinuani, vous etes le sauveur du monde' which means Didi Kinuani you are the saviour of the world' because he gives money to everyone. Or 'Adam Bombole les Congolais Abramovich qui n'a pas été affectée par la crise économique'… meaning Adam Bombole the Congolese Abramovich who was not affected by the economic crisis."
The two he mentions here are Congolese men of stature: Didi Kinuani is a renowned diamond dealer who sponsors many bands, and Adam Bombole, a close associate of strongman Jean-Pierre Bemba, a politician of considerable wealth.
Both have appeared on several songs by the biggest names in Rhumba, Bombole even had an entire JB Mpiana song commissioned for his wife Janet Bombole, the song whose title the author cannot remember, was a worldwide hit.
Also mentioned in the songs is Congolese Chez Ntemba night club chain owner, Kayembe Kaloji.
"We know in DRC that some big artistes can mention the names of up to 10 powerful people in a single song and earn up to US$10,000 per name mentioned. You can imagine how much money that is," adds Mudekereza "It's a business. How do you think those musicians get all the money to buy expensive clothes and cars.
I don't think any Congolese musician is making money from album sales."
He says not even Rhumba giant Papa Wemba, who is still living a lavish life in DRC with a string of houses and expensive cars, is able to earn as little as US$100 dollars through CD copy sales. Mudekereza links this sales predicament to the MP3 digital music file-sharing era we are living in. So the likes of Papa Wemba are making earnings from live shows, promotional concerts for beer and sometimes by government sponsorship but most of all 'Libanga'.
But it should be noted that although 'Libanga' is a form of social recognition for whoever's name is chanted in a song, it also works for the artiste who by 'throwing the 'Libanga' even without being paid, can appear to be closer to a certain class of people.
"Sometimes as an artiste, someone may just want to show off to his friends that he has sung about big names like Bombole and Kinuani so they will think he has money. But sometimes when these big people are told to say you have sung about them, they will look for you and pay you." he explains.
Libanga is nothing new. It can be traced back to the golden age of Mobutu's Zaire, where the late leader's son Kongolo an officer in the Special Presidential Division who went by the nickname Saddam Hussein was the most sang name of the 1980s. It is said that those who did not mention his name in songs and at concerts would face stumbling blocks in their careers, or even suffer more sinister fates.
Nevertheless, as a form of commercialised praise singing, 'Libanga' does not go uncontested. Bana Ba Congo a network of young DRC nationals in the Diaspora intends to organise a form of boycott against popular artistes that have been benefiting from 'Libanga'.
But sincerely, what moral right do Bana Ba Congo have to deny a musician to earn a living? Besides, on the dance floor, who has the time to care if the song they are dancing to is a beer commercial or was dedicated to a Congolese tycoon's wife.
After all, closer to home haven't people been dancing to the so-called 'JK featuring R-Kelly' song 'Hands Across The World', which if truth be told is an Airtel advertisement.
Like Mdekereza alludes, in this part of the world, artistes struggle to earn as little as US$100 from album sales and rampant file sharing. So it can be welcomed when we see, as in previous elections years here in Zambia, our local artistes benefiting from a form of 'Libanga'. According to reliable sources, this year Zambian Republican President Rupiah Banda's campaign CD which is yet to be released features JK, MC Wabwino, Kayombo, Leo, Raydo and Ty2.
Surely these artistes are not yet known to be MMD party praise-singers, so presumably it will be done for commercial benefit, to put food on the table, as it were! Particularly so for an artiste such as Ty2 who is known to be struggling to get a foot hold on the Zambian music scene since his return from the UK a couple of years ago. Before he left for the British isles, he enjoyed his proverbial 'fifteen minutes of fame' as reigning 'King of Zam Ragga' (a Zambian derivative of Jamaican dance hall Reggae) with his one hit effort 'Smile'. But upon return, he ceased to be a crowd-puller owing to the saturation of the genre by the likes of Petersen, Dandy Krazy and others, and crowds are what pays the rent. In this light, Ty2's 'Libanga' must have come in very handy.
Nevertheless, without digressing too much from the moral of the story, next time you take to the dance floor at the sound of your favourite Rhumba track, as the song plays listen out for "Didi Kinuani the saviour of the world", "Adam Bombole,the Congolese Abramovich" or Kongolo Mobutu aka Saddam Hussein.