No, Libanga will not save the Congolese music industry

A few days ago, I stumbled on an article, “Surviving the pop apocalypse: A lesson from Congolese pop music”. In the article, Morgan Greenstreet of Public Radio International talks to a university professor who praises Congolese music and a very peculiar aspect in the Congolese (both Kinshasa and Brazzaville alike) musical sub-culture called Libanga. In the text/podcast, John Nimis, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, states that “Libanga is this really miraculous, ingenious response — innovation basically- as to how the recording industry is financed”. As someone who has lived in Kinshasa and has been actively involved in the music and cultural scene, I can’t disagree anymore with that article: Libanga is not and will not be a way for Congolese musicians to survive in the music business.

In Lingala, the lingua franca used in much of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Congo- Libanga (plural Mabanga) means “rock”. In the music subculture, it takes the meaning of complimenting, praising. In short, Libanga is to give shout-outs, name-dropping of friends, people known and unknown to the singer, sometimes even places or organizations. In his last album, in a track titled “Triple option”, the late Papa Wemba does a Libanga for a non-governmental organization!!

So how does it work musically? very simple: the singer drops the name- anywhere in the song! So in the middle of a beautiful song you will hear a name. In Chasse à l’homme, Wemba starts off the song with “Eric Gustin, Gus, ceux qui vont mourir te saluent” [Translation: “Eric Gustin, Gus, those who are about to die salute you”.] In other songs, the shout-outs are at the end, taking up anywhere to a few seconds to a few minutes.

Libanga is nothing new to the Congolese music industry, it goes back several decades, back then it was also for flattery.

Nimis is correct in pointing out that the shout-out/name dropping à la sauce congolaise is a survival technique as the artist in theory gets paid for dropping your name. But the reality is much more complex and not as lucrative.

Crerdit: Y.Edoumou

Whatever money Congolese artists earn from it — if they earn anything because as Nimis out there’s no formal agreement between the singer and the person- it serves immediate needs: paying recording studio fees and the production of a new album; paying for fuel to run generators so that the musicians can rehearse; helping singers and musicians pay their rent; buying clothes. So it serves basic immediate needs. Yes, there are a few big-timers who may pay several thousands of dollars but they are few and far in between- a bit like Congolese gold diggers, every once in a while you hit the “jackpot”. A Libanga can cost as little as 100$ and can go up several thousands. During live concerts, back-up singers and musicians will also shout out/drop names, a way for them to guarantee taxi fare back home, because singing with international acts like Olomide or Fally Ipupa doesn’t bring you wealth.

Musically, many music fans believe that it kills the songs. Having names cutting into songs every 30 seconds or so is annoying and adds nothing musically. Outside of Kinshasa, who knows and cares about “Laurent Lorenzo”? and who is “Eric Gustin” ? For those whose names are dropped, it will make their friends and family smile; they will be the subject of discussion for a few minutes, it will boost the ego, akin to “15 minutes of fame”, but then that’s it. For listeners in Nairobi, New York, or Kuala Lumpur, these names mean nothing.

I’ve spent time with many Congolese artists, both in Kinshasa and Brazzaville, they will tell you that Libanga is to stay alive literally- it’s not the thing they like the most. Sitting in his bureau-cum-bar in MaCampagne, a once cozy neighborhood of Kinshasa, Papa Wemba, when we were preparing to launch his last album in 2014, compared Libanga to prostitution- “you go where the money is”- . This is from someone who he has made wide use of dropping names throughout his illustrious career. At the same time Wemba didn’t build his illustrious, long career on Libanga. A young talented artist from Brazzaville, working on his first album, said it was akin to being a “griot but at least real griots are known as such.” He said he will have to take a few names but whatever people will pay will not be enough to cover all the album’s costs. Producing an album solely on name dropping is impossible.

On the other hand, two other Congolese artists, Lokua Kanza from Kinshasa and Fredy Massamba from Brazzaville are doing just fine in their careers without name dropping. How do they do it? Is it because they are based abroad? Working with producers who have an understanding of the music business?

Credit photo:Y.Edoumou

As stated earlier, Libanga is nothing new, its roots need to be traced several decades before Snaptube, DMR, and the whole digitalization of the industry came about.

The Congolese music industry has been in rough waters for years now: making money from CDs is quasi impossible- I and a good friend Louis Mefalezi have first-hand experience; piracy is rampant; the law protecting the creative industry only exist on paper; YouTube and Deezer are here to stay.

We should qualify Libanga for what it is: a quick way to survive day to day. Libanga is not and cannot be a “business plan” for artists. It’s not something an artist can build his career on. The Congolese music industry is going through a crisis and it’s not Libanga that is going to save it.

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