Module Eighteen, Activity Three

Culture Expression in Central Africa

Music is a central aspect of daily life of most Africans. Consequently our study of the culture of Central Africa will focus on the popular music from this region. Although, there are a variety of traditional and popular musical styles in central Africa, we will select the music from two representative countries of the region: the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon.

[For background information on African music please refer to Unit Three: Studying Africa through the Humanities and Module Thirteen: African Music]

Popular Music in Central Africa

Assessing the economic and cultural importance of central Africa, one may argue that the natural resources bestowed on the region by nature can only be matched with its cultural and artistic richness. Whether you travel to Cameroon or to Congo (DRC), or whether you consider Congo (Brazzaville) or Gabon, contemporary African music has been greatly influenced, if not dominated by artists from Central Africa. It is one of the most musically active and influential regions of the continent. Central Africa is rich in rhythms, some of which are very famous like the Congo Rumba, the Makossa from Cameroon or the fairly recent modernized Beti music of Bikutsi (Cameroon).

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) deserves particular attention because its music has undergone exemplary and stellar development, placing it in a leading position on the African musical scene. Indeed, both Congos have become undeniable centers of influence for the African music over the past decades and are still influential today despite the emergence of other African musical genres. This section will not cover all the different musical genres or styles of Central Africa. It will only focus on Congolese music and Cameroonian music. These two countries have given Africa some of its most famous and legendary musicians like Manu Dibango, Francis Bebey, Joseph Kabasele, Dr Nico, Papa Wemba, to name but a few.

Docteur Nico
A picture of the late Dr. Nico on a cover of a 1983 record.
Joseph Kabasele
Joseph Kabasele or 'Le Grand Kalle'
Francis Bebey
The late Francis Bebey.
The cover of one of his greatest success 'AGATHA: ne me mens pas' (Agat ha: Don't lie to me)
Manu Dibango
Papa Wemba
Papa Wemba

Studying the history of African popular music requires the study of traditional genres of African music. The inception of popular African music genres can be traced back to the decade before the independence, between 1950 and 1960. The cities of Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Brazzaville (Congo-Brazzaville) were crucial to the birth and the development of the present day Congolese music. This music, influenced by the Cuban/Latin America rumba, incorporated traditional rural dance and song from a combination of West African rhythm like highlife, some European rhythms like the polka, and other influences such as the colonial brass bands, and traditional Christian songs sung by church choirs. Bars (taverns) were the favored places for listening to and performing new styles of popular music.

A. Congolese Music

Businessmen and women played an important role in the rise and the development of Congolese popular music in the first decade after independence. Instrumentation in this period was important and became increasingly more complex. These businessmen had the foresight to see the potential profitability of the (then) new industry and bought instruments for artists and groups to use, thus contributing to the birth of a number of new bands in the 1960s.

Four major factors contributed to the emergence of this music: urbanization, external influence from other musical genres, the incorporation of modern electronic instrumentation, and the constructive and supportive role of businessmen/women.

The genesis until the sixties:

Modern Congolese music is a genre that blends traditional music with elements from European, American and other African genres. It started in the fifties during colonialism and was characterized by individual musicians singing for urban masses and accompanying themselves on instruments like the guitar, the accordion or others. Musicians like Wendo (of Camille Ferudji), Baudouin Mavula, Avambole, Mukoko, Monkonkoli, Bowane, Paul Mwanga, Paul Kamba and Tete, nicknamed the Nightingale, were part of that generation of musicians. But, the popular success enjoyed by the new music in the 1950s was nothing comparable to it popularity in the coming decades. In the 1950s many among the audience were still accustomed to the 'beat of the tam-tam' characteristic of the traditional music, and the influence of foreign instrument was relatively limited in comparison with what it is today.

European influence was most dramatic in the adoption the artists of non-African instruments. Some of these were electronic: the most popular instruments were the guitar, the saxophone and the piano. However, the distinctive African interpretation of European music was what made the new genre of music both hybrid and popular. One of the most notable examples in this respect is the Joseph Kabasele's interpretation of Dalida song 'Garde moi la Derniere Danse (Save the Last Dance for Me)' which infused African rhythm to a western pop classic.

The function of modern Congolese music is different from that of the traditional music in that the latter was almost always educative in character. Traditional Congolese music has a moral basis that conveys specific messages targeting children, youth, and adults. Traditional music intentionally socializes children and youth for harmonious integration into society. Traditional music also confirms the influential role vested in adults in African societies. The lyrics invite adults to do their best to protect and pass on the socio-cultural values of the community. Even when songs express social criticism, it is always with the constructive aim of returning people to traditional values and practices

The era of Cuban influence

Cuban music (which itself had strong West African roots) was a major external influence on the new popular fusion music performed by Congolese musicians. This influence was particularly noticeable in the rhythms of the new genre. Record companies played an important role in this development. As a result of the importation of 78 rpm discs produced by HMV's (His Master's Voice)

Gloss Vinyl
Gloss Vinyl

Series of Cuban music. By the mid 1950s, the Cuban rumba had proved itself a highly saleable product in the growing urban African market. The importation of foreign products from the Americas and Europe was so successful that foreign record companies like Decca and Pathe Marconi (big European companies) established themselves on the continent to release records from Cuba and the USA that were affordable for urban consumers.

the common logo of the Recording Company 'Pathe' Marconi.

These companies made huge profits by selling Cuban and American music to the new growing urban market in the western as well as the central part of the continent. These genres had clearly recognizable influence on new Congolese artists like: Vicky Longomba, Kalle Jeff, Kasanda, and Franco Luambo, who are among the pioneers of the modern Congolese music.

The era of Cultural Authenticity

'Cultural authenticity' or 'Zairianisation' was a policy of cultural nationalism advocated and implemented by the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko who came to power in 1964 with assistance from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. [When he came to power Mobutu changed Congo's official name to Zaire. When he was ousted from power in 1997 the country reverted its previous name, the Democratic Republic of the Congo] The goal of this policy was to inculcate the Zairian 'citoyen' (citizen) with a positive psychological orientation towards self and traditional African culture. Moreover, central to the ideology of cultural authenticity was respect for and absolute loyalty to the county's leadership. Musically, cultural authenticity was articulated in the attempted integration of traditional elements of music and dance, into the musical forms of the 1950s and 1960s. Specifically, this resulted in the intentional infusion of overtly political messages, 'animation politique,' in many musical productions at the height of the Mobutist's years.

With urbanization and external influence, Congolese (Zairian) music gradually lost part of its traditional function of educating the people by communicating values, norms and world view through song and dance. This educative aspect of the traditional music contrasts sharply with the entertainment characteristic of the modern music in which the main purpose was to express joy, gaiety, laughter, and happiness.

One of the impacts of 'Mobutism' and cultural authenticity was the revival of the educative function of contemporary Congolese music. Many artists accepted their role as educators and wrote lyrics that glorified Congolese ancestral cultural values in addition to promoting such values as 'respect for authority, solidarity of the people with their leader and respect for women.' On a more political note, many of the musicians became 'committed' agents of cultural authenticity, with lyrics that advocated that their audience become more receptive to the ideas of the 'great leader' Mobutu.

Congolese music was able to spread its influence to other African countries through tours of Congolese artists. In addition Kinshasa became a music magnet attracting musicians from across East and West Africa who were interested in learning from their Congolese counterparts. By the mid 1970s Africans from throughout the continent were dancing to the tunes of Congolese rumba or Soukouss.

By the 1980s Congolese music had spread beyond Africa, reaching into western capitals like Paris and London. In the United States, Congolese music was welcomed by an enthusiastic public in many parts of the country. It particularly attracted an African-American audience that was more and more eager to learn about its African heritage.

It is important to note that contemporary (as is also the case of traditional) Congolese music is not homogenous; it is characterized by different genres. Although it is generally referred to as world music in Europe and North America, in reality Congolese music can be divided in distinctive styles including the Rumba, Soukouss, Madiaba Mutuashi and so on.

Rumba is perhaps the most popular from of Congolese music internationally. It is associated with artists like Franco, Dr Nico and other post independence era artists.

The following lines are from one of Franco's greatest hits: 'Mario'

Oh Mario

Luka ata mwasi yo moko obala

Mario mosala kolinga ba maman mobokoli

Basuka yo te? ....

Oh Mario nai napekisa yo

Kolingaka basi bazali na mbongo

Yoka ndenge azali kokaba yo na mitema ya basi mpe mibali

Sala quand mme effet oluka mosala Mario

Yo mutu ozali na ba diplmes mitano Mario

Mpo na nini ozali kobebisa kosambuisa kombo na yo

Mario ah nalembi.

Cherche une femme que tu peut pouser

Mario a l'habitude d'aimer des gnreuses mres

N'es-tu pas maudit ?....

Oh Mario ! Je t'ai dj interdit

D'aimer des femmes qui ont beaucoup d'argent

Ecoute comment elle te dnigre auprs des femmes et des hommes

Fais quand mme un effort pour trouver du travail

Toi qui a cinq diplmes Mario

Mario, pourquoi tu te rabaisses ?

Tu avilis ton nom

Mario j'en ai marre).

Oh Mario

Look for a woman you can marry

Mario often falls in love with generous mothers

Are you cursed?

Oh Mario! I have already warned you against

Falling in love with women who have lots of money

See how they denigrate you (to women and men)

Try and get a job

Mario, you have five degrees

Mario, why do you lower yourself?

You vilify your name

Mario, I am fed up with you

For a video clip of this song visit this site:

To listen to Congolese old music visit this link:

Your turn:

Read the English version of the lyrics of the song 'Mario' and answer the following questions:

1. What is the main idea of this excerpt from the song?

2. Franco sings in the second to last line of the song 'You Vilify your name.' What does this mean?

3. We have learned that contemporary popular Congolese music is both educative and political in its lyrics. Are there musical genres in the North America that are also educative and political? Can you think of specific songs that exemplify these characteristics?

One of the greatest Congolese (Zaire) musicians Franco (Right) on the Cover of a vinyl recording from Pathe Marconi.


To listen to excerpt of Franco (Luambo Makiadi) songs just Google his name or click on these links:

Papa Wemba 2
Papa Wemba, one of the iconic entertainers of contemporary Congolese music.


B. Cameroonian Music

Cameroon is another central African country that has played and continues to play an important role in the musical enrichment of the continent. Just like the Congo, Cameroon has generated number of artists and genres that have enticed many generations of Africans youths in clubs and other social gatherings. Two major musical styles came from Cameroon: Makossa and Bikutsi.


Makossa is one of the earliest Cameroonian music genres brought to the African musical scene. It began as street music that appeared in the 1920s and 1930s in the cities of Yaounde and Douala. It is characterized by a syncretic rhythm and dance coming originally from a mixing of Ambasse bey, a traditional folk music, played on the guitar and backed with glass bottles tapped with sticks or forks, with popular music from Europe and the Americas. Ambasse bey, as the name indicates, comes from the bay of Ambasse, an area close to Douala. Under external influences (Ghanaian and Cuban), the Ambas-Bey mutated over the time into Assiko a rhythm popularized by the musician Salle John.

From left to right: Salle John, Manu Dibango, S.Koly and R.Brazza.


Eboa Lotin
Eboa Lotin, one of the pioneer artists of Makossa.


Eboa Lotin in the early 1960s produced recordings based on guitar and harmonica; this new genre became known as Kossa. Kossa, which pioneered the present day Makossa, came from a children's clapping game. Misse Ngohe with his innovative guitar play and Ekambi Brillant brought Makossa to the modern recordings that continue to characterize his music. As a result, the Makossa became the most popular 'export' from Cameroon, apart from its legendary national soccer team, the Indomitable Lions. But today this music is more and more rivaled by bikutsi, an ethnic music that has gradually imposed itself on the Cameroon musical scene.


One of the pioneers and later on greatest band of Bikutsi, the 'tetes brulees' (Burnt –Out Heads)


Bikutsi is a musical style based on traditional rhythms of the Beti people, played originally with balafon, then adapted to the guitar.' Unlike makossa, which developed in urban Douala, Bikutsi is considered 'rootsy'—having developed in rural Cameroon. In spite of its origin, Bikutsi has evolved into one of the most popular music genres in Cameroon, and beyond its borders in neighboring countries, rivaling the popularity of makossa. The appeal and popularity of Bikutsi comes from it ability to transform and meet the expectations of modern music while at the same time retaining its rich and traditional heritage.

One of the characteristics of this music is the intense and instantly recognizable pounding rhythm. The beat can be described as grabbing, or grooving. Bikutsi's rhythm overpowers the dancer into stomping his/her feet rhythmically to the beat. Indeed, the rhythm and the beat are so peculiar that it is hard to mistake Bikutsi with any other music from Central Africa. If you were asked what is 'BIKUTSI?' Look no further than the name itself; it has all the characteristics and the meanings. An etymological explanation of Bikut-si reveals that:

'BI' in Beti language expresses the plural of any word that comes after it

'KUT' means 'hit' or 'pound vigorously' a hard or solid surface continuously

'SI' means 'ground' that is more specifically cultivable land.

From these three words 'Bikutsi' then means hit or beat the ground continuously.

Culturally this music has served as a means of communication reflecting tradition, pride, and solidarity among the Beti people. It has functioned at the community level where it is played in small group gatherings of friends, as well as playing a central role in important rituals and ceremonies that reflect the cultural identity of the Beti people.

The challenge to all forms of Central African music today, does not come from the area of artistic creativity but from the 'logistics' of production and promotion. Bikutsi in this respect is faced with the general problems most of African music faces on the continent: lack of money and dependency on outside producers.

A traditional Balafon

Other sources on Bikutsi:

Go to Youtube and search for the music of Congo, Cameroon, and Central African Republic. There are numerous recordings available for public viewing.

To listen to other old African music online go to:

 Your Turn:

To answer these questions refer back to the information from the above section of this activity and also to Module 13

A. Popular Music in Central Africa.

I. Congo

a. The above section on Central African music listed three main factors that contributed to the emergence of the modern Congolese music. What are they?

b. This section also made a difference in the function of the traditional Congolese music and the function of its modern counterpart, remind us of the roles of each style.

II. Cameroon

a. What are the two main music styles from Cameroon studied in this section?

b. Give the etymological definitions of the answers provided in question II a.

Go on to Activity Four or select from the other activities in this module: