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Crossing Continents Thursday, 11 November, 1999, 17:52 GMT
Kinshasa's music, Congo's war
Isabel Hilton (at right) surveys a Kinshasa marketplace
By John Murphy

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It's business as usual in the former Zaire - war, economic collapse and dancing. Dancing? "Everywhere, every time, we have to dance," says Faustin Fwasa, the head of news for state radio and TV, who also used to have his own Congolese music show.

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The hundreds of dance clubs dotted around Kinshasa, the capital of what's now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are a testament to the Congolese love of dancing. "Everyone's very stressed at the moment with what's going on in the country," says Nina Lisongi, a 21 year old who took us clubbing. "It's a good way to meet your friends and relax."

The frontline may be hundreds of miles away and there are few obvious signs of the war in the capital, other than pockets of armed soldiers in the streets, but it is the talk of the town and it has had a devastating impact on the economy.

Aslam Rawji's family has been doing business in Congo for over three generations. They own shops and factories, process coffee, and transport goods up and down the mighty Congo river - or at least they did until the war came.

Aslam Rawji shows Isabel one of his shops
"Our business is now at a standstill," says Aslam. "We have stopped everything and we are waiting." In fact it was precisely because the business was treading water that he could give us so much of his time. "Forty per cent of our business is on the rebel side, and we've been losing that business for a year and a half now."

But he doesn't just blame the war. "Ever since 1960 (when the country became independent from Belgium) we have had problems." It's been a history of looting and corruption.

"1991 was the worst," Aslam explains. "We lost 14 million dollars in one night." The looting spree, by soldiers and civilians alike, was particularly targetted against expatriate-run businesses. Over the next few days impromptu markets were set up at the army camps, selling the looted goods.

There have been several other episodes of looting since. Even when Laurent Kabila, with the help of his Rwandan allies, ousted the long-ruling dictator Mobutu Sese Seko from power two years ago, Aslam's family once more lost several cars.

"This time it's worse," Aslam maintains, "because in the past we knew we would be able to carry on afterwards. Now we don't know if we will still be here at the end of the year."

Overnight, the government has introduced an artificially low exchange rate against the dollar. Kinshasa's money changing offices were closed and black marketeers were locked up. Everything now has to go through the Central Bank; holding dollars has been made illegal. The Justice Minister announced that any Congolese found with dollars on them would be treated as traitors. A foreigner with dollars is, naturally, a spy.

Kinshasa's streets are now quiet, but tense
The paranoia about spies is apparent everywhere. On arrival at the airport we spent a rather frustrating three hours trying to persuade a group of men who seemed to be plainclothes security officials - although they never introduced themselves - that our presenter, Isabel Hilton, was not a spy, even if she did have a Rwandan visa in her passport. With Rwanda and Uganda supporting the rebels in the east, any links with these countries are viewed with extreme suspicion.

The Rwandans helped Kabila to power two years ago, but then turned against him when he asked them to return home. Only the intervention of Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Chad on the government side prevented Kabila from being toppled.

So how is this reflected in the music that as Manda Tshebwa, a musical expert, told us, is colonising the whole of Africa?

Zaiko Langa Langa
"We have written a song about the war, to encourage our people to be patriotic," says Nyoka Longo, the leader of one of Congo's biggest bands, Zaiko Langa Langa, who, by the way, likes to be referred to as "Monsieur Le President." "But, you know, we musicians, we're not very political. The politicians like to use us but, once they have, they forget about us."

Zaiko Langa Langa are a bit of an exception. They still live in Kinshasa. While many of the country's top artists do return here to give concerts and, it is said, to get inspiration, most of them now live and work in Paris and Brussels. Their main source of income is not in Kinshasa, but from record sales abroad - especially in Europe and the United States.

Meanwhile, the rest of Africa is also moving to a Congolese beat, admittedly mainly in the form of pirate cassettes. At a time of war and economic collapse, Congo's music appears to be one of its few unifying factors.

Even the soldiers on both sides of the front line listen to it; when not fighting, they dance too.

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: what the finance minister thinks of his country's economic crisis, and a look at one of the many new religious sects springing up in Kinshasa.

Live band, New Rex club, Kinshasa, October 1999
to the New Rex dancehall in Kinshasa's Cite district...
See also:

04 Jul 99 | Africa
26 Jul 99 | From Our Own Correspondent
13 Oct 99 | Africa
07 Nov 99 | Africa
Links to more Crossing Continents stories are at the foot of the page.

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