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Field notes

Old age in Kinshasa – Part 3.


By Katrien Pype, research professor at IARA (KU Leuven, Belgium) and Fellow at DASA (University of Birmingham) – blog September 2016.

This is a 3rd of four blogposts that are connected to my research on the lifeworlds of elderly Kinois. The research was funded by a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship (PIOF-GA-2009-252331) and was carried out at the Anthropology & STS departments at MIT (Cambridge, USA, 2011-2013) and the Africanist Anthropology Department (IARA) at the KU Leuven (Leuven, Belgium, 2013-2014).

The four blogposts accompany the paper “Dancing to the Rhythm of Leopoldville: Nostalgia, urban critique and generational difference in Kinshasa’s Music TV Shows” (Journal of African Cultural Studies, 2016).

As The Rolling Stones and the Beatles are greying, pop culture is entering in a new life stage as well. Around the same time when the Anglophone world was turned upside down by rock and pop (1950s-1960s), in Léopoldville/Kinshasa Congolese rumba music emerged and became hugely popular. This genre was intimately connected to urban lifeworlds and impacted on the interactions between the generations in the society of Kinshasa. Just like Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger transformed youth culture in the global North.

Research on social dynamics in African cities rightfully give much attention to the role of youth as young people, including young adults (> mid-forties) dominate the political, cultural and economic scenes. However, just like elsewhere on the globe, also Africa’s population is greying, and we need ethnographic research to understand how elderly people are leading their lives, are engaging with the state, the market, and the media. In addition, I found a lot of confusion regarding the symbolic value of “generations” and about the boundaries between the “young” and the “old”. It shows that the Congolese music scene has redrawn the boundaries between “generations”.


In light of how music and time (generations) interfere with the social world in contemporary Kinshasa, it is interesting to examine the social and symbolic values of the rumba musician Papa Wemba, who died late April 2016.

On May 4 2016, Kinshasa’s residents accompanied the coffin of Papa Wemba, one of Congo’s most famous rumba musicians, to the cemetery, Necropolis, entre Terre et Ciel. In the days preceding the burial, Kinois (inhabitants of Kinshasa) and many Congolese (also in the diaspora) had reacted with disbelief on the news about the musician’s sudden death on stage in Abidjan (Ivory Coast), during Femua, Festival of Urban Music in Anoumabo).


Post 3 - Pic 1.jpg

Papa Wemba (July 2013). Copyright Katrien Pype.

Kinois and Congolese affectionately spoke about Papa, shorthand for Papa Wemba. However, the Papa also hints at the unifying role that Congolese rumba music plays in bringing together Congolese disregarding from ethnic, political and religious backgrounds.

Papa Wemba was in many eyes an “elder” (Lingala mukolo, vieux). First, his age (it is doubtful whether he was really 67 years old when he died), puts him in the rubric of “old age”. Second, he was also a Tetela customary chief. Third, he was a father and grandfather to numerous children (also here, the number is unclear – in 2009 he claimed to have fathered 33 children). And, finally, his artistic seniority – having been one of Kinshasa’s most prominent musicians since the 1970s, has turned him into a mentor for many aspiring cultural entrepreneurs.

Yet, the boundaries between “the older generations” and “younger generations” in contemporary Kinshasa are not that clear. And, discourse about Papa Wemba illustrates very well how actually urban dance music overhauls the familiar boundaries between young and old. Because he nourished Kinshasa’s nightlife with his sensual performances, continued to enrich the vocabulary of seduction and courtship, dresses very elegantly, and refused to take on the bodily habitus of an elder (immobile, silent, and stern looking) but instead behaved in a youthful, playful manner, many Kinois talked about him as a “false youth(un faux jeune), i.e., an old man who behaves like a young person, or even a “jeune premier”, suggesting different leagues within the group “youth” – and situating Papa Wemba as a kind of “first class youth.” Many men in their forties and early fifties take Papa Wemba as a role model and prefer to be called “jeune” as well. In the contemporary urban context, “youth” is certainly more attractive than “old age”.




Congolese music is indeed another symbolic space where distinctions between ‘ old’ (ya kala ) and ‘ new’ (ya sika ) are made, and where the notion of ‘generations’ divides society into groups. Miziki ya kala, the music on which the elderly dance in Bana Leo and the like, literally means “music from the old days”. Some claim that the fissure between the “old” and the “new” music was performed in 1989, with the death of Franco. That year also was the beginning of the success of the Wenge Musica group (Makobo 2010: 69), with musicians such as JB Mpiana, Werrason Ngiama Makanda, Dede Masolo, Anibo Pandu, Blaise Bula Monga, Adolphe Dominguez Ebodja, Bienvenue Wes Koka, Ricoco Bulambemba, Alain Mpelasi Tshwakulenda, Marie Paul Kambulu, Manda Chante, Aimélia Lias Demingongo, Ferre Gola, many of whom have their own music bands now.

The concept of génération in the realm of locally produced music then structures social life and cultural identity in ways which are intimately tied to Kinshasa’ s history and to its popular culture. There now are four (some even say five) generations of Congolese music:


The first generation (1940s–1950s ): Wendo Kolosoy, Papa Noel, Léon Bukasa, Bowane, Lucy Eyanga, Edo Ganga.


The second generation (1950s–1970s ): Franco Lwambo Makiadi, Kabasele Tshamala,

Tabu Ley Rochereau, Lando Rossignol.


The third generation (1970s–late 1980s ): Zaiko Langa Langa, King Kester Emeneya et Victoria Eleison, Papa Wemba, Empire Bakuba, Koffi Olomide.


The fourth generation (late 1980s–now ): Wenge Musica Maison Mere (Werrason, J.B.

Mpiana, Didier Masela, Alain Makaba), Lavioniora Esthetique.


The fifth generation (2000s–nowadays): Fally Ipupa, Ferre Gola, Fabregas.


However, as Serge Makobo (2010, 65) argues, the symbolic boundaries drawn by compartmentalizing certain groups and songs into generations now also serve as voluntary boundaries marking one’s chosen attachment to a community of values and cultural practices.





Makobo, Serge. 2010. “Mythe et Réalité des Identités Générationelles.” In Musique Populaire et Société a Kinshasa. Une Ethnographie de l’Ecoute, edited by Bob W. White and Andre Yoka, 62–90. Paris: L’Harmattan.



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