My Pop Life #180 : Boya Ye – M’bilia Bel


Boya Ye   –   M’bilia Bel

liputa nyonso epasuki eeh

I bought this beauty as a 12″ single in 1986 at Stern’s African Music Shop in Whitfield St W1, just north of Fitzroy Square, and just below Samuel French’s Theatre Bookshop on the corner of Warren St.  Opposite Stern’s was the Diwan-E-Khas restaurant which served the finest North Indian food in London back in the 80s, alongside their sister restaurant the Diwan-E-Am in Drummond Street, behind Euston about half a mile away.  (see My Pop Life #136 )
The counter at Sterns Records in the mid-80s
You can just about see a record by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on that picture in the corner (top left).  They also stocked zouk and calypso from the Caribbean and other bits and pieces.  The shop had opened in 1983 with a little ceremony on the pavement involving drums and blessings.  The vibe in the shop was outstanding, and so was the selection of music.  The first time -or apparently the 2nd (Fela Kuti !) –  I went in there was to find the Franco & TPOK Jazz LP ’20eme Anniversaire’ which I’d heard whilst buying weed in Islington one night and had my little musical ears blown off  (See My Pop Life #38 )  Since that auspicious purchase I had returned for further Congolese magic : Pablo Lubadika Porthos, Tout Choc, Zaiko Langa Langa, more Franco, always more Franco, Papa Wemba, a wonderful Gabonese singer called Regine Feline and this wonderful single from M’bilia Bel fronting Franco’s rival camp of Tabu Ley.  The now-familiar cascade of overlapping guitar cadences and rumba polyrhythms led by a simply joyous lead vocalist who had been discovered singing with Sam Mangwana by bandleader Tabu Ley Rochereau, who along with Franco was one of the giants of Congolese music.
Tabu Ley Rochereau
He’d written a song for her Eswi Yo Wapi, recorded it with his mighty band Orchestre Afrisa International, it became a smash hit, they’d got married and her next dozen singles dominated the musical and dance landscape not just of the Congo, but the whole of Africa for the next 10+ years, and loosened Franco’s grip on the musical landscape.  She was hugely popular.
This album – released on the Sterns label – documents these years superbly : they are all classic african pop/dance tunes that the rest of Africa calls “DRC Music” – dance music from the Democratic Republic of Congo.   Which is almost funny because Congo hasn’t been democratic since Patrice Lumumba the first president after independence was arrested, tortured and killed by a combination of familiar forces (MI6, CIA, Belgian troops) in 1961.    Without going into detail, the history of Congo since then has been one of corruption and arms-length control by foreign companies who have stripped the nation of its huge mineral wealth – particularly the southern state of Katanga which produces cobalt, tin, copper, uranium and diamonds, and where Lumumba was executed after 84 days in office.   Torn apart by war and conflict, other states have become involved especially in the eastern provinces alongside Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, with different forces representing somewhat shadowy interests fighting the Congolese Army and each other, including smaller private groups such as The Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda all crossing the border with impunity, terrorising the locals and raping the women as a weapon and tactic of war.
The prize is coltan, from which is extracted tantalum, used in most electronic components and devices including mobile phones.  During the war with Rwanda in the 1990s, Rwanda became a leading exporter of coltan, stolen from mines in Eastern Congo.  Competing militias funded their operations with this prized mineral, and who knows who took what percentage to turn a blind eye to the rape both of the land and the people.
Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer of Ruined in 2010
In 2009 Jenny was offered the lead in a play set in this part of the world : Lynn Nottage‘s Ruined, at the Almeida Theatre.  The play is set in a brothel in the war-zone near Goma, in the Eastern Congo.  This establishment is run by Mama Nadi, a fierce madam who takes in “ruined” local women to service the various militias who come through the territory. It is an extraordinary play which won the Pulitzer Prize for Lynn just before rehearsal started.
Indhu Rubasingham in rehearsal for Ruined at The Almeida
The director was Indhu Rubasingham who had already directed Jenny in Lynn’s earlier work Fabulation at The Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn in 2005/6.  So the team were reunited and set to work on this dynamic story, by turns dramatic, raw, amusing, tragic and inspiring.  It bears witness to some of the worst crimes in modern history and a series of stories buried, where women’s bodies mirror the nation they stand in, ravaged, fought over, ruined.   Mama Nadi was an extraordinary part for Jenny and she ate it up with great relish, much pain, and real commitment.  At some point before they started I remembered M’bilia Bel the great Kinshasa diva and dug out the 12″ single to play for Jenny.
By now we we on The Internet and there was footage of the singer we could watch – brilliant footage of her dressed to kill, dancing to seduce and singing to raise a revolution.   Jenny didn’t base her performance on the singer by any means but it was a window into a Congolese world of women and a certain tough independent proud defiance came through very strongly.    I made a CD of Congolese music for Indhu too – Franco & Tabu Ley of course, Zaiko Langa Langa, Papa Wemba and Werrason bringing us up to date, a wonderful sweep of sounds from Kinshasa.
The night before first preview in Islington the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull which had been simmering since late 2009 suddenly erupted with a vengeance and left a gigantic ash cloud sitting over the Atlantic Ocean & Europe, grounding thousands of planes and preventing Lynn’s husband Tony from flying in for the show.  The cloud hung for about a week and prevented Lynn from going home to New York a few days later.  It was all rather dramatic.
Jenny didn’t tell me anything about the play because she wanted me to experience it live on the night when I saw it for the first time.  This is usually the case when I see her productions.  I end up seeing them multiple times – between 5 & 10 normally, so the effect only works once.   It’s worth it though.  The 15th April 2010 was the first preview and when I entered the auditorium was thrilled to find it converted into an equatorial rainforest with a wooden-slatted speakeasy on a revolve nestled at it’s heart, presided over by an immensely powerful performance by Jenny as Mama Nadi, nurturing her girls, workers, prostitutes who’d been abused and raped and could no longer find a man to accept them;  serving soldiers who would sweep in and dominate the space, but need drink and music and dance in this unstable & constantly shifting war-zone.
Mama Nadi
An outstanding piece of writing, inspired somewhat by Mother Courage, but shining light on a hidden part of the world which we use- at arm’s length – without thought.  Brilliant and moving performances from Michelle Asante, Pippa Bennett-Warner and Kehinde Fadipe as the ruined girls living a nightmare as survivors gave voice to Lynn Nottage’s rarely-heard-from female characters, while Steve Toussaint, Lucien Msamati, David Ajala and Silas Carson portrayed the soldiers, the travelling merchant and the gem-smuggler.  The music  was played by Joseph Roberts and Akintaye Akinbode and written by Dominic Kanza and it provided a stripped-down yet infectious rumba soundtrack for the girls to dance to, either with a soldier who has been forced to leave his gun at the door, or with each other.
The title was explained early on : when a girl is raped with a bayonet, she is no longer capable of giving birth, and thus is “ruined”.
By the end of the show and Jenny’s last moments with Lucien I was in bits and had to leave the theatre and weep quietly on my own for fifteen minutes before re-entering the bar and the space and find familiar friends to congratulate and hug.  I was actually devastated.
It was a huge, magnificent performance and it changed both of our lives.  Some months later, Jenny won the Critic’s Circle Award as best actress, voted on by the nations theatre critics  – a massive acknowledgement of her achievement.  David Suchet won best actor and they were pictured together – we’d all worked together on NCS Manhunt in 2001.   A year later Jenny was cast to play Mama Nadi again, this time at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. in a production directed by Charles Randolph-Wright.  We later learned that Lynn had suggested Jenny for the lead.    Again it was a stunning production.
Now we live in Brooklyn where I eventually met Lynn’s husband Tony Gerber – a director – at dinner one night and we have become fast friends here.   Tony has been back to the Congo recently to make another documentary about the militias and although things have calmed down considerably it is still an unstable area.    And Lynn went back too.  After researching the play there she returned to see a five-hour production of Ruined in Kinshasa in 2011 which tested her artistic generosity since they had added great chunks of dialogue along with the inevitable 10-minute musical interludes.
I’ve still never been there, and it is a huge longing of mine, mainly for the music, but also for the great River Congo.   Franco died long ago, Tabu Ley in 2013 but M’bilia Bel is still going, although is based, like many successful African musicians, in Paris.  The younger generation are now sampling the golden age of soukous for hip hop tracks, rapping in the local language Lingala.  Despite a few attempts online I still cannot understand it so I can’t tell you what Boya Ye is about I’m afraid.
A few short weeks after Ruined closed (in triumph!) in London, Jenny and I flew down to South Africa for the first World Cup to take place on that continent.   One of my early memories of Cape Town was sitting in a taxi listening to some music pumping out of the speakers and asking the driver who was playing.  “DRC Music” he’d said.  On my birthday in Greenpoint Stadium England were once again a huge disappointment of course drawing 0-0 with Algeria.  We went on to Fatboy Slim’s party in town and celebrated just being there with Billy The Bee and others, but the World Cup isn’t about England.   It was moving and instructive to see how as the African teams got knocked out one by one – the host nation first ! until only Ghana were left, the fans coalesced around the Ghanaians, the whole continent willing them on to the infamous quarter final game in Soweto.   A sense of unity, unforced, non-tribal, celebratory.   The reason why we’d come.
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