All About the Congolese Folk Song “Banaha”

English Folksingers Djembabes (not the Austin, TX group of same name) are among many groups worldwide now including "Banaha" in their Repertoire
English Folksingers Djembabes (not the Austin, TX group of same name) are among many groups worldwide now including "Banaha" in their Repertoire

The pure, soaring melody of the “Banaha” song on the Missa Luba album (see the January 24, 2012 post of this blog) always uplifts.  What a joy to learn from a Google search that the song is now sung by choirs internationally.

There is, however, considerable confusion about its origin so I’m dedicating this post to what I’ve learned about this Congolese folksong, a powerful expression of the joy of living.  “Banaha” is described as a “soldiers’ song” on the liner notes of the original Missa Luba album. This could well be so as former Baptist missionary Edna Stucky, who grew up in Congo, explains:

“When we were young, growing up in Congo, we used to march along with the older boys who were probably in PE, marching all over Luebo station, singing those words to a tune that I know still, which is the Missa Luba one.  May have had something to do with soldiers, since this was late 40s or so, and there were still Congolese soldiers from WWII around who were wearing those caps/hats/whatever you call them that were the head dress for infantry during the war.  Always wondered how that kind of song got into Missa Luba! ”

“Banaha” becomes more perplexing when one tries to make sense of the words which are from the Kiluba language of southern Congo, Katanga provice.  The agreed on, literal translation goes,

“At the foot of the pineapple tree,

Yaku ladles a banana into his aunt’s red hat.”

That Edna Stucky had no idea of the meaning of the words is not surprising as Kiluba is very different from the Tshiluba widely spoken in Luebo, Kasai, south central Congo, where she grew up.

I have never seen or heard of a “pineapple tree” growing in Congo or anywhere else but then “ladling a banana” is not something I’m familiar with either.  Clearly, this ecstatic outburst in song is meant to transport the singer to a fanciful land where anything is possible, just the kind of song we all need from time to time.

For the musical notation (is that the correct term?) of the song, click on this link to the Illawarra (Australia) Union Singers’ song book:

union singers file on banaha

And to hear the song’s rendition by the group of English women folksingers known as Djembabes, go to:

For the original Missa Luba version, and a guaranteed, instant pick me up it is, go to:

Happy singing!

On Comparing “Missa Luba” to “Viva Riva”

Album Cover for 1965 Phillips Missa Luba Recording
Album Cover for 1965 Phillips Missa Luba Recording

In 1954 Father Guido Haazen left his native Belgium and began work as a Franciscan missionary in Kamina, a copper mining center in Katanga, southern Congo.  Within four years, the choir he organized of Congolese boys and their teachers had recorded the international best selling “Missa Luba”.  The originality and power of the music derived from Father Haazen’s giving free rein to the singing of the movements of the mass as a tribal folk song.  Also on the album were several songs of the Luba and Lulua peoples of Congo.

In the liner notes titled “On Hearing the Missa Luba” Studs Terkel wrote, “He (Father Haazen) might have impelled (sic,  ed) European musical values upon the students of Kamina Central School as a house painter whitewashes a wall, obliterating whatever had been there before. Instead, he urged his young proteges to remember the Congolese rhythms and to freely improvise. The joy of being, the thrill of living, was italicized by the accompaniment: Congolese drums.”  Terkel concludes his comments with, “The young singers, whom he has guided, are uniquely themselves: artists of the Congo. Truly, theirs is a religious performance, not merely a “Christian” one.”

In comparing the originality of the Missa Luba recording to the recently released movie “Viva Riva” made in Kinshasa, the movie falls way short as it slavishly follows the conventions of classical American gangster films.  The first widely circulated film made by a Congolese in ten years, “Viva Riva” inspired high hopes among us Congophiles but mostly disappoints. Sticking to the gangster genre’s conventions established by the 1932 “Scarface”,  Riva is alienated from his original family by his appetite for violence and fierce ambition and has to win over the moll of the mobster boss to demonstrate there is a heart inside.  The disastrous ending traditional in the genre becomes in the Congolese version a conflagration created by the gasoline Riva has smuggled out of Angola.

With an opportunity to put on display for the world the riches of Congolese folk culture or of modern pop culture, even the soundtrack fails to rise to the occasion.  How could we not be disappointed by not hearing any of the classical Congolese pop hits of Dr. Nico, Franco or Rochereau in the film’s musical background.?  But more dismaying is the failure to reflect and honor the beauty and strength of the people of Congo except on the most superficial level.

I concede that my disappointment in “Viva Riva” may in part be attributed to my re-experiencing the power of the Missa Luba original recording released in the U.S. in 1964.  Here is an example of Congolese taking a musical genre of the Western culture – the Latin mass – and making it authentically and richly African.  Listening to the album again after forty plus years was like unearthing a soundtrack buried deep within and simply exulting that it had surfaced at the right time.  Listen to the Kyrie clip from the record by going to the amazon address:

Although we celebrate the attention given the film at several international film festivals and the awards received by its writer and director Dio Tunda Wa Munga, “Viva Riva” is notable primarily for the skill displayed by writer-director Dio Tunda Wa Munga’s skill in imitating conventions of a western cultural genre without making it Congolese or showing off the beauties and strength of his African culture.  The film  is available for instant viewing on Netflix or for purchase as a DVD on Amazon and elsewhere.

Congo Preschoolers Make the Grade

Short video of June 24, 2010 Preschool Graduation at the Nouvelle Cite Disciples parish in Mbandaka, Congo.  Note the talcum powder poured on the graduates’ head at the end of the video.  Anyone out there who can explain why the powder please let us know.

Lingala’s Benefits and Pleasures

Anyone visiting Mbandaka will learn a few words of Lingala but I leave certain that all efforts to learn and to risk using the language are rewarded. Aside from using a playful, delightful amalgam of vocabulary borrowed from several Bantu, Spanish, English, and French languages, it is also incredibly useful. To take a dramatic example of the benefits of risking use of the most widely spoken language in Congo, consider picture taking in the country.

The $50 price of my Lingala textbook and more was saved in use of the language in my one confrontation with soldiers in Mbandaka. After having been warned that very morning by Rev. Bonanga that picture taking in a port area is considered a security breach, I foolishly clicked away when former Sister Genevieve’s boat docked at the port next to my house. Papa Jean arranged chairs on the lawn for the ensuing palaver over the serious infraction that I had committed. A trip to their headquarters and heavy “fine” was avoided by pleasantries followed by pointed conversation in Lingala. One of the two finally declared an end to it by naming a payment we all readily agreed on.

A Lingala phrase book is indispensable for anyone wanting to take pictures of the people. During the colonial era, photos of Congolese adults were taken by the Belgian administration. This results in a tradition of looking frozen and stiff for a portrait even if the subjects are far too young to have lived under Belgian rule.

Use of the Lingala verb “koseke” in portrait photography brings surprising results every time. The word can mean “smile” or “laugh” and I never failed to bring a toothy smile by using it. A questioning rise of the voice with the last two sylabbles as though asking “do you ever smile?” usually results in laughter among the subjects. “Koseke” worked like magic every time. In using Lingala I experienced over and over the 19th century English explorer Richard Francis Burton’s wisdom,

“Nothing goes to the heart of a man quicker than speaking to him in his native tongue.”

Burton’s comment comes out of many years of foreign travel and speaking more than 30 languages at one time or another. What a pleasure to leave my comparatively sedentary life and enjoy once again the truth of this wisdom in returning to Congo and speaking a language I had all but forgotten. Some examples of the playful nature of Lingala will follow in another posting.