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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uVgLN9_zByQ&feature=related

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

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vAk_4zmvRi8

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:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/recsradio/radio/B00142RX0I/ref=pd_krex_listen_dp_img?ie=UTF8&refTagSuffix=dp_img

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.

New Drumming on the Tshuapa River

 

Ceremony of Ordination of Rev. BOOLA

The Congo Disciples blog (read it in French at http://weteto.tumblr.com ) notes that women in the pastorate have brought gender role changes in aspects of the traditional culture as well as in the life of the church. Rev. Regine BOOLA of Bokungu, drumming in the picture above, and Rev. Suzanne INGOY of Boende were ordained last month in their home parishes with the Disciples President Rev. Eliki BONANGA presiding.

 Blog editor Nathan Weteto wrote this week: “according to tradition, only men can sound the “Lokolé, an instrument formerly used for communicating between villages (such as the telephone today)”.  Weteto tells us that churches in Congo have in recent years adopted use of the lokole.  And so an increasing number of women like Revde. BOOLA, “play the Lokolé as pastors in their parishes to call the faithful to worship”.

It is also cause for celebration during this special week that the photos accompanying this blog were received the day after they were shot in a remote area of the Congo.  I was astonished last Monday on seeing that Weteto was able to post them to his blog

Palm Sunday Yalusaka Parishoners Greet the Visiting Pastors After Worship

following the Palm Sunday worship at Yalusaka, by his estimate some 1000 kms. from Mbandaka.  The remote village is in the Mondombe Disciples’ post region, one of several posts on the Tshuapa River. All the Disciple posts along the Tshuapa have been pillaged and terrorized by successive waves of rebel armies using the River to make their way from eastern Congo to Kinshasa.

 The rebel looting has accentuated the importance and the difficulty of the Disciple posts’ providing the only medical and the only education services, both primary and secondary schools, for the people living along the Tshuapa. Surely Rev. BOOLA and Rev. INGOY’s ordination in two posts of the area promise an even stronger response to the church’s call to the local population to build more schools, clinics and hospitals.

Footnote to this posting:  Dr. Gene Johson, translator of the Weteto blog postings and responsible for Disciple medical services in the Tshuapa region for several years in the 1960’s and 70’s, informed me that Bokungu, nearest Disciple “poste” to Mondombe, has a cell phone tower and therefore may well offer internet service also.

“Yesu Yaka Awa”

I wrote previously (“Music and Spirituality in Congo”)about the song which precedes and ends many of the Disciples Church meetings in Congo. On this video I attempt a rendition which will be used by a friend in transcribing the notes to be shared in a later blog.
This invocation of the first verse and benediction of the second has come to represent for me the depth and quality of Congolese spiritual life. The experience of sharing in that life with the Congolese is never forgotten. Congolese missionary in the late 50’s and early 60’s Virginia Taylor recently wrote her missionary friends about her husband Richard’s final days. When the chaplain of the retirement home came to visit, Richard always wanted to recite the Lord’s Prayer for him in Lonkundo, the tribal language used by most Disciples in Congo.

 

 

Here below is the text. The first verse is the invocation sung at the beginning of a meeting and the second a benediction at the meeting’s close.

INVOCATION

 Yesu, yaka awa
na esika oyo
Biso tokosenga
ngolu mpe bolingo.

“Jesus come to us in this place;

      We ask for your mercy and your love”.
 
BENEDICTION
Ekobima biso
Na matambe pwasa
Tokotambolaka
Nde na nkolo Yesu

 “When we step out on the next leg of our journey

            We will be walking with our Lord Jesus.”

 

“What a Friend” in Congo

 

For those who would like to sing along – and learn some Lingala – the video clip begins with the line “yo olingi ngai mingi …..”.  The chorus below follows  with the “hallelujahs” and then another verse not seen below is sung.  The Lingala is pronounced as it is spelled so give it a go!

“What a Friend” in Congo

Yesu ndeko ya bolingo

    Yo olingi ngai mingi;

Yo okufelaki ngai

    Mpe otalisi ngai nzela

Ngai nandimi nkolo Yesu

    Hallelujah na Yesu

Ngai nalingi nkolo Yesu

    Hallelujah na Yesu

Translation:

“Jesus, Son of God’s love,

    You love me greatly always

And you died for me

    To show me the way to live fully.

 

For my part I  trust in the Lord Jesus

     Hallelujah in Jesus’ name;

And I love the Lord Jesus,  

     Hallelujah in Jesus’ name”

Music and Congolese Spirituality

INVOCATION

 Yesu, yaka awa

na esika oyo

 

Biso tokosenga

ngolu mpe bolingo.

 

“Jesus come to us in this place;

      We ask for your mercy and your love”.

 

BENEDICTION

 

Ekobima biso

Na matambe pwasa

 

Tokotambolaka

Nde na nkolo Yesu

 

 “When we step out on the next leg of our journey

            We will be walking with our Lord Jesus.”

 

There is an astonishing richness and variety to the music performed by choirs in Congo. With sheet music even rarer than hymnals in parishes of the Disciples, most of the music is composed by the choir director, which leads to a friendly competition among the three, four or more choirs and directors in even the smallest parish.  This accounts in part for the three hour worship customary in most parishes, with the choir’s performances taking up half the service.

The only sacred music I came to recognize opened and closed meetings.  The two verses of the lyrics above served as invocation and benediction for several gatherings I attended and were always followed by a prayer as well.

Beginning and ending with Jesus, the singing of these lyrics acknowledges and celebrates the importance of the personal relationship with the Lord Jesus as the foundation of the Congolese Disciples’ faith.

 

 

Leaving Longa

The twenty five horsepower motor fired right up and the ten or twelve passengers settled into their plastic chairs or into their nests at the bottom of the pirogue. Before sitting we sang, “Biso tokobima na mpusa matembe/ Tokotambolaka nde nkolo Yesu”.

We are on the Ruki River which connects the mighty Congo to the Tshuapa, the tributary which has served as the route of successive waves of rebels seeking to overthrow the feeble governments of the country. The Ruki flows into the Congo at Mbandaka, the capital of Equateur Province, the least developed of the Congo’s 10 provinces. Equateur’s capital is also the headquarters town of the “Communaute Disciples du Christ au Congo”, number ten among 65 “Communautes” now making up the Church of Christ of Congo.

“We leave now on the next step of our journey/ The journey we walk together with our Lord Jesus” we sing before taking our seats in the pirogue. On our way, we all think of the Regional Minister for the Ingende/Longa Region who died in the Ruki just below Longa. On a night with little to no moon five months before, his over loaded pirogue had capsized and fifteen drowned. After we sang someone prayed for the deceased’s widow and family still living in Ingende where we would spend the next two nights.