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.

New Drumming on the Tshuapa River


Ceremony of Ordination of Rev. BOOLA

The Congo Disciples blog (read it in French at ) 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.


 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”.
Ekobima biso
Na matambe pwasa
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


“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


 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”.




Ekobima biso

Na matambe pwasa



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.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

After tea was served, the second meeting of the Committee for the Advancement of the Pygmy People was convened on my porch at 7:45 one morning this week. Present along with myself were Rio Bosala, Director of the Disciples CAP at Ikengo, and Sandra Ngoy, daughter of the Regional Minister of the Bolenge Region. Pygmy rerpresentatives were a watchman for the Mbandaka power company, a primary school teacher and John Benani, the co founder and now Director of REPEQ, a non profit supported by UNICEF which promotes Pygmy civil rights.

John Benani has emerged as a national spokesperson for Pygmy civil rights and as UNICEF’s primary contact with this minority population which makes up one fourth the population of Equator Province. Our conversations have educated me on the very slight progress of his people from their traditional status as an inferior, even sub human caste, exploited by their Bantu neighbors.

With my encouragment, the Ikengo CAP director Rio has spoken more openly of his history of support and affinity for Pygmy friends. It is becoming more widely accepted now that this minority must be educated and integrated into the Bantu-dominated society for the Equator Province, with the largest pygmy population in Congo, to develop economically.

That statistics for completion of primary school in Equator Province remain abysmal, some say as low as ten per cent of the children finish sixth grade, is due in part to the incapacity of Pygmy parents to pay their children’s school fees. An unfortunate irony of the Mobutu years of corruption and self indulgence is the fact that the policy of free education of Pygmy children ended with the fall of the dictator’s regime. That gesture of support for the minority did little to relieve the exclusion of Pygmies by the Bantu population.

As an example of the traditional segregation of Bantu and Pygmy, it was only recently that an integrated spring water source was established at a large village 30 kms. from Mbandaka. Where two springs had in the past provided water separately for Bantu and for the Pygmy inhabitants of Bongonde, UNICEF funded the cementing and piping of a new source providing clean water for all in the village. One of the participants in our meeting Tuesday morning teaches in the local primary school. He informed me that 721 men and women enrolled last year in the village’s adult school to gain basic reading, writing and math skills.

My curiosity here about the Pygmy population’s motives in settling in greater numbers in the Bantu villages and even cities of Congo comes in part from the reading of the great book by the anthropologist Colin Turnbull, The Forest People. As the author’s account of being captivated by the life and culture of the pygmies of the Ituri rain forest in eastern Congo, the book deserves its reputation as one of the most widely read books on Africa. Turnbull’s recordings of Pygmy songs on Folkways Records also enthrall, and in the book he notes that the words of their songs are few but often profound. The following words are sung only after the death of a fellow Pygmy clan member:

“There is darkness all around us; but if darkness is and the darkness is of the forest, then the darkness must be good.”

For a Congo traveler these days, Turnbull’s book provides a fine contrast to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the work of a man who took pains to get to know very well one of the cultures here. Turnbull casts light on the life of the rainforest which for Conrad remained a place of inscrutable mystery and foreboding.

Worship on the River 6/27/10

Worship began with one of the choral groups parading from the beach swaying, clapping and singing their way up the ladder of steps to the sanctuary. Ministers and guest preacher (yours truly) followed, the latter noting carefully the gaps in the wooden boards five feet above the sand below. After a night, or in some cases several nights, of fishing the great river surrounding the island fishing village of Kinshasa, the fishermen and families were preparing for their day of rest.

Our half hour wait after crossing the river permitted me to learn some of the history of this Disciples’ parish. The veteran preacher, one of the two serving the parish, had first come in 1970 as a fishernan and a decade later began to preach here. The faithful of Kinshasa had achieved the milestone of purchasing sheet metal roofing for the sanctuary in the seventies, ten years after the Disciples Community became an autonomous church led by Congolese.

That the village was largely a poor community was seen in the appearance of the children and the rudimentary houses on stilts extending a quarter mile along the beach. What was not apparent was the fact the village had been pillaged this year by the small band of rebels who attempted to take the city of Mbandaka on Easter Sunday. Their minister informed me that not a few residents had still not returned after fleeing the men with machine guns who briefly occupied their village in April.

An hour into the worship service, the sanctuary was mostly filled with nearly 300 singing and clapping children, youth and adults. Among the five or six chorale groups of varying size and composition, the group of 25 men, all in white shirts with blue stripes, stood out. “They rocked” and “we rocked” seems inadequate, even mild, as a description of the mood created before the sermon.

Old man Simeon’s blessing of the infant Jesus in the temple was my scripture selection for the Sunday before the 50th Anniversary of Congo’s independence as a new nation. The theme of waiting, one any fisherman can appreciate, was associated with Jesus’ fulfillment of the nation Israel’s hopes. Parents of the community were celebrated and congratulated for their commitment and sacrifice in enabling both boys and girls to cross the river daily for school. I concluded with mention of my father’s upcoming 98th birthday and a tribute to his perservenace in awaiting the birth of two great grandsons.

“Every child comes into the world with the message that God is not yet discouraged in the creation of human beings”. Rabindrath Tagore’s quote summed up my message which was followed by me singing “Jesus Loves Me” in English while another guest minister sang in Lonkundo.

An offering for the guest minister yielded 58 crumpled and tattered bills totaling more than $5 and a large fish. A final prayer for a safe crossing before the canoe’s outboard motor was started concluded what had been an unforgettable worship experience.

June 14, 2010

After several attempts this morning I succeeded in reporting in Lingala to “Papa Jean” that the toilet paper roll was empty. I celebrated with a stream of French that freed my tongue from its captivity in the other language.

***** ***** *****

Yesterday, at the conclusion of worship we processed out and I was stationed at the back, second in a line to greet everyone with a hand shake. They filed past us extending hands as stiff as dry leather, cracked hands, hard and worn, and little soft hands raised as though in a salute. No one, save one or two infants sleeping on a mother’s shoulder, avoided the rite of greeting.

A firm hand shake is not customary here. The hand, even that of a sturdy young man, is extended limply as though a touch is adequate greeting. Some among the elderly grasped their left arm just above the wrist in a traditional gesture of appreciation and respect. An elderly “mama” or “mpaka” rotated the hand for a double shake reminding me of a solidarity hand shake among youth in the States. Above the singing that accompanied the rite could be heard their “mbote”, an occasional “losako” prompted by my gray hairs, and one or two brief commentaries on the sermon or good wishes for my stay among them.

Expecially for the members of the four or five choirs who participated in the service I felt a firm, enthusiastic hand shake along with “merci” would be understood and appreciated Before preaching I remembered Groucho Marx’s joke in one of the movies where he is trying to pass as a doctor. He lifts the man’s wrist lying on the floor to take his pulse. Looking up with cigar twitching he proclaims, “either this man is dead or my watch has stopped”. After more than an hour of song, dance and prayer, as I was being introduced I thought if I can’t share a word of encouragment this morning I had better check my heart beat.