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.

Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo”

 

  “This poem, particularly the third section, was suggested by an allusion

  in a sermon by my pastor, F. W. Burnham, to the heroic life and death

  of Ray Eldred.  Eldred was a missionary of the Disciples of Christ

  who perished while swimming a treacherous branch of the Congo.

  See “A Master Builder on the Congo”, by Andrew F. Hensey,

  published by Fleming H. Revell.

LOnga sanctuary, built by Ray Eldred, is still the center of Longa church life

So wrote the poet Vachel Lindsay in a footnote to his most famous poem “The Congo” . The sermon which inspired the poem was preached in his hometown First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Springfield, IL in October, 1913.  The preacher had been a friend of the Congo missionary Ray Eldred before his pioneering service in helping found the second Disciples mission station in Congo at Longa.  According to Hensey’s book mentioned above, Ray Eldred perished while trying to ford a small tributary of Longa’s Ruki River.

The poem, while a startling reflection of the ignorance about Africa and the racism prevalent in the U.S.  fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, made Lindsay famous and still appeared in most American poetry anthologies in the 1950’s and 60’s and may still

"Witnesses to the Resurrection":on the gravestone of Lillian Byers Eldred, d. 1912, and Ray Eldred, d. 1913, in Longa

appear.  Lindsay’s performances of this poem made him a public figure in the tradition of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg.  He was a wandering minstrel, twittering his verses for all within hearing distance and the Wikipedia article on the controversy of “The Congo” , on Lindsay’s championing of the poet Langston Hughes and other highlights of his fascinating life is a good introduction to him.  See it here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vachel_Lindsay

I strongly suggest reading the article on Lindsay’s life before the shock of reading the poem.  Keeping in mind the cultural context and history of the times –early in the 1900’s Springfield was the setting for one of the worst race riots and lynchings in U.S. history-  Lindsay’s claim of promoting the advance of “the Negro” by writing the poem seems more credible.

Read the poem at:

http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/poetry/poems/congo.html

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.

Congo Market Visits

Saturday only the market opens in the village of Ikengo

And now for something completely different I want to focus on the open air market of Africa as the one place where the “winds of change” have had little effect over the last one hundred fifty years.  Those who have traveled in sub Saharan Africa will, I feel certain, find themselves reminded of their market expeditions  in reading the following descriptions of Congolese markets by two leading African explorers of the 19th century:  Dr. David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley.  Although it is Congolese markets more than one hundred years ago they describe here, the same scene could be discovered today in most countries of the continent.

First is a passage from The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa  from 1865 to His Death.  Livingstone spent several weeks in Nyangwe on the River Lualaba, central eastern Congo, recuperating from his futile wanderings in search of the Nile.  Every day he visited the busy marketplace of the large village.

Saturday at the Ingende Market

 

“All are pleased to tell me the names of the fishes and other things.  Lipidsirens (my note: a breed of chicken) are caught by the neck and lifted out of the pot to show their fatness.  Camwood ground and made into flat cakes for sale…. Are offered and there is quite a roar of voices in the multitude, haggling.  It was pleasant to be among them… vendors of fish run about with pots-herds full of snails or small fishes…each is intensely eager to barter food for relishes, and makes strong assertions as to the goodness or badness of everything; the sweat stands in beads of their faces – cocks crow briskly, even when slung over the shoulder with their heads down, and pigs squeal….They deal fairly, and when differences arise they are easily settled by the men interfering or pointing at me.” 

Whatever the particular African culture’s customs regarding gender roles and relations, it is the women who stand out in every African marketplace.  Livingstone writes of the Nyangwe market women:

“It seems to be a pleasure of life to haggle and joke, and laugh and cheat; many come

Fishermans Wife Negotiating at Ikengo Market

eagerly…..many are beautiful…. All carry very heavy loads of dried cassava and earthen pots which they dispose of very cheaply for palm-oil, fish, salt, pepper, and relishes for their food.  The men appear in gaudy lambas, and carry little save their iron wares, fowls, grass cloth, and pigs.” 

It should be mentioned that Arab slave traders attacked the Nyangwe marketplace while Livingstone resided there, killing over 400 people and leading to the Doctor’s flight to Ujijii where Stanley “found” him just months later in 1871.

Cassava root for sale at Ikengo - and everywhere else in Congo

There can be no doubt that Henry Morton Stanley was a hard, sometimes cruel, man who drove the Africans in his employ with little mercy.  Another aspect of Stanley’s character – his high regard for the innate capacity of the African – is revealed in the following paragraph from his The Congo and the Founding of Its Free State in 1885.  Stanley too clearly  learned something important from visits to Congolese markets:

“In the management of a bargain I should back the Congolese native against Jew or Christian, Parsee or Banyan, in all the round world.  Unthinking men may perhaps say cleverness at barter, and shrewdness in trade, consort not with their unsophisticated condition and degraded customs. Unsophisticated is the last term I should ever apply to an African child or man in connection with the knowledge of how to trade….I have seen a child of eight do more tricks of trade in an hour than the cleverest European trader on the Congo could do in a month…….Therefore when I write of the Congo native, whether he is of the Bakongo, Byyanzi, or Bateke tribes, remember to associate him with an almost inconceivable amount of natural shrewdness, and power of indomitable and untiring chaffer.”

As an eerie conclusion, I quote from Joseph Conrad’s  1900 commentary in The

Clothes Shop at Ingende Market

Heart of Darkness on the prevailing European view of the Congolese. Conrad marveled at “the extraordinary effort of imagination that was necessary to make us take these people for enemies”.   No doubt Conrad too spent some time in Congolese marketplaces during his Congo travels in 1890.

NOTE:  To enlarge the photos, click on them; the photo to the right here might  surprise you.

“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”

Patrice Lumumba and Martin Luther King, Jr.

 
In 1960, U.S. Ambassador to the Congo, Claire Timberlake, reported to Washington on Patrice Lumumba’s powerful leadership skills. He commented that if Lumumba had entered a conference of Congolese politicians as a waiter, he would still have emerged by the meeting’s end as their elected leader

Since Lumumba’s assassination fifty years ago today his vision of a united, democratic and truly independent Congo has become the polar star for the nation. Both leading candidates for the presidency in 2005 claimed to be the heirs of Lumumba’s legacy of national leadership. His statue stands atop a lofty pillar on the route from the airport to the capital city of Kinshasa. No one has and no one is likely to ever dislodge Lumumba as the Jefferson and the Washington of the Congolese nation.

The source of Lumumba’s power was aptly described by Martin Luther King in Where Do We Go From Here, his last book, described by Cornel West as “his most prophetic challenge to powers that be”. In the final chapter of that book, “The World House”, Rev. King wrote, “Once the aspirations and appetites of the world have been whetted by the marvels of Western technology and the self-image of a people awakened by religion, one cannot hope to keep a people locked out of the earthly kingdom of wealth, health and happiness. Either they share in the blessings of the world or they organize to break down and overthrow those structures or governments which stand in the way of their goals.”

The Congolese people remain far from the “earthly kingdom” King refers to, and in their struggle against “governments which stand in the way of their goals” Lumumba’s words, political stands and martyrdom continue to inspire and empower. Once again, at the end of this year, a national election holds the promise of the formation of a government which truly serves the Congolese people first and foremost.

The presence of the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in the word today represents the best hope for a peaceful transition to government by the people and for the people in Congo. The sizable contingent of African troops in the U.N. force in Congo have a special interest in the transition to more democratic rule in Congo. Lumumba declared on the occasion of Congolese independence June 30, 1960,
“The independence of the Congo represents a decisive step toward the liberation of the entire African continent”.

Listen to the Lumumba speech on June 30, 1960 at the following YouTube address:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzPO4KQCZP8

For a nine minute overview of Lumumba’s contributions to the movement for democracy and unified nationhood in Congo, see the video at the following address:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSXDCp-XZuU

Within hours of being flown to the secessionist Province of Katanga,  Patrice Lumumba and two compatriots were shot by a Belgian firing squad fifty years ago today.
Read a commentary from today’s New York Times Opinion page on the Lumumba assassination’s long shadow cast over Congolese and, indeed, over African history since 1960. Written by Adam Hochschild, the piece places the event in the context of the long history of exploitation of the country’s vast natural resources by foreign powers.  Go to:

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/17/opinion/17hochschild.html?_r=1&hp

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.

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.