(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 20, Number 2, 2001)
Like Hamlet's Banquo, Patrice Lumumba's ghost has come back to haunt us.
Lumumba was the popular, articulate hero and campaigner of the anti-colonial movement in what was then the Belgian Congo, an ideological equivalent of Kwame Nkrumah or Nelson Mandela. At the beginning of 1960 he had been released from jail to help negotiate independence terms. Six months later he became the first Prime Minister of the newly independent Congo. But within a month of his appointment a civil war erupted with the secession of the copper-rich Katanga region, and Joseph-Desire Mobutu deposed Lumumba. On Jan. 17, 1961, Lumumba was killed, becoming a martyr for the anti-colonial movement.
The story has now come full circle. In Kinshasa, days after the burial of another assassinated leader, Laurent Kabila, who had always claimed Lumumba his hero, Patrice Lumumba's son Roland went to court to start legal proceedings against Belgium, several Belgian individuals and a CIA officer in an attempt to recover some nominal monetary damages, but more importantly to discover the truth about the death of his father.
Two books have recently been published that shed some light on what was one of the dark moments in the history of the Congo and Belgium.
L'Assassinat de Lumumba by Ludo de Witte (to be published in English by Verso Press in June), is a book that directly accuses Belgium of the execution of Lumumba and says it is time to open the books on the matter. In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo by Michela Wrong (Fourth Estate) chronicles the life and times of Mobutu and the state of the Congo before and after his downfall and the accession of rebel leader Laurent Kabila. It also attempts to cast some light on how, when, where and why the Congo became the mess it is today. A Flemish expert on Africa, De Witte claims that in October 1960 the Belgium Minister for Africa signed a document that said explicitly, "The main objective to pursue, in the interests of the Congo, Katanga and Belgium, is clearly the elimination of Lumumba."
The United States also saw Lumumba as dangerous because he had asked for and received Russian military aid to fight the civil war that had broken out for control of the riches from the Katanga copper mines, a war that had in fact been provoked by Belgium. The U.S. was alarmed at Russia getting involved in Africa at the height of the Cold War.
But De Witte's research showed that by the time Lumumba was killed other hands had done the deed. "Belgian officers had direct responsibility for his assassination," he insists. He claims on Jan. 17, 1961, Lumumba, under arrest by Mobutu's forces, was transferred by plane to the Katanga region, where he was assaulted in the presence of Belgian officers and then tortured in a villa guarded by Belgian troops, before being shot by an execution squad supervised by a Belgian captain. His body was exhumed by a Belgian police commissioner and dissolved in acid.
I assume the CIA officer named in Roland Lumumba's suit is Larry Devlin, who was the CIA station head in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) at the time that all this was happening. Michela Wrong interviews Devlin in her book In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz. Here he is quite happy to deny CIA involvement in Lumumba's death, though information has recently emerged that in August 1960 President Eisenhower did instruct the CIA to eliminate Lumumba. Devlin does say a top CIA scientist bought him a poison, which cleverly mimicked a generally fatal local disease that was intended for Lumumba, but Devlin says he poured it into the Congo River. A new twist is revealed that in 1960 he claimed to actually personally have foiled an attempt by Mobutu to assassinate Lumumba.
Michela Wrong was the Reuters, BBC and Financial Times correspondent in Africa and she talks passionately and with great love about the Congo. Her account of Lumumba's death suggests it was on the flight to Katanga that Luba soldiers (from the Kasai region) brutally assaulted Lumumba; the crew of the Sabena plane, shocked at the violence of the beating, supposedly locked themselves in the cockpit. The Luba soldiers did this as revenge for a massacre of their tribe perpetrated by the Congolese army the previous year. The story continues that when he arrived in Elizabethville (Lumbumbashi) he was repeatedly stabbed in front of various Katanga dignitaries, presumably at the aforementioned villa before being shot, although Michela Wrong says it was possibly a Belgian mercenary who actually pulled the trigger.
But then to get to the absolute truth in the Congo is an absolute folly, as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness showed. This is what makes In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz so interesting: You realize through her deep understanding of the situation in the country that Mobutu is Kurtz; Mobutu equally succumbed to the dark, totally detached from reality. He may possibly have started out with ideals, but ending up losing control and going "native," in Mobutu's case only metaphorically eating his fellow man.
In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz is indispensable for anyone who wants to try to get to grips with exactly what this impenetrable country the size of Western Europe is all about. This book also helps to understand how the great wealth of a nation was squandered by a very efficient kleptocracy-not only the cash, but also its human resources, which despite the inventiveness of its people has seen them scattered across the world as economic refugees. Michela Wrong's book is also essential reading for anyone who wants to know where the music that Gary Stewart discusses in his excellent history of Congolese music, Rumba on the River, comes from.
The Congo is a tough place; it even defeated Che Guevara when he was there in 1965 fighting against Mobutu with Kabila. But talking of Cuba, last year a friend who had just been to Havana reported to me she had seen young rising star Carlos Manuel and commented, "Whoever signs that band is going to clean up. They are the best boy band, ever." And well, waddaya know, Palm Pictures has his debut album out now. Malo Cantidad is an interesting release from a young singer and band with a lot of potential. The drummer is 16 and the average age of the group is probably around 22.
During 1996 Carlos cut his teeth with the Cuban musical institution that is Irakere. But let's be very clear here about what kind of music we are talking about-this is teenage music. Or putting it another way, Carlos is the idol of the youth of Havana. Well, to be truthful, not only the youth, but the youthfully inclined. I can see the promise that he offers. I recently caught him live in London. The lineup of Carlos and his four dancers/occasional singers is a very lively, action-packed sight. They might have watched too many hours of MTV, but they are undoubtedly better dancers than their Western counterparts. Orange and green-dyed cropped hair is also much in evidence among the band and dancers.
On the cd proceedings are started by the big hit "Malo Cantidad," which starts off inna dancehall style, then swiftly moves into a pan-Caribbean sound. Live this was much more interesting than the recorded version, because of the intricacies of the sound and rhythm and the way music stretches in an extended live music workout. That old calypso warhorse "Matilda" gets a rewarding reworking. "Acabando" is another tune that drifts in a funky manner through quite a few musical zones; a classy sound of the future. Personally I can find nothing wrong with this populist tropical groove style that contains everything but the kitchen sink, a pan-Caribbean sound that touches all cultural bases. I see absolutely no reason why not to DLG it to the max. The New York style of Dark Latin Groove is a powerful movement in the middle ground of popular Latin music. But where DLG is mainly a studio band and the creation of producer Sergio George, Carlos is not an engineered idea. This is his band: He writes the songs and the band plays every week in Havana. This is positive, homegrown, organic music.
In Cuba the range and quality of music is incredibly wide. There are the modern great bands that are mega deep and funky like Bamboleo, Paulo FG or Charanga Forever. You get classical institutions like Los Van Van, Irakere and Afrocuba. You also get the whole spectrum of folkloric geniuses, has-beens, and never-beens of varying importance. And then you get someone who stands out. Carlos has been singled out as a genuine Cuban pop leading light, the first one with the best chance to succeed as a worldwide musical sensation. The gods have indeed come down and tapped him on the shoulder. When all of those things are in your favor and the star signs line up, then, hey-the world is your bivalve.
In the forthcoming Californian civil war, initially known as the War of the Cities, the battles between the armed forces of Los Angeles and San Francisco rage from Tijuana to Napa. This catastrophic war has been has mentioned by William Gibson in his recent novel Count Zero and also has been chronicled in a series of paintings by artist and satirist Sandrow Birk, who has taken every kind of war art, from the epic paintings of Goya, Delacroix and Jacques-Louis David right through to World War I recruiting posters to create an 80-piece exhibition which illustrates the conflict. In his vision MasterCard and Visa sponsor the twin L.A. battleships Richard M. Nixon and Bebe Rebozo, and the galleons that sail along side them have Nike swooshes on their sails.
Birk's next project is to paint the prisons of California in the style of the great English landscape artists like Turner and Constable. I cannot wait till he finds a subject that deserves the epic style of Victorian retribution artist David Martin.
I hope that in that terrible post-apocalyptic state of ruin and electricity cuts (I clearly remember the '70s here in London), San Francisco's Ubiquity imprint can still set up shop in the rubble after the battle of Telegraph Hill. The strong always survive, and Ubiquity stable of labels just keep on chucking out all this really radical stuff that is a full-on blast of off-the-wall radicalism. Their latest Cubop release that gets me all a quiver is John Santos and Bobby Matos' Mambo Jazz.
These two master percussionists are fellow compadres on the Cubop label and have come together for what is described as "a spirit of the descarga jam session recording." This superb release, the result of a "wouldn't it be a good idea if" idea features their two bands in the studio in different permutations and combinations doing mostly original compositions for this release. What this has created is a rip-roaring snorting beast of great rhythmical grooviness and wigged-out jazziness. One of the many standouts on this cracking release is "I Don't Speak Spanish (But I Understand Everything When I'm Dancing)" with orgasmic vocals from Denise Cook. This scorching tune has become a standard in Bobby's live set and I can see it becoming a classic on the Latin dance floors of the rest of the world, as it moves along with its frantic mambo template and attention-grabbing lyrics. Do not pass by this release; your life will be immeasurably poorer without it being in your possession.
Tony Allen keeps banging out 12"s for the French Comet label under the moniker the Allenko Brotherhood Ensemble. There are two of these around at the moment that are well worth investigating if you are not of a purist Afrobeat mindset. These are modernistic dance grooves, grooves sometimes slightly fragmented insomuch as it often sounds as if they have been made that way: deliberately chopped up, mucked around with and mixed about. Sometimes these kinds of tunes do not go anywhere in particular. The progression in the track from point A to point Z is not particularly well developed, often seeming to stumble around point C.
However, both of these two 12"s are of interest. One comes with the title Tony Allen as Kracked Unit, "The Man With the Drum" while the other side informs us it is Tony Allen as Bigga Bush, "Drum Fire."
"Drum Fire" is the one on this that kicks up the most dust; it has a hard-edged drum pattern, a chunky guitar sample and bad attitude. (That's bad as in "Oh I say old chap, that track is bad," rather than in it behaving in a naughty or an antisocial manner or being of dubious quality.)
The other 12" is prosaically titled as Tony Allen vs. the Son of Scientist, featuring Eska, "The Drum," remixed by English hip-hop rap artist IG Culture. Side one is one of these moody groovers with its sharp drums and pouting vocals from female singer Eska. The other side is one of those fragmented washes of noise and is called Tony Allen vs. Joakim Lone, "Machine Gun Construction."
Culled from his 1984 release Bon Samaritan and the 1994 Haute
Tension, Papa Noel's Bel Ami (Stern's) is a
wonderful look back in time to one of the great periods of Congolese music.
Noel Nedule, one of the great Congolese guitarists of all time, started
at age 16 in 1957 with the musicians that eventually became the great Orchestre
Bantou. He has played with virtually every great Congolese band over the
years, including O.K. Jazz until Franco's death in 1989. Recently Papa has
been director of Sam Mangwana's live band. This reissue is an essential
purchase. His sweet guitar floats through the rhythms and melts your heart.
This is the sort of classic stuff that first attracted me to Congolese music.
It is beautiful, melodious, gentle and warming, fragrant, tasty and very
satisfying. Papa Noel recently traveled to Havana to record with that other
great guitarist, Papi Olviedo. Papa and Papi together, now, I cannot wait
to hear that one.
Copyright 2001 Dave Hucker