Arts, Culture & Media

Geo Answer / Global Hit

Now let's shift to the southern hemisphere for the answer to our Geo Quiz today. The Democratic Republic of Congo or D-R-C straddles the equator. And in the south western part of the country, there's a province called Kasai. That's the one we're looking for. It's home to a diverse group of some 25 musicians who call themselves Kasai Allstars. The World's Marco Werman has been sampling their latest CD.

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In the seventh moon, the chief turned into a swimming fish and ate the head of his enemy by magic. That could be the beginning of a fable. It happens to be the title of a recording by Congo's Kasai Allstars. And it sets the perfect tone for the music you're hearing. This is fantastical -- even psychedelic -- roots music.

Kasai is a region of Congo that has been at the center of ethnic violence in what many have called Africa's "world war."

And the real story behind Kasai Allstars is an encouraging counterpoint to that headline-grabbing violence. Before we get to the modern history though, let's back up about a century. When Congo was first colonized by Belgium, missionaries also came.

Think Katherine Hepburn in the African Queen. Well those missionaries didn't like the music they heard. The drumming and thumb pianos accompanied pagan trance and dance rituals. The dances imitated fornication. It freaked out the missionaries. Mputu Ebondo "Miamor" is the frontman for the Kasai Allstars.

Quand on s'est convertissait, on devenait chretien...

When we were converted and became Christian, the missionaries wouldn't allow us to make music anymore. They told us our music was satanic. They even took our instruments away. Many of our people thought the missionaries burned them. But today you can actually find many of those instruments in museums in France and in Europe, well preserved. Fine with me. At least they're protected and not lost forever.

In the post-colonial chapter of Congo's history, the misery didn't change. Just the players. Instead of mistrusting foreigners, tribal groups in Kasai began mistrusting each other.

L'obstacle c'est le tribalism.

The obstacle says Ebondo Miamor was -- and still is -- tribalism. That goes for the multi-ethnic musicians in Kasai Allstars.

Avant Kasai Allstars, on s'est salue dans la rue...

BEFORE Kasai Allstars, we'd say hi to each other in the street. But if we saw each other at a political rally, we wouldn't even shake hands. We'd stare at each other like cats and dogs. Worried that if our skin even touched, we'd be haunted by evil spirits or even killed. And that was the suspicion that prevailed when I tried to start this group. It was a fear of being dominated by another tribe.

But Ebondo Miamor believes in the power of music. More precisely he believes that by bringing together different tribes in a single group he can help them understand that they're really not all that different. It wasn't entirely his idea. It was a Belgian record producer who loved the music of Kasai but was finding it expensive to bring a bunch of artists over to tour Europe. So he asked Ebondo Miamor to form an all star band.

?Je vous assure que c'est un pas dans la prevention des conflits.?

I can assure you he says, that it's a step in preventing conflicts. One of the first songs Kasai Allstars ever sang came after a particularly brutal period of fighting in central Congo. Ebondo Miamor sang it for me a capella:

?If I sing about war, it's not to seek vengeance. It's so that future generations don't forget that it happened. Now that war has passed, let's get on with the business of curing sickness, poverty, hunger and start rebuilding what has been destroyed.?

Finally about that CD title: In the seventh moon, the chief turned into a swimming fish and ate the head of his enemy by magic. That is the narrative acted out through music and dance in a ritual performed when the chief of a village in Kasai takes the throne. It's precisely the kind of dance missionaries used to forbid. As unified tribes in Kasai Allstars have expressed through song, no one can take those rituals away anymore.

For The World, I'm Marco Werman.