Thursday, May 31, 2012



Reefe, Thomas Q. Lukasa: A Luba Memory Device. Vol.10, No. 4. UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center, 1977. 48-50,88.
A lukasa is a “memory board” used by a society called the “Bambudye” or “mbudye“, of the Luba people. The Bambudye was a secret society to which all Luba  kings, chiefs, and officials belonged. These men and women held the vast Luba tribe together by acting as “Men of Memory” whose job was to preserve Luba oral tradition (Ukwendu). Though the Bambudya disbanded at the end of WWII, their legacy remains in the form of the lukasa.
Lukasa are pieces of wood (generally around 30 cm wide and 20 to 25 cm long) that communicate some sort of message to other Bambudya members.  The messages are communicated in a symbolic code represented by an arrangement of attached pieces of shells or beads, or by carved images ("Metropolitan Museum of Art").  The kinds of information stored on lukasa were political or historical in nature.  Three different kinds of lukasa exist: boards that contain information on early myths and heroes, boards that document the structure of the Bambudye society, and finally boards that contained private information for individual Luba rulers.
            The boards about ancient myths are called Lukasa Lwa Nkunda, meaning “The long hand of the pigeon.” The most important function this kind of board served was to record the Luba’s myth of origin. Though the story has varied when told from one Luba historian to the next, the sequence of events and main characters have stayed remarkably the same.  The Luba have the lukasa to thank for this.  The Luba origin story tells of a man named Mbidi Kiluwe (represented by a blue bead) who crosses the Zaire River into Luba territory.  There he meets a local chief named Kongolo (represented by a red bead) and teaches him how to act as a “divine chief.”  One of Kolongo’s sisters becomes pregnant by Mbidi Kiluwe and their son, Kalala Ilunga, challenges and ultimately kills Kolongo.  With lukasa, the Babmudye were able to relate this whole story in much more detail than I just have. For example, a lukasa will also convey how Kalala Ilunga recieves the idea of challenging Kolongo when he sees a mound of ants fighting some termites. It is incredible to me that so much detail can be conveyed with beads on a wooden board!
            Another function the lukasa served was to govern the behavior of the Bambudye.  They had certain beads to remind them of how to treat each other and other beads to instruct them how to treat those outside of the Bambudye.  Some examples I found were that one bead could communicate “If someone helps you, then help them.” while another would say “Lie concerning the Bambudye.” From this last instruction it is clear that the Bambudye required that their activities be kept secret from outsiders.
            These boards are great examples of esoteric folklore.  A lukasa communicates only to the Bambudye and there are even certain boards that communicate to even smaller factions of the Bambudye. For example, a lukasa with a “phallic” appendage protruding the board is meant for a male group of the Bambudye while a lukasa with a matching indentation is intended for a female audience.  Also there were boards that were intended for certain chiefs or rulers only. 
            Because of their esoteric quality, few lukasa were found in the early colonial period, or at least few were recognized.  Without the knowledge of what the boards were or what they were for, there was no reason to even they communicated anything at all. Afterall to an outsider a lukasa just looks like wood board with a lot of nonsense designs on it. When the Bambudye society ceased to exist as a group of power, this allowed outsiders the freedom to gain more knowledge about the artifacts.  As the lukasa became an obsolete object, the Luba people became more and more willing to disclose the function and meaning of the devices to researchers.  Today, if you are really interested in interpreting a lukasa, it would not be difficult to contact a historian who understands the symbols and may be up for the challenge.  In this way, a large part of its esoteric quality has been lost.  However, any person who is unaware of what a lukasa is will still have a hard time recognizing any meaning in these boards.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


White, Bob W. "Modernity's Trickster: `Dipping' And `Throwing' In Congolese Popular Dance Music." Research In African Literatures 30.4 (1999): 156. Academic Search Premier. Web. 31 May 2012.

            In the Kinshasa music scene the Atalaku has become an essential part of Congolese bands. The word “atalaku” literally means “Look at me over here” in Kikongo and just as this would suggest the atalaku’s song is hard to ignore when listening to Kinshasa popular music. His job is to help drive the music of a Kinshasa band using “short percussive phrases known as ‘shouts.’” Though very popular and recognizable within Congolese culture, the new addition of the atalaku has yet to be studied by many scholars. The one detailed source I found was from Dr. Bob W. White, an anthropologist.  He has ideas about the atalaku’s impact on Congolese culture that have yet to be confirmed or challenged. In the next decade I am interested to see what other literature comes forward analyzing the atalaku’s relationship to Congolese culture.
            White explains that it was very evidently the emergence of political performance in the early years of Mobotu’s regime that gave rise to the atalaku. “Anamateurs” is a word meaning “activity leader” or “organizer.” Just as anamateurs organized the political performances and rallies, Atalaku’s serve as the “anamateurs” of Congolese popular music. In fact, Congolese musicians will use the term atalaku and anamateurs interchangeably.
The atalaku in many ways is a symbol of the fear rising in Kinshasa. This fear is that the kind of music and dancing that accompanies this piece of folklore may be a sign of society’s definite departure from "Traditional" African values. One dance move associated with the atalaku’s genre of music is the “dombolo.” The dombolo is a "highly eroticized" dance move that has been banned in certain parts of Africa. White remarked that many have begun using the term "dombolisation" to mean moral decay. White confesses that nobody even knows what "dombolo" means except for the atalaku.
            As I remarked before the atalaku has not been studied very thoroughly and because of this it was very difficult for me to find information about them.  I did however find a forum called “Vibes d’Afrique” with a few posts and discussions from music fans discussing the use of Atalakus.  One post posed the following point: “A lot of people talk about the atalaku's and what excellent work they did on some albums but too me it has become just noise. The constant shouting really becomes a strain on the ear.” He continues to express how he feels the soloists are impossible to hear through the atalakus and how he does not think this kind of music would be appealing to new listeners anymore. He then asks whether others are for or against the direction this music has taken.  The responses are fascinating as well.  One comments that it sounds better with one or two atalakus but now it’s common for four or five atalaku’s to participate in a single song.  Another commented on the appropriate situation for an atalaku:  “When it’s time for me to relax I just want to hear sweet soothing guitar, when it’s time to party atakalus come in.”  Still another comment remarked on how this genre of music seems to be developing in a way that is unconcerned with spreading beyond its current market.  This was interesting to me, as if the addition of more and more atalakus which may just sound like noise to us has been developed to cater to some sort of niche market in just a few African countries.  To me, this would be a great defense to those who are worried that this kind of music is threatening African culture.  If it continues to stay a uniquely African musical practice, then the Atalaku is a perfect axample of continuity and change.  The atalaku custom has the potential to become just as much of a “traditional” practice as any dance or song that is deemed traditional now. 
            On this same forum I was able to learn the names of some popular and respected Atalakus.  One of the most famous and important is Bill “Clinton” Kalonji.  Many on the forum praised Clinton for his distinct, strong, and controlled voice.  Most of the forum seemed to agree that many new atalakus attempt to imitate “clintonism” but they criticize these young atalakus saying they lack the talent to pull off Clinton’s style. The following is a link to one of Clinton’s videos. “Kizoba Zoba.” I read in in one of Bob White’s articles that it is not common for atalaku’s to appear in their own music videos.  Though I am not familiar with Clinton, it does not appear that he is in this video which is remarkable when you listen to how central he is to the song.  

Friday, May 25, 2012



            Music has become one of the most significant and popular parts of Congolese culture. The unique genre of Congolese popular music goes by many names; Soukous and Rumba Lingala being some of the most popular terms. Here I will use the name Soukous, which is also the term used to describe a kind of dance that goes along with Soukous music. Whatever you call it, it is set apart from the rest because of its unique blend of multiple musical styles and instruments. The dance music incorporates some latin rhythms, as well as jazz and rock influences. It also uses a broad range of instruments from brass horns, various kinds of percussion, voices and multiple guitars.  The guitar, even electric guitar, has become a defining characteristic of Soukous—especially when used in the sebene.  The sebene is a musical bridge where one or two guitarists repeat a musical pattern and another improvises around this pattern.  This technique has been popular in Congolese music for as long as anyone can remember only not with guitars, but with harps, lutes, and xylophones.  Using guitars for this musical bridge has become a signature of Soukous music ("National Geographic") .
Because it is a mix of old classic styles of music and creates a completely new sound, it makes sense that the Congolese associate Soukous music with the very idea of modernity. People of Kinshasa say they and popular Congolese music “grew up together” and consider their relationship with this music inseparable from their idea of what it means to be modern (“Made in Congo”).
Soukous also served a function beyond entertainment and social activity. The music allowed the country to reconstruct a new national identity. Under colonial rule, this musical form which was so unique to the Congolese could be used as form of resistance.  Even though in reality the Congolese are of many different communities and ethnic groups, this unique-to-Congo music connected all Congolese together and allowed them to identify as one community as they worked to eventually overthrow colonial rule (“Rumba Lingala as Colonial Resistance”).
Soukous is a perfect example of Glocalization.  The music takes pieces Latin rumba, American jazz, even a bit of rock and incorporates it into a style that is very unique to the Congo.  Upon hearing Soukous, you would not describe it as rhumba or Jazz or rock, yet the influence of each genre of music are hard to ignore.  Congolese music has transformed these different styles of music into a completely new genre.  I love this because it is an example of how one culture’s adoption of a different culture can lead to new and exciting ways of doing things.

Thursday, May 24, 2012





When researching examples of Intangible Cultural Heritage, I found it more difficult than I had expected to find anything at all. UNESCO gave no examples. I understand that this is most likely due to the intense political problems the country has been facing and it does make sense that the country has been too preoccupied by these more urgent matters to work with UNESCO to preserve ICH. However this is not entirely true I did find an UNESCO article documenting the country's plan to preserve their ICH, however through the whole document they did not venture to give any example of what they planned to preserve, only that they beleived preservation to be vital ( . In the Programs section of the UNESCO website I finally found a description of a "Technical Assistance Mission." There were actually two missions documented on this pager. The first just took place in April of this year. The mission was describes as being an assesment of the cultures condition with a focus on the "music sector" ( They explain that it is their plan to use the information gained on this mission to develop a "cultural policy" that will aid in the cultivation of the DRC's cultural industry. This UNESCO page also explains that the country has already succesfully achieved a few tasks with the goal developing their “cultural industry” like finding a way to manage intellectual property rights and creating a “Cinema Week” which made easy documentation of the film industry possible. Most of these efforts sounded business related, which makes sense since the DRC is so rich in resources and must be very conscious of its business opportunities. However, they did mention the “music sector” which makes me believe this may be UNESCO’s beginning stages of identifying which kinds of ICH need to be preserved.

Hoping to find examples of ICH preservation projects outside of UNESCO I kept searching and found a resource called the Ambassador's Fund for Cultural Preservation ( This fund was created by the U.S. Government and issues grants to support cultural preservation projects. The article I found featured a $24,500 grant given to Democratic Republic of Congo’s National Institute of Museums for the purposes of renovating one of the Museum’s annexes and preserving and storing the objects within it. While this is not an example of ICH the article also mentioned that the AFCP had funded the DRC in the past. Looking through their past reward letters I found that in 2010 the AFCP rewarded The DRC $30,466 toward the “Documentation of Traditional Pygmy Music” ( This was the best example I could find, yet I could not find any information on the process or result of the documentation.

Another source of funding I found was very surprising. It was from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. I was not expecting funding for the DRC from Japan, however it seems Japan has a ICH Preservation Fund with UNESCO. In their list of completed Projects is “The Polyphonic Singing of the Aka Pygmies of Central Africa” which was conducted from 2004 to 2008 in the DRC. The funding purposes here are echoed in the 2010 AFCP grant. However the title of this project is a little more descriptive, specifying the Pygmies “Polphonic Singing” rather than just “Traditional Pygmy Music.”

One other interesting sources I found was a dancing company called Fua Dia Congo, which apparently means “Congolese Heritage” ( This company boasts of 30 years of “preservation, promotion, and study” of Kongo Kingdom culture (culture of Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Gabon, and the Central African Republic). On their website they explain that “the company presents the region’s cultural values through performances incorporating song, music, and dance, and offers lecture-demonstrations, dance camps, guest workshops with visiting African masters, and weekly dance classes.” However the catch is that this company is based in Palo Alto, California and aside from a trip to the Congo in 2008 they do not seem to be connected with the roots where this culture is from.

This brings us to the questions of who is preserving the culture and for whom are they preserving it. We see the U.S. give grants on behalf of ICH preservation, we see Japan fund ICH preservation, and we see this money go toward the safeguarding of traditional Pygmy music. It is significant to me that this is the only form of ICH I can find being funded for safeguarding. As far as I know, pygmy traditions are not a good example of the current culture in the DRC. However I do know that the DRC is rich in different kinds musical and dance culture. It seems like very narrow and very, forgive me, “tribal” focus. As if it is important to the rest of the world that the very old very tribal-like music and dances be representative of African Culture. While in this journal I did focus on some aspects of Congolese culture that some could consider “tribal,” like masks, I also found it important to look at what is still alive in Congolese modern culture, like contemporary music. This kind of balance is what I would like to see more from UNESCO,