Mabanga: The creative music juice Ugandans could do with

Artiste Moses Ssali, alias Bebe Cool performs during a concert in Kampala. The singer doles praises for tycoons Charlie Lubega and Elvis Ssekyanzi in his song Awete. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • During concerts, musicians are often tipped by revellers. Congolese in the golden era realised that there was good fortune from tipping and to milk it further, they started enticing businessmen and politicians at their concerts with flattery during a song in return for a fee, writes Jacobs Odongo Seaman

It is 2008, Jose Chameleone’s era, his world. Serena is feeding off his talent as he belts out his hit, Mama Mia. The bridge brings the ballroom to its feet and Chameleone walks over the VIP tables, picks out tycoon Godfrey Kirumira for special praise.
“And here is our tycoon Godfrey Kirumira, a man whose smile is the password to Bank of Uganda’s operations,” he says.

A beaming Kirumira acknowledges the shoutout by dipping his fingers into that bottomless pocket for crispy dollar notes.
Of course, this never happened. Not in 2008, not ever. Whether Ugandan musicians can pull this off is a matter for debate, but their Congolese counterparts were doing it as early as the 1970s, and really earning big from it.

In Congolese rumba, it is called “kobwaka mabanga”. In Lingala, it literally means ‘throwing stones.’ Figuratively, though, it is giving praises. A shoutout, really.
The origin of the term is a reference to stones that would be thrown from afar and whose fall would produce a great hubbub that would attract the attention of anyone nearby.
During concerts, musicians are often tipped by revellers. Congolese in La Belle Epoque (the golden era) realised that there was good fortune from tipping and to milk it further, they started enticing businessmen and politicians at their concerts with flattery during a song in return for a fee.

Until Franco and his TPOK Jazz band started milking revellers with flattering praises in the 1970s in nightspots in Kinshasa neighbourhoods such as Matongé, Bandalungwa, Limete, Lingwala, and Lemba, mabanga had been in Congolese music albeit with no commercial gain in it.
The pioneers of modern Congolese music in the “Tango ya ba Wendo” (the generation of the Wendos) of Wendo Kolosoy, Jean Serge Essou, Paul Ebongo and Henry Bowane were doing it as early as the 1940s.

That approach of the 1940s remains at large in recordings, including in Uganda where songs like Mama Mbiire (Bobi Wine and Juliana) or Bebe Cool’s Awete doles praises for tycoons Charlie Lubega and Elvis Ssekyanzi.

Gainful creativity
Such studio mabanga remains big in Congolese rumba, where it has gone beyond just praises for financiers like Jose Kongolo, Kenyan promoter Tamukati Dongala or even Uganda’s FM explosion era Rasta Rob. But these are not flatteries. Until recently when the likes of JB Mpiana, Koffi Olomide and Fally Ipupa started getting people to pay them for mabanga in recordings, it was earned.

Awilo Longomba says in Gate le Coin: “Tamukati lelo oko bakisa, ndeko oko bakisa” (i.e. You’ll have to add some more brother Tamukati). Then in Porokondo, he goes wild in animation with a shoutout for ‘Rasta Rob MC, Chabasa’—which Angolan Tecno-Soukous star Lutchiana Mobulu also did for the Ugandan.

The influence of Congolese rumba on the region has been profound. Philly Lutaaya did not only add a ‘y’ to his name Bongole to sound like Tabu Ley but also returned from his sojourn with more camaraderie in Likamba ya Falanga, a title to his song warning about the evil that money is.
Sammy Kasule literally became a rumba musician in Kenya while pioneer female artiste Hadijah Namale actually returned from self-exile in Zaire to produce Mukulike Omwaka, a song she had dusted off from rumba.

However, even when the Congolese concept of sebene (extended bridge punctuated by the solo guitar) was adopted at concerts, Ugandans just could not nail mabanga down. 

Promoter Balaam Barugahara pins this down to selfishness and pride. He believes if Ugandan artistes appreciated promoters and producers the same way the Congolese immortalised Tamukati, the local music industry would have hit higher notes.

No institutional fervour
Asuman Bisiika, a Ugandan of Congolese heritage, says Ugandan music failed to gain the institutional fervour that rumba did. In 2021, the UN cultural and scientific organisation designated Congolese rumba as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Ugandan music hardly has a name to pride in, with the one forte in Kadongo Kamu that could have scaled the music notes appearing to die with maestro Paul Kafeero.

“The mabanga beneficiaries view it as institutional endorsement or validation,” says Bisiika. “By institutional, I don’t mean the state, but the Congolese psyche.”

For instance, where Tanzanians talk of Bongo, Angolans of Kizomba, it is difficult to put a distinction in Uganda in an era washed out by the allure of Afrobeat and dancehall imitations.
Dan Atuhaire, nevertheless, says Ugandans adopted mabanga enough in recordings even if they appeared to have fallen short in the creative juice department.

“When Emperor Orlando says ‘Mike Ezra Wezinire’ in Piga Makofi or Chameleone says ‘Cherrie Cafe nawe bagambe’ in Effuga Bbi, it stops at being a simple mention. No superlatives to hype them,” Atuhaire, a music reviewer and curator, says, adding, “When Bobi Wine tells tales about Kirumira (Akalimu), or Emperor Orlando sings about Habib Kagimu, Shem Semambo (Si Nsonga), or Bebe Cool’s praise of Elvis Sekyanzi and Charlie Lubega (Awete), you would have to scratch your head to figure out why they are being praised.”
Kenya rumba YouTuber James Angana says compared to Congolese, music in other parts of the region is transient and too inconsistent to hit the right spots in the heart.
Mabanga earns its place
The creativity aspect is where the boat leaks the most for Ugandans. The Congolese had long recognised the place of revellers in their rumba.
The creation of the sebene in the 1940s after acoustic guitar was introduced by a community of sailors and dockworkers from Sierra Leone, Dahomey (now Benin) and Ghana in the 1920s and 1930s. The sebene was how the locals heard the dockers say seventh chords when barking out ‘seven’ to signal the musical changes in the solo section.

First, the Congolese perfected that bridge, making it longer on stage to allow for extended dancing. Then they brought in the game changer in animators or “atalaku” as they call it. Atalakus are rappers who step up to rally the revellers into a frenzy by shouting whatever they felt would rouse the audience or vixens to dance more.

While recording a new piece with West Indian rhythms à la Kassav and Zouk Machine, Pepe Kalle found himself having to fill a gap of minutes to complete his album. Norbert Mbu-Mputu, a Congolese journalist, writer and researcher in anthropology and sociology, says Pepe Kalle came up with the brilliant idea of filling it with guitars and instruments played loudly and non-stop, accompanied by shouts from the atalaku, in a song, Po Moun Pak Bougé.
Djouna Mumbafu, then a young atalaku freshly recruited into Empire Bakuba, says he was away when they sent for him. He created the chants for the sebene.

Pepe Kalle’s improvisation created a grand place for atalaku in Soukous, propelling them to the forefront of the stage. It is their chants that make the dance steps change, certainly assisted by the instrumentalists.
In as much as the atalakus would rouse a stone Buddha into a dance, their flattery could seduce the toughest miser into fingering their wallet. Every man loves glory.

The mabanga of the animators then began to be monetised, to be sold, to be bought. People in search of fame and surface glory oil the animators.

Tough ask 

Kampala-based Congolese deejay, musician and producer Danny Maombi, aka DJ Nach Mao, thinks mabanga would not fit in the Ugandan “reggaeton kidandali” the way it fits in rumba and sebene.
“It’s a lifestyle in Congo and rich people know that it’s a way of getting famous,” he says, adding, “It will take some time to make this a common thing in Uganda.”

The practice of mabanga may have risen to such prominence due to financial need rather than musical creativity, wrote The Guardian-UK, but in Kinshasa, throwing stones today has become part of the very fabric of recorded and live music.

Even then, the Congolese continue to show that creativity pays but what do the rest of the musicians show in the same regard beyond money from concerts in an era where recordings hardly bring in the money due to piracy and digital platforms?
It’s a startling ask that lays bare the missed opportunities.