“Paris c’est l’Afrique” (“Paris is Africa”), Mav Cacharel and Jean Baron sing in chorus, a pair of well-dressed musicians strolling down the Champs-Elysées boulevard, with smiles on their faces. They’ve just established the Loketo band alongside Aurlus Mabélé. This was at the end of the ’80s, and the river Seine had the colors of several African rivers running through it: Senegal, Niger, Cameroon’s Wouri, Ivory Coast’s Bandama and of course the Congo! One waterway for two countries: at that time one of the two was still known as Zaire.
Ray Lema and the “computer philosophy”
This is where the talented musical explorer Ray Lema originates from. He left his country when, then as musical director of the Zairian National Ballet, refused to compose a song to celebrate Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko (yes, the same person whose face appeared like a demigod from the heavens in the opening sequence for the news on TV). He landed in Washington, and then headed for Europe, stopping in Brussels. In the Belgian capital, Ray discovered even more Zairians, feeling as if he were still in Kinshasa. Things eventually changed when he moved on to Paris: “When I went to Paris, he recounts in the movie, it was the first time in my life that I found myself confronted with Senegalese people talking about their Senegal, Malians depicting Mali, Cameroonians… before that, I was just a Zairian! I didn’t even know where Zaire stood in relation to the rest of Africa.”
Thirty years on, when Philippe Conrath came around to watching his documentary again, he recalls how this peculiar network of relationships was woven by musicians of the continent who lived in or stopped by Paris: “I was immersed in their melting pot, I grew up with them, their ideas made me grow,as well as our our frequent exchanges. What the guys are saying in the movie is so forward-thinking.” All it takes to be convinced of this, is to listen to Ray Lema, sitting in front of his synthesizer – his prevailing position, even today –, mentally in conversation with his Atari computer whilst explaining that “African music is all about sequences, as is the computer. So Africans should really connect with the philosophy of the computer… In fact it’s an instrument that was created just for them” Current developments seem to prove him right… only thirty years on!
Wemba without a Visa
Still on the Zairian side of the Congo river, star-scouting talent Papa Wemba – not yet then “M’zee Fula Ngenge” –, was already a king of the “sape” (a Congo-based trend of competing for the most refined and stylish outfits). At the front of the large Halle de la Villette, where the Lubumbashi-based traditional band Mbulié performed, he walks along whilst forming a subtle analysis in the differences between rumba and local traditional music. He recounts, he went through training for both, with his mother the “mourner”, playing music “of the heart, the music of the people” before he went on to revolutionize rumba with Zaiko Langa Langa.
Onwards – and this is one of the strengths of this series which does not just take place on the banks of the Seine – we resume the conversation with Papa Wemba… in Kinshasa! He takes us to places from his youth, and also introduces us to “Station Japan”, a local band who like so many others from Kinshasa, used to rehearse outdoors and unplugged, due to a lack of electric musical instruments. There is without a doubt, no better training for vocalists.
Philippe Conrath still remembers the shoot in Kinshasa: “we caused quite a lot of trouble for poor Papa Wemba, as we had asked him to come with us to Kin, but he had forgotten that he only had a tourist visa in France, which prevented him from returning back afterwards. It took us weeks of struggling with French officials, and it required the intervention of [then Minister of Culture] Jack Lang before he would even be permitted to come back! At the time when you wanted a residence permit, you had to wait for months, or even years, and he did not yet have it – like all the others who arrived in France with just a tourist visa.”
It’s still fascinating to hear Wemba talking about issues with visas and other immigration-related troubles, when we know that he would later end up in prison for these reasons – protecting those who helped set him up.
For Conrath, who would go on to start the Africolor festival that same year in 1989, visa issues would persist in being the blight that, as the years went on, derailed the livelihood of African artists and those who attempted to promote their shows in France. But at the time of shooting Paris c’est l’Afrique, he now recalls “it was much less complicated to bring over musicians, who sometimes even came on their own. Little did we know that it would get so much worse – it hadn’t yet become the era of undocumented migrants, their persecution by the authorities, and the Saint Bernard’s Church fiasco [a refuge offered to asylum seekers quickly and violently evacuated by the police]. At the time, Salif Keita could come to France without any trouble! Today it’s a pain in the ass to get a great young artist to come over…” Evidently so…
Returning to Paris
Before ending the episode, we return to Paris to greet another leader in soukous music in the form of Kanda Bongo Man. The journey continues on the other side of the river Seine this time, and along the Congo, with the song “Pierre de Paris” sung acapella by the Brazzavillois Zao aka Zéro Admis Omniprésent [“Zero Admitted Omnipresent”] who became famous with the hit “Ancien combattant” [“War Veteran”]. Here, while finger drumming the beat over – and under – the kitchen table, he tells the folkloric tale of a migrant who “is not just anyone”. Upon his return from Paris to his homeland, he boasts of female “conquests” by promising them the moon, including a stay in the French capital, of course. In the meantime, the pregnant women multiply… Conrath would meet with Zao a few years later at his home in Brazzaville, for a “confined” concert… Outside, the civil war had just broken out.
Unquestionably, the world has changed dramatically in the last thirty years, and Paris no longer has the same strategic role in the growth of Afrocentric music. But this era and its stars sowed the seeds to propagate sounds and cultures that have become hugely popular, to the point of inspiring artists today who sometimes have nothing to do with the continent. Africolor Festival has also largely contributed to this positive movement. And then, in some ways, the connection between Paris and the continent remains. “At the time, says Conrath, musicians claimed to be Malian, Congolese… today their children are French. From Mory Kanté’s top-of-the-pops moment (a huge moment), we went on to Maitre Gims’ success (even bigger). They became stars. Paris is even more Africa than before.” A title which for its author has been both an observation and a statement, today as much as yesterday. In a way, it also summarizes the director’s own journey. Africa is part of Paris and France, just the same as it is part of himself. “To me, the relationship I’ve had with all these artists made me understand what it was like to be Black. You are not born Black: you become Black. Same goes for the Whites. Black people live with that; and it’s a big step when White people realize they’re white. I was lucky enough to understand this myself.”