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White, Bob W.: Rumba rules: The politics of dance music in Mobutu's Zaire.

White, Bob W. Rumba rules: The politics of dance music in Mobutu's Zaire. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. 300 pp.

Rumba rules: The politics of dance music in Mobutu's Zaire, is a smoothly written book that describes popular culture, specifically popular dance music, as a political barometer. In eight, absorbing, virtually jargon free chapters White (2008), reflects on the role that popular dance music holds within ethnic communities, a role that reflects past and present history, carrying political messages fluctuating between the conservative and militant. Defined as "culturally patterned beliefs and practices that inform the way that power is sought after, yielded, and understood" (p. 15), popular culture has the ability to carry convincing or dissuasive political messages to the listener. When we listen to the lyrics of popular music, what message do they carry? Are the words supportive of a government that is corrupt, embezzling and oppressing the nation, and following in the footsteps of a colonial past that it swore to replace, or do the words imply a popular resistance to a government that has betrayed and abandoned its people? Is popular dance music acting as an accomplice to a corrupt government based on a relationship of reciprocity between political leader and band leader? White considers the question, "how did things get so out of control in Mobutu's Zaire?" within a specific period, 1990-1996, by describing how popular dance music and politics collaborated "to reinforce a uniquely modern tradition of authoritarian rule [1965-1997]" (p. 249). A rule which began with a seizure of power supported by Belgium and the United States.

Formally known as the Belgium Congo, Mobutu's Republic of Zaire advocated Mobutism, rhetorically translated as nationalism, revolution, and authenticity, language through which economic and political independence would be achieved, and capitalism and communism would be supplanted. Instead, what Mobutism came to stand for was corruption and injustice. White analysis gives credit to Zairian popular dance music, in particular to the practice of libanga, praise singing and immortalizing of businessmen and politicians, as contributing to the uneasy support of Mobutu's big man leadership.

Rumba rules: The politics of dance music in Mobutu's Zaire, makes it clear that popular and political culture has propped each other "through tangible relations of clientelism and praise but also through a common idiom of big man-style leadership" (p. 15); a style present in both the government and the music bands. Based on this, White asks if "popular dance music can reveal something new about politics in Mobutu's Zaire?" (p. 15), and proceeds to respond to the many factors embedded in this question. Beginning with chapter one, he outlines the theoretical concepts that underline the study and goes on to provide an overview of musical genres practiced in Kinshasa, Zaire while describing the relationship between political economy, popular dance music club performances, and live music concerts in Kinshasa. As the chapters progress the factor of upward mobility and the role of the lyric for musicians and singers within a popular dance music context emerges. Musical group organizations and the hierarchies of the groups themselves, often mimicking Zairian political hierarchies, appear as a representation of" a skewed version of local ideas about musical and political leadership" (p. 26).

Most outstanding in Rumba rules: The politics of dance music in Mobutu's Zaire, is the idea of political leadership and its reciprocity with social entities that present the chief, or bon chef, in a good light; similar to the political propaganda surrounding Mao Tse Tung during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. White considers how one style of political leadership--that of the witch and not the chief--came to dominate political and social life during post colonial era. Including the term witch is provocative as it points to the acquisition of power through witchcraft, "the implication being that wealth or social status not earned through more noble means is unsustainable and most likely tainted by the ills of illegality or, worse, of witchcraft" (p. 136). Interestingly this opinion is popularly voiced about both popular musicians and Mobutu. The connection between the bon chef, leader, witch, and the band leader, is apt, as in Zaire both the music scene and the political area constitute privileged spaces, grasped at as a means of economic survival and social mobility. In this context Mobutu's ability to misrule for decades, reminds the reader of the complex relationship between the legitimacy of chiefs, tradition, and socio political interaction. In this sense, it is the message embedded in popular dance music that is key because libanga coupled with fear and the need to survive have encouraged Mobutism and the traditional cultural practice of African chieftaincy--a practice controlled during colonialism, but once again central in the African political hierarchy, and at the center of controversy (Barbara Oomen, 2005).

Since independence, the development of popular dance music in Kinshasa, more musically dynamic than its neighbor Brazzaville, has acted as a mediating force between urban youth, the ruling elite, and survival. In an economically strapped Zaire, urban youth seek economic advantage by relying on a complex politico- economic system consisting of clientage, authoritarian rule, and elite circles that rely on music to establish legitimacy. "Outside of politics and (to a lesser extent) education, popular dance music would become one of the few paths to upward social mobility for young people in Kinshasa, and this proved important as participation in political life became increasingly subjected to the whims of those in power" (White, 2008, p.24). This statement synthesizes the predicament of youth quite well. Mobutism was protectively wrapped by reciprocal practices, with popular dance music a key element in maintaining one man rule.

White has written a very readable book that appeals to a wide audience of readers interested in the intertwining of popular culture and politics. His use of interviews with musicians and photo captions of band leaders at performances, makes it possible to view performances at clubs or in concert settings on YouTube, giving the reader a better sense of the music, its power and its milieu, bringing one to the scene. Popular dance music lyrics can point the finger at historical heroes and culprits, devastation and benevolence, at resistance or cooption. Popular dance music can tell us how safe we feel in our communities.


Oomen, Barbara. Chiefs in South Africa: Law, power and culture in the Post-Apartheid era. Oxford: James Curry, 2005.

Yoly Zentella

Walden University
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Author:Zentella, Yoly
Publication:Journal of Third World Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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