Joseph Trapido: Music, ritual, and capitalism in west central African history

There was a strong relationship between music and political-economic power in the precolonial Congo basin. This was because music was an integral part of a ritual nexus that dominated social life. Those who controlled the ritual nexus became rich and powerful, and controlled trade between locals and an expanding capitalism (MacGaffey 2000). Here I will show how music was important to this interface.

This essay draws most heavily on sources relating to the populations who lived in the lower Congo region, that is, between the mouth of the Congo River on the west central African coast and the Malebo Pool (the area now occupied by the cities of Kinshasa and Brazzaville). This focus is due to a relative abundance of sources and of historical and ethnographic writing about this subregion. Jan Vansina (1990) argued that there was a wider civilizational unity among the precolonial peoples of the Congo basin, and ethnographies of the wider region also point to this conclusion. For this reason I believe that what I describe here is indicative of a more general relationship between music, political-economic power, and capitalism in precolonial central Africa.

Early modern connections
In the late fifteenth century the Portuguese formed an alliance with the Kongo1 polity, whose center, Mbanza Kongo, was in modern-day northern Angola in the aforementioned lower Congo region. In this area European trade goods became important in social distinction quite quickly, but initially the Portuguese seem to have found the Kongolese disappointingly short of the valuables that they wished to obtain in return. All this changed with the takeoff of the slave-based plantation economies, initially in Sao Tome and subsequently in the New World. Between the central African “big men” and European slavers, a common interest grew up.

The region was brought into an emerging Atlantic world and participated in the kinds of intensifying, long-distance exchanges that are some of the hallmarks of modernity. And this was not about trade alone. The Manikongo—some kind of king or paramount—was recognized by the pope as “God’s anointed ruler” in the land, while the Kongo nobility proclaimed a strong, if unorthodox, attachment to Catholicism. Later on the Dutch presented the Manikongo with Calvinist texts translated into Portuguese in an unsuccessful attempt to convert the kingdom to “true religion” (Hilton 1987: 155–156). While in many respects they seem modern, and were certainly very commercially minded, it is debatable if the merchants on either side of the trade were capitalists.

Of course much depends on how we define capitalism, and we could fill a much longer article debating just this point (Anderson 2005: 232–76; Brenner 1987; Kalb 2013). For the purposes of this essay I will simply say that I do regard capitalism as in some sense distinct from the various commercial civilizations that preceded it. While during the sixteenthand seventeenth centuries both the Portuguese and central Africans were well acquainted with money and commercial motivations, neither side made a strong connection between money capital and production. Commercial interests on both sides sought to profit not by producing more goods with lower overheads but by “buying cheap and selling dear.” And on both sides a noble class dominated commerce through the dispensation of trading monopolies, enmeshed in ritual proscription (Thornton 1981).

For various reasons this became less the case in Europe—by the eighteenth century many of the merchants trading with central Africa were themselves unequivocally capitalist—but was particularly the case with the British merchants, who took up a larger share of the trade around this time.2 Considerations of ritual or prestige did not disappear, but surpluses generated in the eighteenth-century slave and sugar industries were increasingly reinvested in capitalist agriculture or even in early factories (Blackburn 1996: 509–573). Within central Africa, the trade also generated great political-economic change. In this context there was a decline in the influence of Kongo, and a number of other polities emerged or were strengthened, which were perhaps more structured around their role as intermediaries with the slavers at the coast or with the Portuguese enclave in Luanda. But despite the turmoil that the Congo basin underwent, the ritual economy was not in its essential aspects undermined. Here investment in the ritual nexus, rather than production of surplus for the market, remained the key to socioeconomic power.

The ritual nexus
Through the manifold social changes that affected the region, there seems to have been an underlying theme. Interlinked local oligarchies sat at the top of a social structure that was locally conceptualized in terms of relative seniority. The lower orders were permanent juniors, while eldership could be bestowed young on the favored few. Ethnographic materials gathered by the missionary ethnographer Laman, recording the world of the late nineteenth century, show a constant stream of ritual payments—for marriage, for funerals, and for ascension to titles (Laman 1953–1968). Important among the forms of wealth used in such payments were goods obtained from the coast—textiles, gunpowder, porcelain, and many other items. Kinship and cult organizations were very important in securing and maintaining access to the coastal trade, and maintaining these kin or cult links was not at all cheap. Payment for inevitable ritual expenses required wealth, and a slave was, invariably, an individual who had failed to meet such payments. A chief was effectively anyone who could afford to pay for the rituals involved in obtaining status and, like most social systems, this was self-reenforcing. Once a position of dominance as an elder or a “chief” (mfumu) was achieved, one could count on coercing the labor of social juniors who needed protection against fines. Elders could also deploy the labor and the offspring of slaves. Slaves could be sold or used as payment for or sacrificed in the more important rituals, above all funerals (MacGaffey 1986: 33).

Social position and the dead
Intertwined with, and essential to, all of this was an ideology that linked social position to the otherworld of the dead and “elders,” who were effectively ancestors who had yet to die. Elders were seen as receptacles for metaphysical powers obtained from the land of the dead, and, whatever else they did, the various rituals served to restate the connection between the powers that be and the legitimating otherworld.

Music appears time and again in the accounts of the ritual nexus, and we can understand some of its particular importance when we see that it was not simply an incidental accompaniment but was itself seen as the link between the worlds of the living and the dead. Musical instruments were believed to be the voices of the dead (MacGaffey 2000: 88), spirit possession brought on by dancing indicated the presence of the legitimating dead, special drums could awake the vengeful dead, and so forth.

Music also had a formal, performative function: various socially advantageous rituals were simply incomplete without costly musical performances, and such performances were themselves hemmed in with costly ritual proscriptions. In one example, execution required the beating of a special drum. Building the drum required the payment of a pig and a slave to the artisan, and the drum was to be played all night before the execution. Other drums were beaten for certain court cases, or for the taking of the poison ordeal, or to announce the arrival of particular slaves, for war, or for certain kinds of divination (MacGaffey 2002). A particular case relates to the making and use of nkisi. Nkisi were (and are) ritual objects, said to house the spirits of powerful dead. Public nkisi (often the famous nail fetishes housed in European museums) were known as nkondi. In some places nkondi mediated relations between clans, especially with relationship to the commercial nexus—with treaties of safe passage “guaranteed” by the vengeful spirit housed in the statue. “Awakening” and instigating nkisi were key to many therapeutic and political/legal events. The awakening or provoking into action of an nkisi could involve gunpowder or hammering nails into its “body,” but it also involved music. Isak Nsemi (in Janzen and MacGaffey 1974: 37), for example, lists many nkisi that required the playing of special drums to “awake them.” Musical instruments were themselves often also nkisi, and the ringing of bells worn by hunting dogs—ngenge—were deeply implicated in a series of metaphors that interlinked the hunt, the forest, the finding of witches, and the land of dead (see Janzen 1982: 220).

Musical performances could establish a connection between individuals and titles and/or mythical narratives, generally involving ancestors and the dead. These narratives were both legitimating and commercially important. Both acquired titles, and clan praise names would be played on various speaking instruments, which would reproduce the tonality of the name. Various drums and bells could perform this function, but a notable example is the twin-headed clapperless bell, or ngongi. This bell, which is found over a very wide area in Africa, became an insignia of politically important individuals and shows the close relationship between music, naming, and authority (Vansina 1969).

Clan names were closely linked to praise singing and sung or spoken narratives about the migration that the clan had supposedly taken from the land of the dead. Such narratives always tracked a migration from a real or imagined site of political authority, mentioning real places along the way. Thus, the Lunda, who are now found in many parts of Congo, Angola, and Zambia, always trace their migration from the Kula River in Katanga (a province of the Democratic Republic of Congo). Likewise, many Luba myths claim to have emerged from Lake Upemba, also in Katanga (water is often associated with the land of the dead). Clearly the historical accuracy of such routes was highly open to manipulation, and the tendency in these stories was for the route of the ancestors to be used to associate the clan with powerful allies in the present. Thus, on the lower Congo, supposed historical migrations from the land of the dead were invariably similar to the most desirable commercial routes to the coast in the present. In this way the migration myth, entwined with naming practices and the praise-singing tradition, established “kinship” with those who could grant safe passage in the here and now on the journey to gather politically empowering trade goods (MacGaffey 2000: 75).

A wider association between music, the legitimating dead, and authority could instill a felt connection between the commissioner of the music and these forces. As mentioned, musical instruments were said to be the voices of the dead (Janzen and MacGaffey 1974: 38), and funerals would (and still do) include dancing through the night. More generally, there is a strong connection between musical performance and the night. The night was itself a powerful metaphysical space—in local cosmology night is daytime for the dead, part of a wider conception of the otherworld where the barren are fertile, children are old men, and so forth (e.g., MacGaffey 1986: 49 or De Boeck 2004: 251).

Clearly the overlap between these two signifiers—music and the night—strengthened the ideological power of performance. Nighttime music and dancing often involved forms of culturally sanctioned “madness,” ecstasy, and trance states believed to be possession by the dead. In this way music constituted the site of transcendence and was the accepted way of bringing together visible and invisible worlds. Most obvious of all, perhaps—the aforementioned cost of musical instruments and of hiring musical troupes, as well as the association between musical performance and the wild dispersal of imported goods at various exchange rituals—established a connection, at both material and ideological levels, between music and political-economic power and perhaps also between music and the power of the outside. Such links between music and power would have been part of a complex ideology—by which central Africans “knew” music to be a dimension of wealth and authority, linked to and existing alongside the dispersal of trade goods.

Thus, one can say that historically music was important in the central African relationship with European commercial civilizations and, later, with capitalism. At the same time the relationship that music mediated was not really one of absorption by capitalist social relations, or at least not until well into the colonial period. Precisely those forms of behavior that seem most inimical to the development of indigenous forms of capitalism—costly ritual dispersal, ornate and involute systems of ritual fines, dancing through the night for days on end, the export of labor—seem to have undergone a kind of escalation exactly at the nodes in the commercial network. In this way music both facilitated and acted as a barrier to capitalism in the region. I think this incompatibility was in some sense appreciated by the colonial powers.

Music and the modern state
One of the acts of early French and Belgian urban regulation in central Africa was to restrict the funeral wake, or matanga. It is clear that one of the major reasons for this was that the matanga involved loud feasting, music making, and dispersal that went on for many nights on end, and as such was disturbing to the sleep of the European population and totally inimical to inculcating forms of capitalist time discipline in the African population (Martin 1995: 142). Another reason was surely that the healing cults, which were often linked to this funeral dancing, also pointed to forms of social support and organization that eluded the “civilizing mission” of the colonial state. In particular they were seen as a threat to the European churches, on which much of the state’s welfare function was devolved.

From the 1930s the bar came to replace the matanga as the key site for music making, and political authority seems to have migrated with it. Patrice Lumumba, the first elected prime minister of Congo, originally worked as a sales representative for a beer company and spent most of his time in the bars of Leopoldville, the town that would become Kinshasa. In this way he became closely associated with Joseph Kabasele, leader of the band African Jazz and the first great star of modern Congolese music. Lumumba campaigned from the back of his car. Mobutu Sese Seko and his key ally Justin Bomboko, both of whom the CIA supported in order to destabilize Lumumba and whom it helped to power after Lumumba’s assassination, were strongly associated with African Jazz’s great rivals OK Jazz.

During the 1970s the Mobutu regime encouraged various forms of neotraditional musical practice. Over time this involved fifteen minutes of neotraditional singing and dancing in praise of Mobutu in all schools and workplaces. As the industrial enclaves that had financed the postcolonial state declined, and eventually collapsed, authority came to be more diffuse and reliant on decentralized forms of clientelism. These evolving forms of musical and kinetic performance, which generally clustered around a “big man” as a source of largesse, provided a medium for this political-economic transition. In this way music became part of a kind of disaccumulation that happened in the late twentieth century Congo-Zaire, where economic collapse was manifested in a series of social changes that seemed to point away from capitalism, where small units like the prayer group or the diamond mining crew made a precarious living, while being dependent on the patronage of well-connected “elders.”

Something of the nature of these relationships can be seen in the recent pop song “Associé” by local star Fally Ipupa, which is dedicated to the diamond dealer Tshatsho Mbala. Tshatsho’s success in diamond dealing came originally from his close relationship with Jonas Savimbi, the violent leader of the US-backed UNITA rebels in Angola:

L’empereur Tshatsho Mbala Kashoggi
Ba diamants ebele!
Lokola pare-brise arrière ya car epanzana.
Opesa pe bolingo te?

The Emperor Tshatsho Mbala Kashoggi
(You have) many diamonds!
It is as if the rear window of a car had shattered.
Won’t you give some love?

(Ipupa 2006, my translation)

Joseph Trapido earned a PhD in Social Anthropology at University College London. After this he undertook a two-year fellowship at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. He is currently British Academy postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His research is about the Democratic Republic of Congo.

1. Kongo with a “K” refers to a specific language and to the peoples who speak this language who live in Angola, the Democratic Republic Congo, Congo Brazzaville, and Gabon. It also refers to the early modern kingdom that occupied an area of northern Angola, DRC, and Congo Brazzaville. When speaking of the modern states, which include a great many non-Kongo peoples, and of the river, it is conventional to use a “C.”

2. Even for the Portuguese trade, the Lisbon merchants who made most of the profit here relied ever more heavily on sourcing goods produced in England (Miller 1984).

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Cite as: Trapido, Joseph. 2015. “Music, ritual and capitalism in west central African history,” FocaalBlog, April 15,