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Published 03 September 2012 06:30, Updated 04 September 2012 05:08
If you like African music, the chances are you’ll know something from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Congolese music dominates African music in the way that Hollywood dominates movies. Music from “The Land of a Thousand Dances” is listened to by people across the continent. It has done that in part by its ability to evolve in a manner that many businesses would do well to emulate.
One of these is tinned fruit maker SPC Ardmona. But more about that shortly.
Modern Cuban music found its way to the Congo in the hands of African soldiers who’d fought with French forces in World War II, says Richard Nwamba, a Johannesburg-based music commentator and music show host and former media colleague of mine. Of course, it was hardly foreign to them. As Nwamba notes, the Cuban word “Rumba” came from the word nkumba, meaning “waist” – referring to dances in which a couple holds each other’s waist – in the kiKongo language that is spoken in Angola, DRC and neighbouring Republic of Congo. Many of the black slaves taken to Cuba were from the Congo region, after all, Nwamba says in a speech titled The Concise History of Congolese Music.
At first, Congolese musicians replicated this music, singing in broken Spanish. Gradually, however, musicians started to sing in local languages. The best-known of these artists was Lokanga La Ndju Pene Luambo Makiadi – better known as “Franco” – who recorded more than 1000 songs, some of them mega hits such as Mario .
The music changed with a crop of younger musicians who thought the Congo-inspired music was too slow, too languid. In 1969, Zaiko Langa Langa was born, a band that symbolised the change to a more modern sound, with less reliance on brass instruments.
Congolese music came to European ears in the late 1970s and 80s, when a foundering economy in Zaire (as it was renamed by then) pushed many of the country’s best musicians to Europe. The music went through another change as a new audience that didn’t understand the lyrics wanted music they could dance to. Songs such as Reddy Amisi’s Likombe Pasi gave them what they wanted.
Technology further changed the genre, when satellite television brought American Hip Hop to audiences back in Africa. Rather than rapping solely in English, French and Portuguese as Hip Hop acts across the continent did, many Congolese artists took American styles on board while sticking to their local language, Lingala. Awilo Longomba, for example, raps in both Lingala and French in Coupé Bibamba , one of the biggest late ’90s hits across Africa.
And in 2010, Fally Ipupa won best video at the MTV Africa Music Awards for his hit Sexy Dance .
The past 70 years of Congolese music show the power of a genre of music to adapt itself to new audiences and technology as circumstances dictate. As Nwamba notes: “The staying power of this music lies in its ability to assimilate while retaining core elements of its Congolese roots.”
If you think of music as a product to be consumed, for the joy of audiences and to the profit of the musicians concerned, the Congolese have proven masters at that. It’s a lesson many commercial ventures still have to learn.
On the sidelines of a conference on the Asian Century in May, SPC Ardmona managing director Vince Pinneri told me Asian sales made up just “1 or 2 per cent” of the company’s total. This low level may have a lot to do with the fact that SPC Ardmona, owned by Coca-Cola Amatil since 2005, up until now has been selling its traditional Australian fare of peaches, pears and apricots in Asia even though, as Pinneri admitted, these are not popular varieties of fruit in Asia.
“Deciduous fruit is not the number one fruit variety that Asians eat,” he said. “It’s tropical, so if we’re going to be in the fruit category in, say, Singapore, you have to sell tropical fruit. We’re taking a complete relook at what we do there and how we do it. We hope to formulate a new strategy within the back end of this year to determine where we go, how we go.”
For a business that started in 1918 as the Shepparton Preserving Company, you wonder why it has taken until now to realise that they need to offer what consumers want.
SPC Ardmona clearly has not been following Congolese music. If it had, the company may have a different song of their own to sing in the Asian Century. And they might even be dancing.