Music and Infertility in the Nervous State

A Nervous State (ANS) is an extraordinary book. Its empirical richness is obvious – the number and variety of different sources that Hunt has drawn upon, and the attention that she has paid to all these sources. Diaries and colonial archives, Lomongo language pamphlets and school essays, photographs, epic poems and dances – all of them receive the same, patient, highly sympathetic, but also questioning, persistent, and often quietly skeptical, scrutiny. Versions of events are presented, and new vistas open up, yet this is also a judicious book where the conclusions never push beyond what the evidence will support.

Highly attentive to daydreams and to music in her research, I found that the structure of ANS also had affinities with music and with dreaming. Like a dream, ANS took out familiar cultural items, and revealed a significance to them that is hidden from the waking brain. Like most people who have spent a little time in Congo, I have been fascinated by many of the phenomena that Hunt presents here – brass bands, sterility and wealth, Yebola and Zebola, culturally sanctioned forms of madness – but it was only on reading this book that I begin to get a true sense of the extent to which these things are freighted with meaning and history. Like music, ANS has a repetitive structure that reminds one of the fugue or, more appropriately in this context, Yebola – where complex musical figures are repeated with minor variations, until the music has arrived at a different place from where it began.

Meetings on the river

As in a Colonial Lexicon, an important theme in ANS is about a conversation between two very different social configurations. In this conversation the people involved sometimes arrived at a shared ‘lexicon’. Without getting lost in terminology, we could call these configurations ‘colonial capitalist’ and ‘Equatorial African composing’ respectively. Colonial capitalism can be divided into a phase we might loosely term primitive accumulation and a later phase of more capital intensive, but also disciplinary and bio-political development. The idea of ‘composing’ here relates to a variety of social strategies seen in west and central Africa focussed on the gathering and redistribution of diverse wealth objects, and, above all, people. These people could be clients, dependents, captives, children or wives.

Neither of these configurations was discrete or static. As Hunt describes, some of the worst violence of the Free-State period came from the particular twist that colonialism, still in its primitive accumulation phase, gave to local logics of composition – local specialists in violence were encouraged and promoted via the rubber trade to acquire wives and dependents, armed and supported by the heads of trading outposts, who could also be drawn into local notions of wealth and honor. As Hunt reminds us, local notions of wealth and clientelage, but also of acceptable thresholds of violence, had already been confused and turbo-charged as they were drawn inexorably into the vortex of the expanding world market. This configuration is beautifully illustrated in the story of the Abir agent Van Calcken (46-47) who sulks like a syphilitic Achilles over the gift of a diseased woman from chief Lopombo.

Music and fertility

Nervousness about fertility was one of the places where these two social modes found their greatest shared interest, and music created many of the spaces where this shared interest was thought about, negotiated and performed. Low fertility grievously affected the material base of both these configurations, but it also struck at key parts of their legitimating ideologies. For the welfarist/utilitarian claims of the bio-power state barren women and dying villages posed a problem, but this was also true for the compositional claims of wealth in people. The powerful individual in such a configuration was considered as a fruitful bough bestowing wealth, carrying children or impregnating wives, and attracting followers (who could also become classificatory children or kin). Such wealth was also the outward manifestation of an empowering connection to the world of spirits and the dead. Music opened channels of communication with these powerful dimensions. The forms of ecstatic and cathartic madness brought on by dancing (states often somewhat reductively called ‘joy’ in late colonial spaces like the bar), invoked and realized these flows of power.

It is in spaces of music like the bar – the natural habitat of intellectuals like Lumumba or Bomboko, who makes an appearance in ANS, – that the claims of the modern state, with their bio-power like concerns about quantifying fertility and the producing goods and subjects, became something more than a simple imposition. Ideologies were domesticated and adapted by African elites. The paradox is that while the clientele of such bars was invariably the salaried African elite, who drank beer and chased after glamorous women, the press where this nascent male African intelligentsia expressed themselves was full of nervous and censorious debate about these kinds of ‘free women’ who met in bars and drank beer. The women of Equateur – ‘mwasi mongo’ and the ‘mwasi bangala’ – were considered the embodiment of this troubling license: disparaged but also deeply desired and admired for their swagger and their (often imagined) social and sexual freedom.

In what remains of this piece I am going to present three minor anecdotes that illustrate how some of the characters and themes found in ANS resonate beyond the covers of the book.

Some stories


The guitarist Bowane is one of the key protagonists of ANS’s penultimate chapter. He was the co-author of the song Marie-Louisa, the first smash hit record of Congolese popular music. Local legend has it that the song was so popular that the dead rose from their graves to dance to it. One sceptic’s version of the story has it that a group of femmes libres had been drinking beer on the tab of some soldiers in a bar in Kinshasa’s Kintambo district, which holds the main cemetery. Not wanting to repay this largesse in the manner expected, they fled the bar and headed through the cemetery, giving rise to the legend that the dead had been tempted from their graves and into the bar by the strains of Marie-Luisa.


Justin Bomboko appears in ANS as the Coquilhateville journalist. As Hunt alludes to, he went on to become one of the major politicians of the post-independence state. He became a member of the Binza group, a set of politicians, also including Mobutu, who were all originally from the north west of Congo, and who were cultivated by the CIA agent Larry Devlin. Both Devlin and the Binza group members and were key protagonists in the destabilisation of Congo’s elected government and assassination of Lumumba. Bomboko was a huge music fan, particularly associated with the popular group OK Jazz. Not unrelated to this was the fact that he was also an incredible womaniser, such that the story goes that when Mobutu was first presented by his medical advisors with the evidence for a new sexually transmitted disease called AIDS, he is reputed to have replied: ‘I won’t believe in it until Bomboko gets it.’ In fact Bomboko died only recently, old, and rich and in his bed.


Pascal was the father of a good friend of mine. Born near Basankusu he was an Ngombe, a group often seen as perpetrators of violence against the Mongo (though all of these groups should be seen as relatively contingent and recent). An educated man, arriving in Leopoldville from Coquilhateville during the Belgian colonies late flourishing, he found a job in the local tax office. From there he rose through the ranks. Bomboko, who knew Pascal from Coquilhateville, repeatedly tried to get him to take a position in the government. Pascal was scared of politics, and though he respected his Bomboko’s intelligence he also thought him a dangerous and dishonorable man.

Pascal had been a great fan of the 1970s group Negro Success and I still associate him with the band’s biggest hit, Libanga na Libumu which he would play to himself sitting in his wife’s outside bar a portable tape player. ‘Libanga na Libumu’ means ‘stone in the belly’, and it is sung from the viewpoint of a woman who has spent her time in bars and who cannot conceive.

‘…For I have drunk bottles (of beer) and I cannot give birth,

Who will carry me to the doctor?

…It is too late I will never give birth

Truly I have a stone in the belly.’

From Negro Success, Libanga na Libumu, 1970 (my translation).


Joe Trapido currently teaches in the Anthropology and Sociology Department at the School of Oriental and African Studies, with stints in Pretoria University and at Birkbeck College before that. His own work has concerned themes such as music and cultural patronage in Kinshasa and in the Congolese diaspora, delevopment and underdevelopment in the Congo, and local politics and political performance in Kinshasa. His book Breaking Rocks: Music and Ideology between Kinshasa and Paris will be published by Berghahn, as part of their dislocations series, in January of 2017. His work has been published in numerous other places includingAfrica and the New Left Review.

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