#AuxSons is a collaborative, militant and solidary web media
2_tam-tam_74-brazzaville-un-tam-tam-scene-de-la-danse-jpg-768x478 -

The elegance and the dance

On Sun­day eve­nings in the bars of Brazzaville’s Bacon­go dis­trict, Congo­lese rum­ba and Sape become one. Against the sound­scape of music playing from walls of spea­kers, mem­bers of the infor­mal Socié­té des Ambian­ceurs et de Per­sonnes Éle­gantes [Socie­ty of Ambiance-Makers and Ele­gant People] walk through the crowd with stu­died non­cha­lance, strut­ting as they show off their clothes. Meanw­hile, sin­gers and musi­cians such as Papa Wem­ba – the Kinois (resident of Kin­sha­sa) in furs – have blen­ded rum­ba with Sape. But this link is not new : in the mid-19th cen­tu­ry, imme­dia­te­ly after the return of the Euro­peans, the Congo­lese sei­zed upon and rein­ven­ted the world for­ced on them.



The frock coat, accor­dion and gramophone








Bel­gian Congo. – Ban­ga­la Boys”, post­card, cir­ca 1905. © Manuel Char­py Pri­vate Collection

Even before colo­ni­sa­tion, the king­doms of Kon­go and Loan­go were connec­ted to the Atlan­tic region through sla­ve­ry, West Afri­ca through trade and Europe through tra­ders and mis­sio­na­ries. But it was not until the 1880s – with the set­ting up of fac­to­ries and colo­nial admi­nis­tra­tions – that pow­der, cop­per, bran­dy and what are still cal­led “trade goods” (fabric, sewing machines, old clothes, accor­dions, gui­tars, etc.) arri­ved in large quan­ti­ties. These “bar­ter goods” were used to take pos­ses­sion of land, ivo­ry and rub­ber. Clo­thing qui­ck­ly became the focus of rela­tion­ships bet­ween colo­ni­sers and the colo­ni­sed. The myth of the “noble savage” over­sha­do­wed the splen­dour of the King­dom of Kon­go in such a way that clo­thing manu­fac­tu­rers saw the Congo as a mar­ket wai­ting to be conque­red[1]. The trade in fabrics and second-hand goods did indeed flou­rish, but mer­chants were sur­pri­sed to dis­co­ver that the “natives” had taste and pre­fer­red clothes made in Paris – some­times orde­red by post – to what they refer­red to as “cheap tat”.

Chris­tian mis­sio­na­ries impo­sed Euro­pean clo­thing on them to cover their bodies in a decent man­ner. Stu­dents were dres­sed in uni­forms and “Chris­tian wed­dings” were cele­bra­ted dres­sed in the Euro­pean style. Clo­thing deno­ted the bodies of those who had been conver­ted, like a flag on conque­red land. The “civi­li­sa­tion” of bodies also invol­ved the har­mo­niums and gra­mo­phones that punc­tua­ted Chris­tian life.

As clo­thing and music became poli­ti­cal and social mar­kers, local chiefs got hold of used suits, intro­du­ced the accor­dion into royal music and cove­red their tombs with umbrel­las and hats [2].

From the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry, these “chefs de paco­tille” (tacky chiefs) or “chef d’o­pé­rettes” (ope­ret­ta chiefs) were mocked and “savages” cari­ca­tu­red in frock coats and top hats with bare legs and feet. Sar­casm also focus­sed on the “nasal melo­dy” of the accor­dion and the “caco­pho­ny” of reli­gious and mili­ta­ry fan­fares. For Euro­peans, the natives clum­si­ly “aped the colonisers.


Danses à la cité indi­gène” [Dances in the indi­ge­nous city], 3 Decem­ber, 1922, pho­to­gra­phed by a set­tler in Eli­sa­be­th­ville (now Lubum­ba­shi, Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic of Congo). © Manuel Char­py Pri­vate Collection


But from the 1900s onwards doubts began to set in. The colo­nial powers were wor­ried about these defiant­ly ele­gant hou­se­boys, wor­kers and admi­nis­tra­tive employees. White shoes, pana­ma hats or colo­nial hel­mets, waist­coats and pin­ned ties became sub­ver­sive. Were these “negroes” bet­ter dres­sed than the set­tlers ? Refi­ne­ments and melo­dies threa­te­ned to under­mine the hie­rar­chies and foun­da­tions of colo­ni­sa­tion, espe­cial­ly as male bodies were at the centre of the poli­ti­cal game. In neigh­bou­ring Ango­la, car­ni­vals at which people dres­sed up as Por­tu­guese set­tlers were ban­ned. The “natives” also mani­fes­ted their refu­sal to be a colo­nial labour force in this way. In Tin­tin in the Congo (1931), the rea­der can only laugh at the Congo­lese man wea­ring a boa­ter, cuffs and tie, who refuses to work for fear of get­ting dirty.

The police scru­ti­ni­sed these dan­dies, espe­cial­ly as they see­med to have joi­ned forces with the anti-colo­nia­lists, inclu­ding Matsoua’s spoof Socié­té de l’É­toile des Savoyards de Braz­za [Socie­ty of the Savoyards Star of Braz­za]. The inves­ti­ga­tors stres­sed “the atti­tude taken by a cer­tain cate­go­ry of natives in their imme­diate rela­tions with Euro­peans : no exter­nal defe­rence to the agents repre­sen­ting autho­ri­ty, and […] a kind of per­pe­tual snee­ring from the wor­kers”. There was concern about the influence of anti-colo­nia­list ideas on “this sort of elite […], of which there are many who live lar­ge­ly in Braz­za­ville, imi­ta­ting our ways as clo­se­ly as they can, dres­sing richly if not with ele­gance, [using] the rarest if not the most appro­priate terms”. As well as wor­ry about these brains that func­tio­ned like “gra­mo­phone records[3]. The admi­nis­tra­tions were so ill-at-ease that they tried to pro­mote the most “advan­ced” natives to assist them, ins­til­ling them “good man­ners” when it came to dres­sing and mas­te­ry of the French language.

By the 1920s, this “elite” of admi­nis­tra­tive employees, hou­se­boys and “lite­rate unem­ployed” were orga­ni­sing them­selves in clubs around fashion and music. Encou­ra­ged ini­tial­ly by the admi­nis­tra­tions, they became more com­mon in Braz­za­ville in the 1950s and 60s : the “Exis­tos [Exis­ten­tia­lists]”, “Les élé­gants inéga­lables [The incom­pa­rable dan­dies]”, “Simple et bien [Simple and good]”, “Club des Six [Club of Six]”, etc. Each club had its own codes, but eve­ryone would dress in rea­dy-to-wear to dis­tin­guish them­selves from the popu­la­tion dres­sed by local tai­lors. They exchan­ged clothes so they would not have to wear the same thing twice and tal­ked about fashion.

Séve­rin Mouyen­go para­ding in Bacon­go, ear­ly 1970s. © Séve­rin Mouyen­go Pri­vate Archives / Digi­ti­sed by Manuel Charpy


From the 1900s, young people gathe­red in “tam-tams”, to use the colo­nial term, to dance to the sound of per­cus­sion ins­tru­ments, accor­dions and gui­tars. In the 1920s, the fashio­nable dance, the agbaya[4], was per­for­med in a circle to show off dan­cers’ clo­thing – like the “danse des griffes” [lite­ral­ly, “logo dance”] of today’s Sapeurs. But as ear­ly as 1904, the admi­nis­tra­tion ban­ned these gathe­rings except on Satur­days. The segre­ga­tion of Braz­za­ville and Leo­pold­ville into “indi­ge­nous cities” and Euro­pean neigh­bou­rhoods sol­ved the issue by ban­ning the mixing of popu­la­tions in the eve­ning[5]. From then on, fashion and music min­gled in Poto-Poto, Bacon­go and Matonge eve­ry Sunday.


Sim­me­ring under the surface

Des­pite dis­cri­mi­na­tion and cur­fews, both cities tee­med with inter­na­tio­nal influences during the 1920s. Goods would come from all over the world : wax cot­ton from The Nether­lands and Man­ches­ter, rea­dy-made and used clothes from Paris, hel­mets from Mar­seille, shoes from Japan… Tai­lors were known as “Fayettes” because they copied depart­ment store cata­logues, from Gale­ries Lafayette in par­ti­cu­lar, and fashion maga­zines. Paris fashion was “exas­pe­ra­ted” by the dandies.

Dance clubs run by Greeks and Por­tu­guese, at the mar­gins of power, made resi­dents boo­gie, along­side retur­ning infan­try­men, Euro­peans pas­sing through and West Afri­can wor­kers, among others. People would strut in fine dress to the rum­ba. Rum­ba was fin­ding its way back – having been car­ried away by the Kon­go slaves – from the Carib­bean through West Indian sol­diers sta­tio­ned in Braz­za­ville, bands per­for­ming on both banks and records. In the 1930s, it was lis­te­ned to along­side the Char­les­ton at colo­nial fes­ti­vals – street mar­kets, beau­ty pageants, Bas­tille Day cele­bra­tions, races – much to the dis­may of the reli­gious autho­ri­ties[6]. The locals played marin­ga and palm-wine music – ori­gi­nal­ly from Gha­na, remixed with gui­tars brought by West Afri­can wor­kers and, increa­sin­gly, rum­ba. As gra­mo­phones were eve­ryw­here, 78s made this music popu­lar. The dan­dies’ sound­track was a mix­ture of tra­di­tio­nal music played with Euro­pean ins­tru­ments, reli­gious choirs and music from the Carib­bean. The Sapeurs made this way of mixing cultures, inclu­ding colo­nial ones, their own. Was there a touch of iro­ny when the “Gal­lo-Roman” club foun­ded in the 1970s announ­ced : “Come and taste Spa­nish rice, Bra­zi­lian “brede”, English chi­cken, French cas­sou­let, Dutch ome­lette and Ita­lian spa­ghet­ti. Wes­ton shoes requi­red”? And conti­nued : “For more than 400 years, the Gauls imi­ta­ted the Romans. They got used to their way of living and lear­ned their Latin lan­guage. Gra­dual­ly, you could no lon­ger tell the dif­fe­rence bet­ween them and the inha­bi­tants of Gaul were all cal­led Gal­lo Romans.” [7] Mel­ting pots can be subversive.



Down with the suit !

The Logo Dance by Bache­lor © Pho­to Pablo Gran-Mour­cel, Kevin NGom­sik, Manuel Charpy


It should be said that as far as Sape was concer­ned, inde­pen­dence did not herald a gol­den age. The suc­cess of rum­ba came from the fact it was both dan­ced and played by those who were well dres­sed, Roche­reau or T.P. OK. Jazz, for example. But Sape was not as poli­ti­cal­ly mal­leable as rum­ba. Untou­chable in its popu­la­ri­ty, it lived through suc­ces­sive regimes seam­less­ly. In Braz­za­ville, the foun­ding of Radio Braz­za­ville by De Gaulle in 1940 pro­mo­ted its spread. It was­ted no time beco­ming the music of inde­pen­dence then that of eve­ry regime, from N’Goua­bi – of Soviet-Cuban ins­pi­ra­tion -, the com­mu­nist Sas­sou N’Gues­so to Mobu­tu, the herald of “authen­ti­ci­ty”. It glo­ri­fied the achie­ve­ments of power just as it did haute cou­ture brands.

On the other hand, Sape was seen as a ser­vile imi­ta­tion of the for­mer colo­ni­sers. In Braz­za­ville, after the fall of dic­ta­tor Dior Ful­bert You­lou in 1963, the new single-par­ty regime led a Chi­nese-style revo­lu­tion. The Youth of the Natio­nal Revo­lu­tion Move­ment came to blows with the Sapeurs, rip­ping their clothes, and they were “reha­bi­li­ta­ted” in the coun­try­side by the regime. On the oppo­site bank of the river, Mobutu’s “Zai­rea­ni­sa­tion”,   laun­ched in 1971, went after the Wes­tern suit, repla­ced by the “aba­cost” (from the French “À bas le cos­tume” [Down with the suit]), a kind of short-slee­ved Mao jacket.


Bache­lor (Joce­lyn Armel) out one eve­ning in Paris, 1970s. © Joce­lyn Armel archives / Digi­ti­sed by Manuel Charpy


While young people in Europe and the Uni­ted States abhor­red the suit and tie, it became a sign of dis­tinc­tion and dissent in both Congos. Sape’s migra­tion to Brus­sels and espe­cial­ly Paris, a fashion pil­gri­mage, was the­re­fore unders­tan­dable. But in the eyes of these socie­ties, immi­grants were a work­force that was sup­po­sed to save money and be dis­creet. But Sapeurs lay claim to their refu­sal to be assi­gned to phy­si­cal work through their ele­gance, rejec­ting savings made by wor­kers and making them­selves visible in the public space.

By diges­ting exo­tic cultures, the Congo rein­ven­ted rum­ba and Sape, two long-stan­ding pro­ducts that have nothing to do with sub­cul­tures, in turn expor­ted all over the world.



[1] Des­cri­bed by Charles Lemaire, Au Congo : com­ment les noirs tra­vaillent [In the Congo : how Blacks work], Paris, Bulens, 1895, p. 104.

[2] Alexis-Marie Gochet, Le Congo fran­çais illus­tré : géo­gra­phie, eth­no­gra­phie et voyages [The French Congo Illus­tra­ted : Geo­gra­phy, Eth­no­gra­phy and Tra­vels], Paris, Pro­cure Géné­rale, 1892 and 28 années au Congo : lettres de Mgr Augouard  [28 years in the Congo : let­ters from Mgr Augouard], Poi­tiers, Augouard, 1905.

[3] Natio­nal Over­seas Archives, Police Report, Braz­za­ville, 1930.

[4] See the semi­nal book by Phyl­lis Mar­tin, Les loi­sirs et la socié­té à Braz­za­ville pen­dant l’ère colo­niale [Lei­sure and Socie­ty in Braz­za­ville during the Colo­nial Era], Paris, Kar­tha­la, 2006, p. 177 et sq.

[5] See Georges Balan­dier, Socio­lo­gie des Braz­za­villes noires [Socio­lo­gy of Black Braz­za­villes], Paris, Armand Colin, 1955.

[6] L’É­toile de l’AEF, [The Star of the AEF], Decem­ber 1933. This music is des­cri­bed as “blues” by the commentator.

[7] Invite card col­lec­ted by the socio­lo­gist Jus­tin-Daniel Gan­dou­lou ; see his essen­tial inves­ti­ga­tion : Entre Paris et Bacon­go [Bet­ween Paris and Bacon­go], Paris, CCI / Georges Pom­pi­dou Centre, 1984.

Manuel Charpy


Manuel Charpy



Manuel Charpy is a researcher at the CNRS. Holder of an “agrégation” in fine arts and a PhD in history, his research focuses on the world of objects and images and their role in constructing social identities in Europe, the United States and West and Central Africa. His studies focus on the history of the material culture of the Parisian bourgeoisie, the history of the uses of portraiture, the history of advertising, the history of everyday technology, and the history of clothing and fashion, including the trade and consumption of second-hand clothing, industrial clothing and clothing in colonial situations, particularly in Central Africa. In 2015, alongside Patrice Verdière, he founded Modes pratiques, revue d’histoire du vêtement et de la mode [Modes Pratiques, a history of clothing and fashion]. He teaches history in universities and fine art schools and is a director of the InVisu laboratory (CNRS / INHA).

Publications: https://invisu.cnrs.fr/page-personnelle-manuel-charpy/

Please choose how you want to receive news from our online media platform #AuxSons by Zone Franche
You can use the unsubscribe link included in the newsletter at any time. Learn more about managing your data and your rights.