Purple Magazine
— Travel F/W 2014 issue 1

Carsten Höller in Kinshasa _ Democratic Republic of the Congo

text by CARSTEN HÖLLER
photography by PIERRE BJÖRK

 

I’m on the plane to Kinshasa with four Europeans, none of whom has ever been to sub-Saharan Africa before. N’Djili Airport has been poshed up since I was there last, in 2011. To my disappointment, the little tourist information kiosk, where all they had was one postcard with some lounging bonobos, has disappeared. Same for the chair that was screwed to a wall because it lacked hind legs. We say hello to Papa Wemba in the lounge — our father of the rumba, Notre Père Rumba, as one of his albums is called. He came on the same Air France flight as us. There used to be huge crowds outside the airport when he came back from Europe, but not anymore.

We head straight to Zamba Playa, where Werrason is playing in front of a few hundred people. The five-lane highway to the city is brand new. It’s Chinese, but well done. They give us plastic chairs, placed in front of the stage, first row. Of course, no other whities. I wonder how my co-continentals feel about that. Finally, Primus. Werrason addresses the crowd, asking which of the two versions of the same song they like better. This is Congolese democracy. Madness. At the parliament, he says, “People, sit down,” to cool down the frenetically excited. He’s the only musician I’ve ever seen trying to calm down his public.

More Primus. Bellou drinks Turbo King, which is a strong dark beer. He’s our “cultural manager,” as he puts it. He is with Carlos, our driver and LeBrun and Maître Bola, who are here for our security. The music promoter Steve — with whom I organized Werrason (2004) and Koffi Olomidé (2005) concerts in Stockholm — also shows up. I am with Elin, George, Giovanna, and Pierre, and even at 11 PM, it’s very hot indeed.

Bercy Muana, the animateur with a third eye tattooed on his forehead, jumps and shouts like a psychotic wildebeest. Werrason is still trying to appease, but by now this seems more like an attitude, and he smiles. I am told that Bercy, whom they call “Goosebumps,” is coming from Ferre Gola. They call Werrason “King of the Forest.” And they call Bellou “Hakuna Matata” and “The Banker From Paris.” We finally make it to Chez Ntemba, my favorite nightclub in the world. The Primus is like machine oil. We all get dédicaces — shout-outs — from DJ Frank. No extra names for us, though. Over the years, Carlos has called me “Mopao,” but that’s an exaggeration because it means “big boss.” Koffi Olomidé is called that. My four fellow travelers have already lost all connection to spaceship Europe.

We are here to work on a book about a film that has not yet been made. Maybe it never will be, like an endless project, or like Synecdoche, New York, with Philip Seymour Hoffmann. The book can be the script for the film. Elin will write the text. George is the cutter. Giovanna is the editor and photographer. Pierre is the photographer; I told him I want old-style paparazzi pictures, with the camera in one hand and the flash in the other. That’s why we are here: they need to see and hear this.

Air France lost all of our luggage except Giovanna’s, and we are bushifying rapidly. Our bags will arrive with the next flight, on Sunday, and that’s a long time if you arrive on a Wednesday. Especially in Kinshasa, where people dress up so much. They have their sapeurs, a word that comes from SAPE — Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes [Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People]a real cult of the eccentric dandy. High-end Japanese fashion is the top, sometimes worn inside out. It started as a protest against Mobutu’s Zairization, when Western clothes were banned. Forbidden to wear a suit and tie, they wear Yamamoto instead. I buy some underwear from an Italian lady who has a shop selling underwear and toys, strangely. She tells Giovanna, in Italian, that she has been here for 30 years, that she came for love, which is over now, “è la vita.”

The filmmaker Måns Månsson and I have a good title for the film, Fara Fara, which is what they call a sound clash between two big music acts. I also have a few rolls of exposed celluloid from the camera tests we did in 2008. Måns is doing this film with me. He’s a proper director. Hoyte really pulled it off; his images are stunning. Måns and I came up with the story a bit later, after the filming, so we had to do some fantasy work with the subtitles to the Papa Wemba song. In the song, he announces the clash in the teaser we made to find a producer and the money — the clash between the two biggest stars of Congolese music, who will play at the same time in the stadium. The one who plays longest wins. Papa Wemba sings something in Lingala — we don’t know what. Most likely a love song, but in the subtitles, he asks: “With music the most powerful weapon, who is going to win, who will write history?”

The next day we visit the Stade des Martyrs, where Muhammad Ali boxed George Foreman in 1974. Rumble in the Jungle. When We Were Kings. The stadium has been renovated, but to my surprise, only from the outside. There’s no electricity in the famous changing rooms. We also saw many other renovations in the center of town: boulevards, government offices, the town hall. There are now public places with fountains. The road leading to the president’s palace is lined with lampposts fashioned like palm trees with lights that change colors, like these design LED lamps that were in vogue in Western homes until recently. Just take the next little street off the main drag, and you will come to the unpaved road again, with potholes so big you could drown a cow after the rain.

But there is ingenuity, too, like the robot that has moving arms holding light panels. This replaces the good old policeman wearing a colonial helmet, and directing the traffic from a pedestal. I wonder how the robot relates to Rigobert, who just built a spaceship colonized by aliens that live on human blood. Rigobert gives me three little aliens for my son, Noah, back in Stockholm. He is the serious engineer type, who lives in another fantasy world out there in space, different from the sandy little backyard where he works among hanging laundry. Mobutu — who tried to launch a space rocket, which just barely made it over the next hill — was dreaming of outer space, too, under his leopard hat.

In 2008-09, we had The Double Club in London, which was a bar, restaurant, and discotheque where everything was half-Congolese and half-Western. The space was divided in half, or different parts of a space that would sum up to a half. I was trying to implement the beauty of the Congolese way — when it comes to music, visuals, food, and being — into our stubborn Western heads. And vice versa, of course. The film will be another attempt, another double, with two concerts at the same time at the same stadium. If all goes well, Werrason will play against the new rising star Fally Ipupa. We met Fally the last evening; he was in a hoodie with short pants, his lower jaw full of gold teeth. Pure charisma and stunningly handsome — and really cool. I wish I could be like that.

[Table of contents]

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