Herve Halfon, a French person who hates French people, owns a record store on the Rue des Plantes, in Montparnasse, just a few Metro stops from the Eiffel Tower but spiritually closer to Avenue Gambela, in Congo, or to the Mokolo district, in Yaounde, Cameroon. The store is called Afric' Music. It has a small sign and an unremarkable window display, and it's about the size and shape of a Parisian parking space. Inside, Herve has spared all expense on the decor. Besides the floor and ceiling and one long counter, the store is nothing but rows and rows of CDs in racks and on shelves and in piles, all of them devoted to African music, except for a section reserved for the music of the Caribbean. A sound system sits somewhere behind the counter, out of view and, more important, out of reach of any customer who might want to, perhaps, switch the new N'Dombolo recording for something by M'Pongo Love. The sound system is on, loud, all the time. If you walk down the Rue des Plantes, you will at first hear just the usual rumbling and tootling and clattering sounds of a Paris street, and then, as you pass the open door of Afric' Music, you will be blasted by a few bars of a Congolese ballad, and as soon as you step past the door the ballad will suddenly be out of earshot and the Paris street sounds will resume, as if you had walked through a harmonic cloudburst. As is the custom in record stores all over the world, a song rarely gets played in its entirety at Afric' Music. What happens is that Herve and a customer will be listening to a song-let's say, something by Wenge Tonya Tonya-and a certain guitar line will make Herve think of a cut on an old Franco and O.K. Jazz album, which he will put on, and then the Franco song will remind the customer of a song by Les Youles that he heard the other day on the world-music show on Radio Nova, so Herve will turn off the Franco and put on Les Youles, and then another customer will wander in and suggest that the Les Youles song is a pitiful imitation of a much better song recorded twenty years ago by Tabu Ley Rochereau. Herve will have that recording, too, so he will play it, and then the two customers will start arguing about it, and then Herve, in his role as a peacekeeping force, will take off the Tabu Ley record and put on something uncontroversial, like the new album "Bang Bang," by Carimi, whose members are Haitian but grew up in Miami.
Afric' Music opened twenty-six years ago. The store was founded by Herve's cousin David Halfon, who had picked up a taste for African music at clubs around town. At the time, David was working as a salesclerk in a musical-instrument shop in the Paris neighborhood of Saint-Michel. On a gamble, he asked the owners of the shop to let him sell African records and tapes out of the back corner of the store.
There was no store in France devoted to African music in 1976, even though there were already more than a million Africans living in the country, many of whom came from the French-speaking nations of Gabon, Benin, Togo, Mali, Chad, Ivory Coast, and Senegal, as well as from Zaire-the country now known as Congo-whose music, called soukous, or just la musique moderne, was the least parochial and most widely embraced throughout Africa. Moreover, a number of the Congolese expatriates living in Paris happened to be that country's greatest musicians. And even though there was nowhere to buy African music in France in the mid-seventies, much of it was actually being recorded in studios in Paris and in Brussels and shipped back to Africa for release.
This peculiar cross-continental journey was actually in keeping with the history of soukous-and of all African music, which, in the words of the Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango, was essentially "a music of encounters." To begin with, soukous was a melange of indigenous village music and Cuban rumba, which had become popular in Congo through a series of records released there in the nineteen-thirties. Rumba was in fact finding its way back to its origins, since it, too, was a melange-in this case, a combination of Spanish music and the sounds brought to the Caribbean by African slaves. In other words, soukous had left home, absorbed a new culture, returned home, and was being absorbed and reinterpreted once again. The music that resulted was especially elastic. Its lyrics were almost always sung in Lingala, a trading language of the Congo region and a distinct African dialect, but one that is generic and unprovincial-a sort of lingua franca with no fractious history attached. But what made soukous the preeminent music in Africa was its sound, the voluptuous interplay of three or four or even five guitars, swirling around keening melodies and a dreamy, compelling beat. It is emotional, complex music, with the brightness and propulsion and hot guitars of popular music but with a less hurried, mounting intensity. It sounds neither contemporary nor old; it is melodic and highly structured, even orchestral, but also powerfully rhythmic and cyclic, like a chant. You can dance for hours and hours to soukous music; it has that kind of drive. But it is also strangely, ineffably poignant. Even the biggest, brassiest soukous songs have a wistful undercurrent, the sound of something longed for or lost.
Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was once the home of Africa's most energetic recording industry. Gary Stewart, in his authoritative history, "Rumba on the River," recounts how, in 1948, a Greek merchant named Nicolas Jeronimidis opened the Ngoma studio in downtown Kinshasa. Eventually, there were a score of studios, including many owned and operated by Congolese, and soukous's most successful musicians ran studios of their own. Soukous was the sound on every street, in clubs, on the airwaves, even on public-address systems, which blared the music for anyone who didn't have a radio. It became so entwined in the country's sense of identity that in 1960, when its delegates went to Brussels for a conference on independence, the leading soukous orchestra at the time, Joseph Kabasele and African Jazz, accompanied them.
Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who ruled the country for thirty-two years, was aware of how directly music communicated to the Congolese. When he took power, in 1965, he demanded that the country's musicians write songs to celebrate his achievement, and then arranged for them to receive generous state sponsorship as a sort of insurance policy against future songs that might question his actions. When he introduced his Authenticite campaign, in 1971, with the aim of ridding the country of foreign influence, he designated the great soukous orchestra O.K. Jazz the official musical medium for conveying his doctrine. He travelled throughout Zaire with the orchestra; after each of his speeches, O.K. Jazz performed, both to sweeten the medicine of Authenticite and to use its lyrics to lecture the crowds, however gorgeously, about Mobutu's programs. It would be like George W. Bush giving a series of speeches about why he wanted to go to war with Iraq, accompanied by foreign-policy songs by Bruce Springsteen.
Official intimacy did have its tribulations. Songs that Mobutu considered controversial or disparaging were banned; musicians who were too mouthy were subtly-or overtly-run out of the country. Even the greatest soukous master of all, Franco Luambo Makiadi, who led O.K. Jazz for thirty-three years, was jailed once, had his songs censored, and several times left for Europe when he felt an official chill. Franco was a huge man with a husky voice and a chiming, lacy style on guitar. His playing was so hypnotizing that throughout his life he was quite seriously accused of being a sorcerer. It is said that Mobutu loved Franco's music so much that each time Franco left, the dictator would eventually send word that he would be pardoned if he was willing to come home and perform. When Franco died, in Brussels, in 1989, Mobutu declared four days of national mourning and gave him a state funeral.
But Mobutu was responsible for the music business's eventual exodus from the country. By the mid-nineteen-seventies, the price of copper, Zaire's chief export, had fallen dramatically, and the President's totalitarianism and his move toward Mao-inspired nationalization of industry had chased away investors and set off terrible inflation. Before long, almost all of Kinshasa's studios had gone out of business or relocated to Paris or Brussels, and the few that remained had little money for equipment, engineers, or even vinyl. Record sales were also flagging. It wasn't that the passion for soukous was fading; it was that people in Zaire were broke. Meanwhile, as the domestic economy worsened throughout the decade, Mobutu and his family skimmed at least five billion dollars from the treasury and from international aid.
One by one, all of soukous's biggest stars made their debuts in Paris: Tabu Ley Rochereau, in 1970; Joseph Kabasele, also in 1970; Franco and O.K. Jazz, in 1978. In Paris you could sing about anything you wanted, you could record in the best studios, you could play to the ever-growing population of Africans and West Indians. It was safe; there was money. Night clubs catering to the African community were opening-Keur Samba, a swanky place near the Place de la Concorde, was the first, in 1975, followed by the Black and White Club, the Atlantis, Timmy's, L'Alize, Au Petit Tam-Tam. By the late seventies, more and more of Zaire's most prominent musicians were leaving Africa to tour Europe and weren't coming back. In 1980 came the most symbolic move of all: while touring with O.K. Jazz, Franco bought a house in Brussels and an apartment in Paris, and started spending more time far from home.
David Halfon's back corner of the instrument shop in Saint-Michel quickly became one of the most famous back corners in Paris. Most Africans in Paris lived in other neighborhoods-in the north, in Barbes and Saint-Denis, or to the east, in the "red" suburb of Montreuil, which is said to have the largest community of Malians outside Mali and as a municipality has financed public-works projects in Mali's villages. But the goods to be found in Saint-Michel were worth travelling for-it was the sound of the familiar, of the life that had been left behind. Before long, David had rented a storefront and set up a proper store.
Herve worked in Afric' Music after school. He was then a teen-ager, mildly disgusted by French pop treacle like Plastic Bertrand and only occasionally moved by French crooners like Charles Aznavour. His musical interests were black soul, black reggae, black blues. Hanging around David, he became fluent in the music of Congo, Senegal, Nigeria, and Antilles. Fourteen years ago, David decided to sell Afric' Music and open a chain of fast-food restaurants, so Herve and a partner bought him out. They also began producing a number of African bands, including the renowned Congolese guitarist Diblo Dibala and his band, Matchatcha; Les Coeurs Brises; Branche; and Flaisha Mani, known as the Diamond of Zaire.
Herve is now thirty-six years old, with a sinewy build, receding dark hair, and the chic, messy look of a tragic intellectual. It has never struck him as weird or incongruous that he is a white guy, and a Jewish one at that, selling African music to expatriates. His parents both grew up in Tunisia and imparted something of an outsider's perspective to him; as a result, Herve's outlook on the archetypal French persona is somewhat negative. One recent morning, as he was shelving new CDs, he said, "I don't like the narrow-mindedness of French people. I'm more comfortable with Africans. They have a different attitude-more open to the world." He is tempted to leave France altogether. Five years ago, a customer of his who had moved back to Ivory Coast asked him to come to Abidjan and help him open a record store. Herve and his wife visited for two weeks. They were put up in the best hotel in the country and had a car and driver at their disposal, but, ultimately, they decided that they felt too out of place. Herve now says he is considering moving to Canada or Israel, but isn't sure how or when he will ever really leave.
Herve's role in the store is all-inclusive. He orders new music, arranges it on the shelves, writes the Afric' Music best- seller lists-African and Caribbean-that hang on the back wall, answers the phone, writes up sales, and takes out the trash. He also dispenses opinions and directives to anyone willing to hear them. He has a generous policy regarding test drives: he is willing to open any CD to let you have a listen; as a result, about half the CDs in the store no longer have their plastic wrappers. Herve likes to steer customers toward what he calls "hot music." By hot he means sexy, intense, and exciting, rather than trendy. Only a small amount of dancing occurs in the store, though; the customers, who are overwhelmingly male, usually just lean up against the counter and move only one part of their body-a foot, a hand, a chin-in time with the song. Herve is less inhibited, and often pounds out the beat on his thighs, or on the counter, sometimes using the plastic cover of a CD. When he's not at the store, he plays drums as a hobby, but the fact that he lives in an apartment with his wife and their two small kids cuts into his rehearsal opportunities.
Herve is a cheerful person, although he says that being in the record-store business is a living nightmare. For one thing, Afric' Music no longer enjoys the primacy it had when it opened, in 1976. African music has become a real commodity in Paris: a number of competing specialty shops have cropped up in the past two decades, and FNAC, the large French music-and-bookstore chain, now features an African section. The specialty-record-store mortality rate is high-Blue Moon Musique, Anvers Musique, and Kim Music, among others, have gone out of business-but new ones open all the time. In the past year or so, five or six tiny stores have opened in Saint-Denis.
One morning in early September, I headed over to Afric' Music. There was a pinch in the air, a scrim over the sun, and smoke-gray clouds scudding across the horizon. Placards advertising Ray Charles's upcoming concert were pasted on every light pole and bus shelter in Paris. When I arrived at Afric' Music, Herve was chatting with two young men from Benin, who were taken with an album called "Hot Zouk Love." Herve knows almost all his customers by sight and most by name; some are even second-generation shoppers. One of the young men from Benin was the son of a longtime customer. After a moment, a short, bubbly guy carrying two cell phones and a set of car keys came in, gave Herve a hug, and started scanning the CD section marked "Nigeria." We started to talk, and I asked him what he did for a living.
"I was a student in economics," he said, "but now I drive a taxi, Madame." He chuckled, and added that he was from Nigeria but was looking for a record by a Haitian band called Digital Express. "These days, you have to go to London to find really good Nigerian music," he said. He winked at me and then said in a loud voice, "Herve, he doesn't like Nigerians."
Herve broke off his conversation with the men from Benin and started hollering in agitated French. He grabbed an album by King Sunny Ade, who is from Nigeria, and poked the taxi-driver with it. "And what about Tilda?" Herve said. "I have Tilda albums, too."
"She's not Nigerian!" the man said.
"Yes, she is," Herve said.
"No! She isn't!" the man said, excitedly. "Her father is Nigerian, but her mother is from Cameroon!"
"Well, she's Nigerian, then," Herve said, pleased with himself.
"No," the cabdriver said. "Half of her is not Nigerian. She sings Nigerian songs, but she's only half."
The men from Benin paid for their copy of "Hot Zouk Love" and quietly edged out of the store.
A young lawyer from Cameroon came in. He shook hands with Herve and explained that he was going to d.j. at a party that night-the wedding of a French friend and an African friend-so he wanted the best dance music he could find. Herve put on a singer named Sandra Melody doing a reggae version of the American group T.L.C.'s song "No Scrubs." I mentioned to the lawyer that it was an American song, and he gasped.
"No way is this an American song!" he exclaimed. "Listen!" He rested his right hand on his right hip, held his left hand up, as if he were holding a partner, and then started to shimmy back and forth. Everyone in the store paused as he completed his turn around the floor. When the song ended, he turned to me and said, "See? You couldn't dance to it like this if it were an American song!"
There was a moment when it seemed as if Congo would once again be the home of the Congo sound. In 1997, Laurent Kabila, the leader of the People's Revolutionary Party, marched with his troops into Kinshasa, and the aging Mobutu, who was suffering from terminal cancer, fled the country. Kabila's takeover was celebrated everywhere, including in Paris, where Tabu Ley Rochereau, one of the last members of the generation that had invented soukous, was quoted as saying that it was time for the diaspora to end, for Congo's musicians to go home. Kabila offered him a deputy post in his transitional parliament, and Tabu Ley accepted. A few others followed, most notably Sam Mangwana and the singer Kanda Bongo Man, but soon they returned to Europe: even with Mobutu gone, the country's political and economic turmoil continued. (Kabila was assassinated in 2001; his son, Joseph, is now in power.) And, for their part, the musicians who had lived in Europe had grown used to being able to sing about whatever they wanted, used to forty-eight-track studios and the most advanced synthesizers and drum machines, and to an audience that had spread from the Rue des Plantes all over the world.
While I was in Paris, I visited the guitarist Diblo Dibala, who had moved to Europe in 1989. He said that he was a supporter of both Kabilas but that he still couldn't imagine going back. "When you've been away for fifteen or twenty years, the reality of the place is different from what you remember," he said. "We're much more popular here than in Congo. The people there forget you when you leave for so long." He hasn't performed in Kinshasa since 1995. He said that he finds his inspiration in Paris, because it is where most African musicians are, and he doesn't think that will change. "Everyone comes to Paris," he said.
Soukous has become, then, the music of Africa once removed; it has absorbed yet another new culture, and when you listen to what is being recorded now, you hear a briskness and shimmer, as if the clamor and sleekness of modern Paris were a constant underscore. You might miss the pensive majesty of Franco's orchestra, but it is the nature of Congolese music to reach out, react, and remake itself each time it encounters a different world. One afternoon, Dany Engobo, the leader of Les Coeurs Brises, stopped by my hotel to bring me the group's latest CD. I was staying in a smart new place in Montparnasse that I had chosen because of its proximity to the record store but that also happened to be decorated in Africa-chic; it had animal-print wallpaper and ethnic knickknacks, and African music-mostly Senegalese and Nigerian-was piped into the lobby all day long, re-creating in this bourgeois arrondissement of Paris a mythic version of pre-French colonial Africa. Engobo has lived in Paris since 1976, and started Les Coeurs Brises after he arrived. The group-which includes musicians from Algeria, France, and Israel-has played throughout the United States and Europe and in a few African countries, but never in Kinshasa or Brazzaville, where Engobo is from. He doesn't expect that they will play there anytime soon. "It's too dangerous to go," Engobo said, shrugging. "I'd like to go sometime, but . . ." He paused, and the music whirled around us, a King Sunny Ade melody with tinkling thumb piano and the singer's reedy alto spelling out the tune. "I am a citizen of the world," Engobo said. "I don't think I'll ever go back. But in life, you never know."
At Afric' Music, while the Cameroonian lawyer was dancing, a tall man with a hospital-employee I.D. around his neck walked in. "Herve," he said, "I'm dying for the new Gilberto Santa Rosa. Do you have it?" Herve pulled several Santa Rosa CDs out of a stack. The man shuffled through them and said he wasn't sure if any of these was the one he wanted. He pulled his cell phone out of a holster, called one of Herve's competitors, who was unhelpful, and then briefly contemplated calling friends in Martinique for a consultation. While he was thinking, a heavyset blind man from Guadeloupe eased his way through the doorway, folded up his cane, leaned on the counter, and asked Herve to put on something by the popular young band Zouk Station. Herve found the album, split the shrink-wrap with a two-euro coin, and put it on. The blind man smiled and said he would buy it. Two elderly women walking past with groceries, their baguettes sticking up like exclamation points, glanced in anxiously as they moved through the blast of Zouk Station. A red-cheeked drunk zigzagged across the Rue des Plantes toward the music, rolled through the door, and came to rest against the counter. Just then, the man who was thinking about calling Martinique realized that it was four in the morning in the Caribbean, so he told Herve he would take two Santa Rosa albums. As he was paying, a cab pulled onto the sidewalk in front of Afric' Music, and a compact old man from Togo wearing a newsboy cap and a bomber jacket got out of the driver's seat, walked into the store, headed for the rack marked "Congo," ran his hands up and down the CDs, and said, "Franco! Oh, oh, Franco!" After a moment, he walked back out of the store, got into his cab, and drove away.
"He likes Franco," Herve said.
The Cameroonian lawyer had chosen five albums and wanted more. Herve removed the previous selection and blasted Fara Fara. The lawyer did a two-step, a tango move, and then shook his head. Off with Fara Fara. On with the new CD by Wenge Musica. The song had a galloping bass line and a bright, chattering guitar, and soon the lawyer was doing a modified cha-cha and Herve was smiling, beating a tattoo on the counter. The sound was huge, pushing out of the little store and ballooning onto the Paris sidewalk, where the businesspeople and the shop clerks of Montparnasse were striding by in the dull autumn sunlight, smoking and talking on their way to lunch. As the song reached its crescendo, a man from Ivory Coast stepped into the store, slapped Herve on the back, pulled out his cell phone, called a friend, and when his friend answered, said simply, "Hey. I'm here." (c)
LOAD-DATE: October 21, 2002