How do you spell transformation? a-r-t-s, a-n-d, c-u-l-t-u-r-e. There has been an explosion of arts and multiple forms of cultural expression happening in the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo of late. On any given Friday or Saturday night, one is spoiled for entertainment choices.
One could swear that some arts and culture lovers, spotted everywhere, like Jacques Bana Yanga, the renowned African dance performer and instructor and Amine El-Ayoubi, a Moroccan businessman who moonlights as a singer, have managed to clone themselves rather than make a choice. Their omnipresence thus lends a familiarity across a varied range of venues like Ibiza Bar, home of arguably the best jazz band in Central Africa, the Grand Hotel, which regularly features megastars like Papa Wemba, and the French Cultural Centre, which just recently hosted an international dance festival featuring modern dance troupes from across Africa and Europe.
The Congo River region, plays hosts to a vibrant nightlife and music scene. Across the river, in Brazzaville, the bi-annual AU-sponsored Pan-African Festival of Music (FESPAM) has been a fixture since 1996—it was closed prematurely this year following deaths due to overcrowding at the opening event. Kinshasa, which changed its name from Léopoldville six years after it gained independence in 1960, is similarly vibrant.
Once known as “Kinshasa la belle” (Kinshasa the beautiful), the city is however now popularly referred to as “Kinshasa la poubelle” (Kinshasa the dustbin). In a city struggling to shed the pejoratives piled on it in the last 30 years—poor, dirty, chaotic—Kinshasa’s transformative potential may well lie in its ability to harness and channel arts and cultural activities as drivers of social and economic change. For the most part, foreign donors are spearheading this change. The French Cultural Centre, like so many of its counterparts throughout the developing world, acts as the anchor of the Kinshasa arts and culture scene. France’s unwavering commitment to focusing its bilateral support in developing countries on arts and culture has played a vital role in fuelling the vibrancy of many African cities. In Kinshasa, local arts and culture practitioners complain of marginalization by city and national leaders who tout infrastructure projects (malls, office buildings, five star hotels) as Kinshasa’s urban salvation. If bricks and mortar are Kinshasa’s veins, arts and culture should be seen as the blood that pulsates through them