Bob W. White is Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Montreal. His book Rumba Rules: The Politics of Dance Music in Mobutu’s Zaire (Duke University Press, 2008) was the recipient of the Anthony Leeds Prize (2009) and the Joel Gregory Prize (2010).  In the context of this research he conducted participation observation as an atalaku with the Kinshasa-based dance band Général Defao et les Big Stars. He has published on the production and reception of popular music, globalization, the culture concept, collaborative research methods and theories of intersubjectivity. As the director of LABRRI (Laboratoire de recherche en relations interculturelles), his current research is focused on the dynamics of intercultural dynamics in cities.  He is currently finishing a book entitled Breakdown and Breakthrough: An Anthropological Theory of Intercultural Knowledge.

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What does “atalaku” mean?

“Atalaku” is a Kikongo expression that means “Look at me over here”, but it is also the word used to describe the musician in Congolese popular music who creates and strings together the seemingly random series of short percussive phrases known as ‘shouts’ (in French “cris”) that drive the fast-paced dance sequences (seben) of contemporary Congolese popular music.  Of the scattered sentences written about the atalaku, they all in one way or another capture the contradictory nature of his persona. The atalaku rarely appears in music videos, and despite the fact that most people are familiar with his ‘song’, he is not classified as a singer. He shares the spotlight with some of the biggest names in the Kinshasa music scene but he is stigmatized relative to his fellow bandmembers. People criticize him for his crass behavior on stage and for his uglification of the fluid sentimentality of old-school rumba, but he has somehow become the necessary ingredient to every Kinshasa dance sequence.

NonoAtalaku(Nono Atalaku)

What does an “atalaku” sound like?

The sounds of the atalaku (referred to locally as “animations”) began as shouts that punctuate the fast-paced dance sequences of popular dance music in Kinshasa, and gradually became sung-shouts before evolving into sung sequences mixed with shouts. The first excerpt is from the the group that in the mid-1980s invented the atalaku phenomenon as we know it today  (Zaiko Langa Langa, [0:00]), followed by an two exerpts from Wenge Musica (first shouts from Robert Ekokota [1:53] and then sung-shouts from his successor Tutu Kaludji [2:50]).  In the following exerpt, you can hear crooner Koffi Olomide [4:30] singing sung-shouts with a shouting atalaku in the background.  The final excerpt [5:30] features several atalaku, and is a good example of how the singer (in this case Werra Son) and the atalaku (here the inimitable Bill Clinton) play off each other to create a sound that was characteristic of Congolese popular dance music in the 2000s.

What is that can?

Pictured above is Nono, one of the three original atalaku to join the group Zaiko Langa Langa in 1986 (the second of the three, Manjeku, is pictured in the background). The instrument he is holding in his hand is a maracas, the same type of instrument that is featured in the banner on the home page of this website. Below is a picture of the maracas that was fabricated by Bébé Atalaku (the third of the original atalaku) in Kinshasa in 1996, as part of the research that was conducted for Rumba Rules.



7 Responses to

  1. Delopus says:

    Hi, I want to notice that the term “Atalaku” is replaced now by “Animateur”! Musicians find it better than atalaku, which seems rubbish! The first to describe himself “animateur” seems te be Tutu Caludji, former atalaku of Wenge Musica!

    • atalaku says:

      Hi Delopus, Thanks for your message. You may very well be right. I wonder if you have any articles or on-line information about this. If what you say is true then the term atalaku will go out of use as a part of the generational past…
      Bob White

    • atalaku says:

      You are right that the term “animateur” is more common now than “atalaku”, but the word animateur most likely comes from the period under Mobutu’s rule in which his government mobilized behind the notion of “animation politique”. And even then the term animateur most likely pre-dates independence. I like the sound of the word “atalaku” but also because it reminds of all the history…thanks for your posting
      Bob White

  2. Robert Zieger says:

    Living in Kinshasa now and happened upon your book before I got here. It’s next on my reading list and I made it through the Note to the Reader, which led me to this site.

    Am I missing where the links that correspond with certain parts of the text are located, or is that facet of the book no longer operative? It sounded like a great aid to accessing the music and history in your book. I’m hoping it’s still available.


  3. Bascom Guffin says:

    Hi Bob,
    I’m currently teaching your book and have noticed that beginning with Chapter 3, the Audio-Video Cues are missing. Are there plans to post/re-post them, or am I possibly overlooking a relevant link?

    • atalaku says:

      Actually no you are right that the audio links for chapter three are not functioning. I had some technical difficulties and I have not been able to post all the audio cues, though I have been hoping to do so. If there are some that are particularly important or interesting, please feel free to send me suggestions and I will try to post them before the rest. Glad to hear you are teaching the book…!
      Bob White

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