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.
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.