On April 24th, 2016 Papa Wemba passed away in Abidjan. Papa Wemba was not only one of the world’s greatest ambassadors for Congolese soukous music – first during 70’s with the seminal band Zaiko Langa Langa, and then with many solo projects between Kinshasa and Paris – but will remain in our collective memory as both a Congolese dandy and one of the most extravagant connoisseurs of music whose roots reached deep into the customs of the colonial era.
In recent decades, fulfilling its postcolonial destiny, when many musicians emigrated to Europe Congolese soukous has witnessed an articulate evolution, with the genre undergoing a number of transformations. Some musicians continued to follow in the genre’s traditional steps, while others deviate its sounds and rhythmic structures to accommodate the tastes of world music; and others still, such as Papa Wembe, define parallel projects to satisfy both markets. A soukous track generally contains a softer, toned down beginning (rumba) followed by a more energetic, rapid part, known as sebene. This is the phase that activates movement and the dance of bodies in the street or in the stadiums of Kinshasa, and it is the power of sebene that defines a soukous orchestra’s level of ability to entertain.
Music and other elements of West African culture have intrigued the Belgian artist Carsten Höller (on show in Pirelli HangarBicocca until July 31st) for a couple of decades. In 2008, Höller opened Double Club in London, an artwork, but also a club and a restaurant that remained open for a few months, presenting an enticing array of both European musical and culinary culture (we would now call it British), and Congolese variants. On the stage of Double Club, he alternated English rock and Congolese rumba, while the architecture and interiors appeared to be literally cut in half, as if in comparison, or to create a unique form of cross-cultural osmosis.
The Fara Fara Music Festival is yet another celebration of this Afro-European duality, which continues to fascinate Carsten Höller. Over two days (July 7 and 8), two musical battles will take place on two stages: Homba Petit Bokul de Viva La Musica vs. CB21 (the crew of enduring music composed of Lorenzo Senni, Simone Trabucchi, Emanuele Marcuccio, Massimiliano Bomba, Matthew Pit and Jim C. Nedd) and Les Anciens du Quartier Latin vs. Danny L Harle - producer of English PC Music – and Elegance and Gabber (a research project by Alberto Guerrini aka Pigro on Sofa, on gabber and hardcore from the inland area of the Po). In short, this is a Fara Fara of Africa vs. Europe.
"Fara Fara" means "Face to Face" in the Lingala language, and is also the title of a work by Carsten Höller that makes up the exhibition "Doubt": a video installation with two screens positioned opposite each other on the walls of the great nave of the HangarBicocca. The images projected show the preparations for a play off between two soukous bands in Kinshasa, as filmed by Höller’s camera and edited by director Måns Månsson. The two protagonists (the musicians Werrason and Kof fi Olomide) are introduced by an extraordinary piece composed by the maestro, Papa Wemba.
This tradition has spread in recent decades, and sees two giants of Congolese music literally clash, playing out their musical battle simultaneously on different stages. A Fara Fara can last up to 24 hours and only ends when one of the two contenders is “wiped out” by exhaustion. He who outlasts the other, wins, revealing his superior skill as a public entertainer.
A Fara Fara is an event that involves the whole city, and is prepared and organized well in advance, and the practice of Fara Fara forms part of a larger narrative on musical clashes and engages multiple levels, each with its own characteristics. It can take on the form of a technological battle between the sound systems of a Jamaican soundclash, of a Mexican sonideros baile or of the Pico’s of northern Colombia, or even in the traditional verbal confrontations of hip-hop battles that take place in suburbs around the world. However, in all cases, the contestants compete with the same “arms”. But this is not the case at the Fara Fara Music Festival. This is a war between two different parts of the world, two parts with very different histories, which for only one night, will share the same space.
And it is hoped that this occasion will see the frontiers between these worlds thrown up in the air for real.