The sebene, that never-ending circular vamp that cues the women’s belly-shaking (soukous-music word of the day)


The Congolese guitarist Henri Bowane is reputed to have invented the sebene in the 1940s, but this kind of instrumental bridge, on which one or two musicians develop arpeggios in circular progressions while another improvises around them, has forever been common to music for Congolese harps, lutes, thumb pianos and xylophones.

Aha. I had been calling it the descarga, but I am always happy to learn a new, more appropriate word for the part of the song that cues the insanity: in Franco’s Azda, the repetition of the theme keeps the tension going throughout Franco’s solo; in other, less virtuosic performances, the sebene is the part where you, the listener, feel as if you’re diving into a huge pile of feathery guitar notes, like a woman in a music video.

In other, less abstracted videos, the sebene is the part where the women dancers move to the front and begin their undulations. The circularity of the music and the circularity of the movements are echoed in the circle shape of the navel, both in motion and at rest, as well.

The quote above (and bizarrely still picture) is from the surprisingly helpful National Geographic page on soukous music.

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