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.

Retweet this!

V is for velocity

Azda by Franco

(My grandmother has driven a Volkswagen for the longest, which I mention in case you need an excuse for why I’m talking about the stone classic “AZDA” today, one of the classics of African music and the theme song for a Kinshasa VW, pronounced fay-vay in Lingala, dealership.)

This is where soukous comes from: start with a fairly conventional rhumba, the kind of thing that you could hear all over Africa in the fifties and sixties, courtesy of a stream of Cuban rhumba vinyls that helped create and indulge the rage for “international” sounds. All of a sudden, at six minutes in, Franco’s guitar pops out of the mix and he throws down an absolutely incandescent solo, the kind of thing that I imagine lighting up the entire Kinshasa nightclub district. But wait! At seven minutes, he pulls into this insane hammer-on theme, and it makes me break down and cry for joy and excitement, as if all of a sudden the bay horse on which I’ve staked my wages is making his move!  He’s edging through the pack, galloping around the back turn, tail  waving, going for absolute broke, foaming at the bit, his tiny jockey  up in the stirrups coaxing the beast to embody the pen-and-ink drawing  on the children’s primer page for “V is for velocity.”