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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“Written description of how soukous women have their waist” in one word, undulating

(Every once in a while, Google Analytics’s list of keywords that bring you, Dear Reader, to my blog comes up with good ideas to write about. The scary thing is that converse of the truism that there is someone writing about pretty much anything on the Internet holds true: there is someone searching for pretty much everything on the Internet. Et voilà today’s post, inspired for you by the intrepid Googlenaut searching for “Writtendescription of how soukous women have their waist”. My blog was at no. 3 when I wrote this post; I should hope it rises somewhat.)

The Dany Engobo/Coeurs Brisés videos, where the mild and inoffensive zouk tunes clearly play a supporting role to the hypnotic tummy-shaking of the Coeurs Brisés (Broken Hearts) troupe of dancers, could be, if you took them lightly, campy as all get out, but I don’t see them that way. Instead, there’s something deeply serious about the attractiveness of lissome women moving hypnotically to the middle-aged male head of family. Strangely enough, watching such dance videos for an hour or so, or the length of a VHS tape, always proved relaxing, like a nice afternoon nap, rather than erotically stimulating.

A couple years later I met the guitarist Diblo Dibala after a summer concert at South Street Seaport. My buddy from work Rose was a friend of one of his two backup dancers, the older one. The younger one had managed to shatter boundaries by being a Brooklyn girl (bizarrely nicknamed Electra) who was touring the world as an African dancer. This only reinforced to me the complete inauthenticity of soukous music and soukous-dancing videos; these were products of late 20th-century cultural capitalism, not the honest and straightforward expression of prelapsarian village life that is the default approach to African cultural products. In other words, folks were watching these videos (and Diblo’s dancers) not because they had some kind of cultural relevance to the viewer, but because they liked the dancing, or the physiques of the dancers, or both. My interest was validated; I didn’t have to come from some Kinshasa faubourg in order to appreciate it.

Here are some examples:


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.”