Koffi Olomide, wizardry on stage and off
Abracadabra, album plus mysteries
Music, sex and politics: it’s an explosive cocktail, and just the stuff to feed the kind of controversy that Koffi Olomide is used to. Not only is he the target of anti-Kabila campaigners who apparently pirated his album Abracadabra by pre-empting its release, the Congolese star is also at the heart of a rape case currently appearing before the French courts. But did he really turn up for trial in the Paris suburbs last February as he claims to have done?
Along with all the illustrious nicknames he sports like medals to prove his valour, Koffi Olomide could add another: that of “Great Communication Strategist”, which would sit nicely with “King of Tcha Tcho” and “Grand Mopao”. In a country where music seems to have been exacerbating passions for over half a century, he’s a man who knows how to keep his audience in suspense, tantalisingly letting true-false information filter through here and there. That same information is a device to keep him visible on the national scene, since he can’t travel where he likes outside the Congo following a few tussles with the law.
Competition is harsh, whatever the boss of the Quartier Latin band says – the first African group to have filled the Paris-Bercy Palais Omnisports in 2000. Events over recent months have shown that he doesn’t always manage the control buttons, like the bitter experience of his album Abracadabra, which was pirated before its release, to the great displeasure of its producer Diego Music. The affair has taken an unlikely turn, moving out of the musical field and into the political arena, when anti-Kabila campaigners calling themselves the “Combatants” were singled out as responsible for the crime.
Since mid-2010, the singer and his cronies had been making it public knowledge that they were working on a new album. A first single swiftly came out, followed by a video clip and a trailer, implying that the product would soon be on the market. There were rumours that the singer Rihanna had been contacted for a duet. Not so unlikely, since the Senegalese star Youssou N’Dour had participated on a double album commercialised by Koffi Olomide in 2008. Finally, after several postponments adding up to a year, the American-Barbadian artist was nowhere to be seen. The main female presence on the collection takes the shape of recent protégée, Cyndi Le Coeur, who is rarely more than one step away from Koffi’s latest projects.
With familiar hype, Abracadabra was proclaimed to be the “album of the decade”. Although they have nothing particular to offer in terms of creativity, the 20 long tracks that fill two and a half hours on the two CDs display an obvious command of the craft, particularly libanga, the art of adding dedications into lyrics. Wagging tongues may say that some of the songs are more like lists of names with some music in them, but the practice is all the rage in Kinshasa and libanga creations can shock the untrained ear a lot more than these do. In his role as the African Julio Iglesias, Koffi has what it takes, but shows a tendency to opt for facility in terms of instrumentation and orchestration, both of which are sometimes reduced to a strict minimum.
The whiff of scandal that surrounds Abracadabra lies less in the real or imagined artistic skills of its creator as it does in his current position in Congolese society. The Combatants, a group of opponents to President Kabila, claim that Koffi supports the regime in place. Over recent years, their French-based members have frequently got involved in the affairs of artists they have singled out for identical motives. Papa Wemba and Werrason, for example, ended up cancelling a concert in Paris, and Fally Ipupa, also scheduled to play in the French capital’s Zénith, played to an almost empty room.
Does that mean that these activists are directly involved in the pirating of Abracadabra, or is this just another of those all-too-familiar stories that the music industry (in Africa and elsewhere) has had to put up with ever since the era of cassettes? In any case, Koffi took the chance to exploit the situation: he was called to appear before the French courts on 13 February to answer charges of rape and sequestration following claims by three dancers and singers in his band, but couldn’t be put into custody awaiting trail because he said he had to leave Paris immediately for the Congo to respond to the Combatants’ threats.
His lawyer claims that the artist was in France to answer to the examining magistrate, while others smirk at the barely credible facts of an extraordinary scenario, saying that he would have obviously been recognised at Kinshasa airport at his departure and then awaited by the well-organised Combatants at his arrival. Which is not what happened. The creator of Abracadabra may well have been performing one of his best disappearing acts.
Koffi Olomide Abracadabra (Diego Music) 2012
Translation : Anne-Marie Harper