In the multidisciplinary lifework of Bebson Elemba aka Bebson de la Rue, Eléonore Hellio* discovers the mind and matter that inspire ‘ephemeral architectures’, radical folklore and emancipation from the post-colonial present.
Bebson de la Rue is one of central Africa’s most unique sound and visual artists. A musician and a singer, a rapper, performer and bricoleur extraordinaire, he grew up in the city of Mbandaka, on the banks of the Congo River. Located astride the Equator in a region of dense tropical forest, under Belgian rule Mbandaka was known as Coquilhatville. There, in the late 19th century, extraordinary violence was visited on the bodies and the minds of men, women and children forced to collect rubber for the colonial overlord, King Leopold II.
In 1989, Bebson left Mbandaka for Kinshasa. There, he moved to Ngbaka, one of the city’s toughest neighbourhoods. Ngbaka is located near Kin’s largest market. Not so long ago, it was a pretty quarter, known for the river that runs through it. In recent years, it has become home to those hardest off – kulunas (gang members), shegues (street children), tshels (prostitutes), dealers and a few families trying, like Bebson’s, to make it no matter what. Open to any and all who need the space, the compound he calls home is a refuge for many, related and otherwise.
Deep into Funk, in the 1990s Bebson founded a dance troupe called Nous Sommes Courageux (We Are Courageous). In 1993, he met the musician Man Stone, who taught him the basics of ragamuffin and reggae. Together, they invented ORF (Original Ragamuffin Folklore), a genre of music rooted in a Mongo proverb that signifies ‘let us not move in the direction they tell us, but follow our own way’. In the late 1990s, Bebson founded Trionyx, the band for which he is best known, setting off on a path of experimentation and research steeped in multiple influences. Drawing on his knowledge of Mongo proverbs, metaphors and rhythms, and melding thesewith Zaïrian Rumba, a wild brand of ragamuffin, rap and hip hop influences, he developed a radically original style of music. In 1994, he founded Ghetto Kota Okola (Ghetto Enter Grow), a school open to all, where he shares with young people his philosophies of music, dance and art.
Bebson draws the colossal strength and the intense sensibilities of his art from multiple sources: history and its (after-)shocks, the traditions of his people, radio, television and a wide range of outside influences he actively seeks out. The result is work that crosscuts virtually every discipline of the arts. His, in fundamental ways, is a post- (and an inter-) disciplinary practice, close in spirit to those of Dada and Fluxus. Almost an anti-art, it doesn’t give a shit about categories, or the market, or the universality of art. It is festive and critical and socially engaged – a survival tactic and a state of mind determined to say and to sound and to show the psyche of the space(s) in which it manifests. Though he is kin to John Cage, Robert Filliou and Alan Kaprow, it is for Michael Jackson, whom he suspects had Mongo ancestors, and for his own many peeps that Bebson deploys his funkattitude, zipping through the ozone in his DYI spaceship, a cool machine that runs on Pacolami (Ngbaka moonshine). Down on earth, when time allows, he builds ephemeral architectures mirroring his vision of the universe.
It is in sound, first and foremost, that Bebson’s practice finds its soul. From his childhood, he calls up the shiver of leaves when caterpillars hatch, the song of this bird and that bird, the rumble of thunder, the click-click-click of rain, the murmur of wind. In Kinshasa, he samples a world of industrial heaves and hos: the sound of motors, hammers and shears, gunshots and firecrackers, blown speakers, TVs on the fritz, and pots and pans clanging.
*Translated by Dominique Malaquais.