There must be magic in the atmosphere By Benedict Lombe

Benedict Lombe from our Emerging Writers Group writes about diasporic experience.


It’s 3am.

I’m sitting in my room wolfing down a pack of Doritos and thinking about the night I just had.

I’m also thinking – quite intensely – about who decided we needed more than one flavour of Doritos? Bro, you hit the jackpot with Cool Original and all of the other flavours categorically suck.

Sure, I’m drunk, but I also know – with every fibre of my being – that if it ever comes to it, this is the hill I will one day choose to die on.

And so, armed with my trusty, crunchy, cool-ranchy companion and the sure promise of a hangover, I think back to my night.

I think back to earlier, when I rocked up to a central London superclub with two friends. One of them was DJ-ing before the band who were headlining the night, so we got there early, bypassed the barriers and heavy security with an “I’m with her” (shout out to early 2016, before we all went and lost our damn minds. You tried, Hil).

In we go, encountering a few people along the way, all in the middle of setting up for the night. We’re ushered into the backstage area by a production assistant. She gives us ‘Access All Areas’ passes, and we’re led into a room with a carefully selected buffet of fruit, chilled bottled water, champagne and beers.

I pick up a chilled bottled water, feeling like a bougie bitch.

I briefly think “This is it, mama. I made it!”

Then in walks a man with a distinctly Congolese uncle look about him.

Maybe it was the way he had his collar up.
Maybe it was the particular way he’d grown his beard.
Maybe it was how he styled – or didn’t style – his hair.
Maybe it was the way he entered and politely held out a hand, then went in for (not one, not two, but – always confusingly) three (three!) kisses on the cheek.

Yeah, that’s a whole Congolese vibe, right there, I think.

Then in walks another man. He’s similarly giving off some strong Congolese uncle vibes. When two more walk in, I realise they are in fact the band headlining the night. Admittedly, I was unusually slow matching up the dots because I was still hung up on my new life as a bougie bitch.

When our DJ friend excuses herself to get ready for her soundcheck, I see that short-lived vision of my future morphing into my new life as an accidental groupie. My other friend and I sit in silence as the band converse between themselves in hushed tones. I try to earwig some of their conversation with the subtlety of a monster truck. I smile to myself when I hear the familiar sound of my mother tongue of Lingala.

I should ask them something, I think. After all, I am here on a research mission for a script I’m writing on the global impact of Congolese music. Yeah, okay, that’s a good opener, I think. (I’m also, truth be told, a little uncomfortable with how they weren’t even a little surprised at our presence in their private area. I want to shout “LOOK, I’M NOT ACTUALLY A GROUPIE, ALL I’M HERE FOR IS YOUR BOTTLED WATER AND MAYBE SOME GRAPES OKAY” in my anxiety to nip that whole vibe in the bud). Instead I settle on an awkward:

“Are you all…um, excited for tonight?”

One of the men, the one sitting closest to me, smiles and nods.

“Yes.” I wait for more.

Nothing.

“Cool,” I say. “So, how many times have you performed in London?” I ask. He begins to answer, then stops half-way through and gives me a rueful smile.

“Truth be told, my English isn’t all that great,” he says in Lingala, then attempts to repeat it in English.

“Don’t worry,” I say, seeing my chance. “I understood what you said in Lingala. I’m actually Congolese, too.”

Four pairs of Congolese uncle eyes turn to stare at me, each lighting up with excitement.

“You’re Congolese?” they all ask.

“Sure am,” I say proudly.

“You understand Lingala?” they ask.

“Sure do,” I say proudly.

“And you speak it, too?” they ask.

“Sure d… uh, well – ish?” I say, less assuredly, giving them that “children of the diaspora aye, what’re you gonna do, amiright?” shrug.

I see sparkling eyes dim a little in response.

“Not fluently.”

They dim a little more.

“I mean if I had to under duress I probably could,” I say with an alien laugh.

Blank eyes stare back at it.

But I can understand it. You know. Like all of it. Just not so great on the…speaking part.”

And out goes the spark of light completely.

“Oh,” they all say, and turn away.

I look down at my hands, trying to think fast.

But in that simple “oh,” I know I’ve lost my audience.

In that simple “oh,” I know it is anything but.

It’s a loaded “oh”.

Loaded with unfulfilled promise.

Loaded with decades of disappointment.

Loaded with words and phrases and looks and sighs from aunties and uncles and family friends and distant relatives and neighbours and pastors and mum’s friend’s brother’s third wife’s hairdressers… on discovering the lack of practice over the years has led me to partly forget my mother tongue.

“Oh,” this is what we’ve come to?

“Oh,” what happened to our legacy?

Oh,” you could’ve chosen to be better than this.

“Oh,” child, you are lost.

You are lost.

You are —

“Let’s go,” my friend says, breaking me out of my reverie.

I’m thankful we live in a city whose pace keeps impromptu existential crises to 30 seconds tops. “Bitch, keep it moving” is what London tells us. And so, we keep it moving.

We head into the DJ booth to gas up our friend during her set.

And (not to sound like a complete douche, but) suddenly, all there is, is good vibrations. (I know, I know, I know. Warned you).

She spins Congolese tracks and I feel like I’m on a different wave – I feel my soul lift up, I feel my shoulders lighten and my heart soars. I feel simultaneously at peace and geared up to take the world by storm.

At the end of our friend’s set, we head into the crowd for the night’s headline act. I can’t help but notice the audience. It’s a fully sold out gig for a middle-aged Congolese band from Kinshasa and 99.9% of the people in the room are young white hipsters. Rah, I think. Really?

The band makes a dramatic entrance through the crowd and they get up on stage to deafening applause. It’s not just the kind of applause you get from fans but superfans. They go into their first song and I still can’t help but look around at the room. They sing words in Lingala and the crowd cheers. I briefly wonder if anyone can understand them, before realising – it doesn’t matter. They then start to scream random primal cries into the mic and the crowd loses it.

“Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” is met with an accompanying scream from the crowd.

One guy near me adds a “Waaaaaaaakanda!”

I roll my eyes (haven’t they seen the SNL sketch?), and turn towards him, prepared to dish out a high rating on my douche-o-meter.

To my surprise, I find myself staring at the only other black person in the room.

I can’t decide if that makes it better or worse.

So, I bring my attention back to the band. They’re electric – exploding with fire and passion. Then comes the guitar solo – a classic in Congolese music called the sebene, where the guitarist lets loose for an extended period while the band hypes up the crowd to lose it all on the dancefloor. It’s traditionally the most exciting part of any Congolese artists’ performance.

I look at the crowd around me again, and I want to scream: YO, IT’S THE SEBENE. Move your hips, dammit!

There’s a guy in front of me moving his hips in ways I wish to immediately unseen.

AHHH! NO! Don’t move your hips!

I take stock of my internal conflict. Decide it’s time to have a talk with myself.

Yo, sis, what’re you doing?

Nothing, why?

Pretending you’re suddenly the sole authority on the “right way” to experience Congolese music? Bitch, you couldn’t even speak fluent Lingala to them, get a grip.

Wow. Harsh.

Okay, yes, that was a little harsh. But where’s your chill?
There is no “right dance”.
No “right words”.
No “right crowd”.
No “right way”.

There is nothing to prove. There is just what is.

And it’s then that I realise it wasn’t really about the crowd. For a brief moment, I had forgotten what I’ve always known:

I have never fucked with the phrase “You are lost.” So, why was I suddenly psyching myself out over it?

I’m not lost. I’ve never been lost.

… With the exception of that one time when I was six or seven and lost my mum in a supermarket for 20 minutes and fully believed I’d stumbled into my personal six-year-old-kid’s hell.

… And also with the exception of every time I travel around London without Citymapper.

… And sometimes with Citymapper because you’ll start walking then that dot thingy starts going in the wrong direction and then –

Okay, so I get lost a lot.

But not “lost-lost” in that soul/spirit/Julia-Roberts-in-Eat-Pray-Love kind of way.

“You are lost” is a phrase that has only ever implied that there is only one route, only one journey. And if you don’t carefully track the footsteps of those that came before you, you have veered too far off the path. And it’s a loss – to the family, to the community, to the legacy of the very history that made you.

But of course, that isn’t true. We don’t exist in binaries. And we, the “children of the diaspora”
in our “Franglais”
in our “I can understand you but can’t speak fluently with you”
in our passionate claims to boroughs in London as we simultaneously lay claim to the culture of Kinshasa
in our mesh
in our mess,
big and bold and beautiful,
have always been proof that it’s possible to know our history whilst creating something completely new that has a legitimacy of its own.

The very band I was watching was proof of that, too. That they could travel to a different city in a different continent, play an experimental fusion of sounds on instruments they made themselves, sing in their native Lingala to a sold-out crowd of almost-entirely white Brits whilst paying homage to the Congolese musical greats, and still have every single person in the room connect with every aspect of it…

It was transcendent.

I remember watching, entranced, as the magical spell was cast. And I forgot it all. My uncertainties about the future. Sadness at the state of our nation. Disappointment in a public majority who had just voted against my very existence and everything I stand for. Poofff – forgotten. Temporarily – but forgotten nonetheless.

From the corner of my eye, I spot the man moving his hips in a way I remember thinking could only objectively be described as dangerous.

We lock eyes.

He keeps going, but gives me “the nod”.

I give him a thumbs up in response.

I stop to watch him for a second. Tilt my head to the side, and suddenly I think “he’s not that bad.”

I smile to myself. Rah, there really must be magic in the atmosphere…

I lift my hands, close my eyes and sway.

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