les Sapeurs; battle of the dandies

A good day to all of you…This is not a fashion blog.

Yet,  I can not resist reporting this spectacular fashion event, held just last night. An official part of the Amsterdam Fashion Week 2010, organised by the Prince Claus Fund and the Amsterdams fonds voor de Kunst. Quite an official gathering…

My interest was stirred first of all since this night out promised to be a fashion battle and   a few key members of  ‘Sapeurs’, members of  La SAPE (Société  des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elegantes) were invited.  On the catwalk Sapeurs  from  Congo, Ghana, Rwanda and Morocco elevated fashion to the status of religion.

Les Sapeurs create a totally different identity through expensive Western haute couture garments that are presented with African eccentricity. Looking good for les Sapeurs is just as important as following the rules of elegance and good manners.

One could call them dandies, more critical minds may discard them as idle poseurs or fashion victims. But whatever their image may evoke, their impact on African culture should not be underestimated.

Les Sapeurs started in the mid 70’s as a small group of Zairous Fashion Lovers who rebelled against the regime of president Mobutu of Zaïre who introduced the uniformed look. A look for men and women based on communist Mao suits, replaced  the suit and tie  of Zaïre’s colonial oppressors and banned European fashion in general.  Les Sapeurs found a new way of protesting Mobutu’s  regime by importing Western extravagant outfits from chic boutiques in  Brussels and Paris. Musician Papa Wemba was their idol; ‘le pape du Sape’.

La Sape was a very peculiar movement. At first glance it seemed ridiculous for a man in Kinshasa, in the midst of an economic crisis, to walk around with gaudy sunglasses, a colorful shirt by Jean-Paul Gaultier and a fur coat of mink, but the materialism of Sapeurs was social criticism, as punk in Europe in later years was. It depicted a profound aversion to the misery, poverty and repression that they knew and it allowed to dream of a carefree Zaïre.

La Sape was all about success, about visibility, and about scoring. Discothèques were entered with a combination of Chic, Choc et Chèque. The true Sapeur was űber cool, he moved and spoke with perfect control, he regaled his friends on beer and women were his easy prey. He was a dandy, a playboy, a snob. The Sapeur was not despised but admired. For many poverty-stricken youth his extravaganza kept hope alive.*

Les Sapeurs are following the footsteps of those dandies who flashed the streets of South African townships like Sophiatown and Alexandra in the 40’s and 50’s. These people were known as tsotsis and widely regarded for their immaculate sense of dress. And love of music too; marabi, jazz. Tsotsis had been named for the zoot suits they adopted just after World War II, but the name was also conveniently close to the Sotho verb ho tsotsa, meaning ‘to behave thuggisly’.

Gangsterism had a range of forms and social meanings. Many gangs had started out as genuine self-protection groupings for country boys prey to the wicked big cities; to survive, they had to learn that wickedness themselves. They progressed to demand protection money, traded in dagga and bootleg liquor and controlled the prostitution market.

They gathered their inspiration from movies about Al Capone and Cab Calloway, of whom they borrowed their trademark look; the zoot suit. And they dated the beautiful ladies; Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, Thandy Klaasen. They were going through that whole thing of the moll, the gangster’s moll.


Their attitude towards women performers-as to women in general- was not so respectful as singer Dolly Rathebe recalls:

‘We used to have it very tough in those days…Sophiatown was like New Orleans -it had the jazz, the fashion, everything! We had competition with Orlando -we used to call them turkeys because they spoke too much of the native languages like Zulu. To us, it sounded like gobble, gobble. We were proud of our Afrikaans and English.

Those from Alexandra were real raw and uncouth and used to go and raid other townships, starting fights and kidnapping women. They came for me once, said; ‘after the show, you’re coming with us’! I had to go with them. What choice did I have? Oh yes, it was tough…the police didn’t care about it, because later I reported that this guy had taken me against my will, but nothing happened. We were just kaffir meids (black girls), Bantus, so the police didn’t care. We found ways to survive. The tsotsis were the best dressed gangsters in town and eventually I settled down with one of them. He looked after me. It was just that kind of life, and we’d grown up with it.’*

*from the book ‘Soweto Blues -Jazz, Popular Music & Politics in South Africa’ by Gwen Ansell. 2004 Continuum Publishing New York-London

on the Amsterdam catwalk last night, the finest selection of les Sapeurs had no criminal connections nor did they belong to any gang of tsotsis. Les Sapeurs LOVE fashion with a Sexy, Afro Glam Wham Attitude!

African chic combined with  European fashion. Models striking a pose to bass-heavy raw African tunes and sophisticated NYC 90’s discotheque hits.  Two young boys on the decks,  “l’Afrique Som System” signed for the soundtrack; Asheru Alhuag & Ashwin Murli.

Certainly  a night to remember,  quite refreshing and what great fun. Vive les Sapeurs! Long live the African Renaissance!

all photographs©Soul Safari 2010

a selection from ‘les Sapeurs’ soundtrack right here


**excerpts from ‘Soweto Blues -Jazz, Popular Music & Politics in South Africa’ by Gwen Ansell. 2004 Continuum Publishing New York-London

*excerpts on La SAPE  from ‘Congo. A History’ by David Van Reybrouck‘. 2010 De Bezige Bij Publishing Amsterdam

Ensigo ‘East Africa in Binaural’ -interview with Aaron Appleton

sometimes great music comes as a digital download. After listening to the content of the album  ‘East Africa in Binaural’ I became enchanted by the music and also intrigued by the question why a young American would travel to the heart of rural Uganda and record traditional music in uncertain conditions.

‘East Africa in Binaural’ is an outstanding album of authentic traditional music from Uganda and Rwanda, compiled and recorded between August and December 2006 entirely on location using churches, mud huts, bedrooms, town halls and the outdoors as the studio.

Rwandan Teachers on Lunch Break

The intended purpose of this album was to bring unity and reconciliation among the divided people groups of the communities where the recordings were made, to be used as source of income for the musicians recorded, and to help to document and preserve the traditional music of Uganda & Rwanda.  Now released to the public as a way to raise funds for the non-profit organization Ensigo.

Click here for listening to the full album and downloads.

Here is an exclusive interview for Soul Safari with Aaron Appleton, an ethnomusicologist/producer working in Africa, Central America and South East Asia who produced and recorded  ‘East Africa in Binaural’

Why record music from Uganda & Rwanda?

This is fairly difficult to answer because there are so many factors that have led to my work in Uganda and Rwanda, so I will try to answer this question through a story from my journal:

“September 2006
It’s amazing how the seemingly small action of one person can change your life forever. Radiant sunbeams shone through the crack in the front door washing my face in its brilliance and waking me from my peaceful slumber. The small Ugandan mud hut suddenly became a bustle of activity as the able bodied women hurriedly prepared breakfast for the family over an open flame. Meanwhile Mbaziira, Aboki and I waited in the sitting room. Aboki was a gentle and kindhearted woman. Years of hard labor grinding millet, fetching water, and working in the fields showed in the wrinkles on her delicate face and calloused hands. She was in desperate need of surgery to have a kidney removed. Unfortunately the family was unable to afford the doctor’s fees so she has been in constant pain for the last several months. Daily tasks like physical labor and even talking were an arduous chore for her to perform taking its toll on her now fragile body. Yet there was a vibrant spark of life that I caught from the twinkle in her eye and radiant smile when I asked questions of her favorite memories from childhood.

“Aaron you have been a blessing to us and are most welcome in Uganda.” Said Aboki, as she presented me with several meticulously handcrafted baskets which had taken her weeks to make. These baskets were her main source of income and she freely gave them to express her love. I struggled to hold back the tears, as I was moved by this incredible act of generosity. After regaining my composure I made the simple promise to Aboki and the rest of the Upendo family that I would be back to Uganda to help musicians like her and others in her country.”

I was first drawn to East Africa because of the richness of its musical history.  Located on top of the African plateau, Uganda’s moderate climate, fertile soil and strategic location drew all three of Africa’s major people groups to settle there thus creating many secondary cultures and musical forms.  The pygmoids brought their intricate vocal styles and body percussion, the negroids brought their heavily rhythmic music and aggressive dancing, and the hamites brought their intelligent and poetic musical lyrics.  With this unique intermarriage of cultures and music from all across the continent one can say that Uganda is in essence the microcosm of Africa.  In this climate of diversity and cross-cultural interaction many creative musical forms and instruments have emerged positioning Uganda as a melting pot for musical innovation.  Equally as intriguing is the traditional music of Rwanda…with its hauntingly beautiful minor melodies sung over the top of complex polyrhythmic beats.

Aside from the research of legendary ethnomusicologists Peter Cooke, Gerhard Kubik, and Klaus Wachsmann on Kiganda music of the Baganda tribe, there has been very little research or documentation of the music of the more than 60 tribes in Uganda.  This also helped to fuel my curiosity of discovering and recording music that has never been heard by Western listeners.

Are you working as a musician or cultural anthropologist?

For this particular project I was working as a student, producer, humanitarian and ethnomusicologist.  I did this project through Food For The Hungry, which is an international relief and development organization.  I recorded and researched for it between August 2006 and December 2006.  It was recorded entirely on location in Uganda & Rwanda using churches, mud huts, bedrooms, town halls and the outdoors as the studio.  Initially the album was used as benefit and academic project in which I produced both a research paper and an album.  It was replicated and distributed to the musicians in the primary villages where the recordings were made (Piswa & Bukwa Uganda) which are members of the Sabine tribe. The intended purpose of the album was to bring unity and reconciliation among the divided people groups of the communities where the recordings were made, to be used as source of income for the musicians recorded, and to help to document and preserve the traditional music of Uganda & Rwanda.  But I am now releasing it to the public to be used as a way to raise funds for the non-profit organization Ensigo.

Acholi is the name of a tribe from Northern Uganda

Why choose traditional tribal music instead of a selection of contemporary popular music from those countries?

In my honest opinion the contemporary music of Uganda and Rwanda is some of the worst music I have ever heard.  The vast majority of popular artists create sequenced instrumental tracks in a Digital Audio Workstation called FruityLoops and mimic Jamaican reggaeton styles.  Many of the musicians and professors that I interviewed in my research voiced a concern with the loss of Ugandan culture.  In conversation with Professor John Ssempeke (son of the famous Kiganda musician Albert Ssempeke) at Uganda’s national Museum the professor of traditional African music expressed “Slowly our culture is being lost to westernization.  I believe that one day in the near future our precious Ugandan culture will become totally lost, and people will long to have it back.”

Through interactions with local musicians and reading about the history and variety of musical instruments across the region I discovered how truly intricate and complex Ugandan music is.  Experiencing the complexities and perfected artform of the music made me even sadder that so many youth are forsaking their traditional music roots for western pop music.

In what way do you feel that this project is different from other aid-organisations?

I feel that Ensigo is unique in that we choose to focus on music as a potential avenue of overcoming both economic and spiritual poverty.  We believe that music is one of Africa’s greatest resources.  If you look at many of today’s contemporary music styles you discover that many of them can be traced back to Africa. Multiple genres ranging from: hip hop, blues, jazz, rumba, bluegrass, funk, soul, R&B, rock & roll, swing, reggae, and many others have emerged from the African diaspora and richly blessed the world. It is our hope to focus on this area of music by deeply investing in, and partnering with virtuous musicians from the developing world.

What was the biggest challenge for you to record this music? And the biggest reward?

I would say that the biggest challenge is adjusting to the various cultural norms in the countries where I work…and tyring to find out how NOT to offend people as fast as I can:)  It is also kind of hard trying to adjust to the differences in how time is viewed in East Africa as opposed to how it is in a Western context.  So I usually have to work on growing in my patience quite a bit:)

There are so many rewards!  The people of Uganda are some of the kindest and most hospitable people I have encountered.  On several ocassions I have found myself meeting a stranger on the street one afternoon then spending the rest of the day with them, meeting their family and eating with them at their home.  I have also been overwhelmed by the appreciation shown to me in some of the rural areas where I recorded, with whole towns coming together and throwing a party…and in one situation giving my friend and I a goat as a present 🙂

The ‘Aids’ song; is this song a warning or promotion for the use of condoms?? Teached in schools probably?

The AIDS poem was recorded on a mountaintop in the very rural village of Piswa Uganda.  It was recited by 4 female students from the Kapchoros Secondary School.  The poem mentions nothing about being for or against condoms.  While abstainance is a widely taught method for HIV/AIDS prevention in primary and secondary schools, I found that condom usage is strongly promoted for adults in Uganda and Rwanda.

Who is the singer on ‘Luganda Improv’? and what is the song about?

This singer on the track “Luganda Improv” is my good friend Ntare Davis.  This song was recorded in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala.  Ntare and I would often write and record music together.  One day I came up with this guitar part and started recording and Ntare started singing the first words and melodies that came to his head.  It is sung in the language of Luganda, which is the language of the Buganda tribe.

The Nnabagereka (queen) of Buganda, Sylvia Nagginda, is adorned in traditional Samburu jewellery.

The Nnabagereka (queen) of Buganda, Sylvia Nagginda, is adorned in traditional Samburu jewellery.

What is more important to you; the rhythms or the words/poetry? Words that you may not understand, why do they speak to you?

I believe that both the lyrics and musical structure of a song are vitally important.  However for me personally the thing that I notice first about a song is the musical structure.  For some strange reason it seems that the songs which ignite my creative imagination most are ones sung in languages I don’t understand.  Groups and artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Muzykoterapia, Oliver Mtukudzki, 椎名 林檎, and Sigur Rós demonstrate a wonderful ability to transcend barriers and divides. Their music stands out as a form of communication that has an incredible ability to initiate intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding.

I think what draws me so much to African and “world” (I hate the term world music…because it always makes me think of cheesy synthesizers and way too much reverb:) music is the creativity and the utter joy you feel when first encountering that music and realizing that you’ve never heard anything like this before in your life; it transports you to a place where words seem to be irrelevant.

Why is it important to save this music for the future?

These songs are beautiful artifacts of a vibrant culture that I believe are not only important for the tribes where they come from to preserve but for the world to hear.  The raw beauty and honesty portrayed in these songs that reflect a nation’s pulse should be as important to preserve to Ugandan’s and Rwandan’s as Spirituals like Swing Low Sweet Chariot or Oh Mary Don’t You Weep are to American culture.

An excerpt of a poem by 19th Century American poet  Augustine Joseph Hickey Duganne titled The Poet And The People aptly describes this:

“Songs are a nation’s pulses, which discover
If the great body be as nature will’d ;

Songs are the spasms of soul,

Telling us when men suffer :
Dead is the nation’s heart whose songs are still’d.”

Recommended Listening

To download or stream the album “Ensigo: East Africa In Binaural” click here