Céline Banza: Praefatio

Indelible Introduction

Listening Post 308. Céline Banza’s voice is so utterly captivating it seems to eliminate emotional distance, merging melancholy with hope, grievance with comfort, artist with audience. On her debut album the Congolese singer-songwriter tells stories of love, separation and chauvinism—plus childhood innocence lost and miraculously recovered. Time has been as thin as space in her 24 years: Born in Kinshasa in 1997, she composed songs before age seven and her father gave her a first guitar for encouragement. But her parents died and she went to live in distant Kisangani with family members who tried to thwart her musical dream. Undaunted, she made her own way onto streets and stages, finding surrogate kinship among local artists. She did her first show at the Alliance française when she was 16 and then, in successive momentous strides, returned to Kinshasa, earned a degree in ethnomusicology at the National Institute of Arts, did some theater and film, and in 2019 won Radio France International’s Discovery Prize for young African artists, leading to the contract for Praefatio (Preface). With her satiny vocals and iron resolve Banza channels personal experiences and those of friends. Her style is Afro-chanson, with veins of folk and blues; she sings in her native Ngbandi—an expression of identity in a polyglot country—French and English. The album opens with Tere Mbi (My Body, video 1), an assertion of her value as a woman. In Na Mileli (My Sorry Fate, video 2), a ballad of interrupted love, she laments a promise betrayed. Two tracks about street life—Sur le pavé (On the Pavement, video 3) and Mbi Lo (Here I Am, video 4)—capture aspects of the artist’s journey. Closing another gap, Mbi Ndo Yemo (I Love You) expresses longing for a distant but ever-present partner. Bold and beauteous, Praefatio is a tour de force—and it’s just the overture. (Bomayé Musik)

 

Tere Mbi / My Body
Lyrics: Céline Banze/Music: Céline Banza, Jeff Kikasa

In Tere Mbi, Céline Banza asserts her worth as a woman. She was appearing in a play called Three Angry Women and the director asked her to compose a song expressing a woman’s right to happiness and ambition and the anger over what they often suffer from men. “You think you can buy my soul,” the lyrics say, “You mistake me for a commodity or a slave.” It was Tere Mbi that earned Banza the 2019 Discovery Prize (Prix Découvertes) from Radio France International. (Performed in Ngbandi.)

 

Na Mileli / My Sorry Fate
Lyrics: Céline Banze/Music: Céline Banza, Jeff Kikasa

(Performed in French and Ngbandi)
What did you say in your letters and messages?
That if I ever leave, you have no more history, if I ever leave, you have no more Life
What have you done with our photos, our songs, my music and myself

Na mileli awa okeyi/Otiki nga, kasi na mabanzo na nga
Oko zala always present/My heart is running with blood, in my dreams I see you

Ena mo lo nzoni, ta mbi inga nda memo, gwé mo ke ti sango, mbima
What did you say in your letters your messages, oh
That if I ever leave, you have no more history, if I ever leave, you have no more Life
What have you done with our photos, our songs, my music and myself
But what have you done with our photos, our songs, my music and myself

Na mileli awa okeyi/Otiki nga, kasi na mabanzo na nga
Oko zala always present/My heart is running with blood, in my dreams I see you

Ba mbi ngbi kpi yakele, ngbi kpi yakele yakele (in my dreams I see you)
My heart is running with blood, in my dreams I see you
Imbi songo oko

 

Sur le pavé / On the Pavement
Lyrics: Céline Banza, Étienne Russias/Music: Étienne Russias, Fonkodji Balume

(Performed in French)
I am eight years old, street child/Yet I have a family that has never disappointed me
I find new fathers on the street/New mothers, sisters, brothers
My landmarks

15 hours a day, taxi driver/From long before daybreak until long into the night
Labor pays whatever/He smiles at me then, happy to see me

My father is like my mother/Hard-working, he leaves me lonely
She labors in offices/Emptying baskets, splashing buckets of water

We don’t talk about traffic jams/She didn’t see my youngest age
My mother is like my father/Hard-working, she leaves me lonely

2 p.m., home from school/Without parents, without icons, without idols
Like the grown-ups, I want to run on the street/In their short skirts I find allies
My sisters are like my brothers/Attentive, they show solidarity

They are waiters, customers or motorcycle taxi drivers/From Kasaï or Etouries
Offering me a word, a smile, a sweet/Not a street worker fails to introduce himself
My brothers are like my sisters/Attentive, they reveal themselves: They share

I am eight years old, street child/Yet I have a family that has never disappointed me
I find new fathers on the pavement/New mothers, sisters, brothers
My landmarks

Between two cars they get into/Between two bills that the money changers count
One day like any other, at the bar right there/I agreed to go to a strange place

My sisters are like my brothers/Busy, they let me do too much
I still know this nice daddy/Every evening he offered me a soda

Don’t follow strangers/It was the advice of street girls
When he starts to undress/I want to run away but the door is closed

 

Mbi Lo / Here I am
Lyrics: Céline Banza, Jeff Kikasa/Music: Céline Banza, Paul Kambembo, Fonkondji Balume

(Performed in Ngbandi)
They said I would never make it/They said I belong on the streets
That I was a problem girl, a girl with no future …

When they saw me making music, they told me I didn’t stand a chance!
I was alone, facing risks, alone in the street life …

Today/Here I am
I am here with you, with this music, my music and my guitar

Something told me I shouldn’t stop believing/That I shouldn’t stop dreaming
My friends were there for me/They became my family!
The music that was supposed to destroy me, well, instead kept me alive

Today/Here I am
Here with you, with this music, my music and my guitar

 

Mbi Ndo Yemo / I Love You
Lyrics: Céline Banze/Music: Céline Banza, Jeff Kikasa

(Performed in Ngbandi and English)
I sleep, I see you
I wake, I see you
I eat, I see you again

And yet
When it comes time to touch you, you’re not there …

An ocean of joy when I see you
An ocean of tears when I look for you

I love you
Even though I know you can’t reach me
I don’t want to stop loving you
I love you, even though I know you can’t reach me

 


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