The Republic of the Congo (French: République du Congo), also known as Congo-Brazzaville or Congo Republic, located in Central Africa, is bordered by Gabon, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
As a former French colony that gained its independence in 1960, the Republic of the Congo is the birthplace of many kinds of puppets, some of which are unique in the world. Despite this wealth, puppetry research is scant, perhaps due to the diversity and the sometimes imposing social function (cultic, divination, medicine, funeral rites) of the art which leaves theatrical character in the background. Puppetry/masking can be divided into traditional performance and more modern entertainments.
Articulated and non-articulated figurines manipulated by indigenous priests had already been documented during the 17th century. These figures fought sorcerers and other spell-casters and would be accompanied by loud shouting and banging of the sculpted wood. In the 19th century, references are found to effigies with a moving arm that could bend to receive offerings.
Among the Kuyu, magnificent wooden statues with removable heads can be found. In the past, these statues were moved during initiation rites. These sculpted masterpieces, which now belong to prestigious African art collections (like the collection of the Musée National des Arts Africains et Océaniens, now part of the Musée du Quai Branly, in Paris), are usually exhibited without mention of their puppet function.
Among the Bembe, there were musical instruments called nsiba, sculpted in wood and played by blowing in the figure’s back, which resemble puppets. The anthropomorphic forms represented a nuclear family: father (Mampongui-nguembo), mother (Nsoni-boungou), daughter (Lembe-nsoni), and son (Mpandi-nsoni). These figures/instruments were carried during funeral rites by musician-performers whose legs alone are visible when viewed from a frontal perspective, except for the son who was held sideways since he represented the “baby”. The father led followed by his wife and two children. The quartet slowly moved in circle to a staccato rhythm, accompanied by horns, percussion instruments, and singers who followed the image bearers.
Some nganga (healers), in very theatrical medical sessions, used for therapeutic purposes a rounded pantin (similar to a jumping jack) – a dancer with a simian face. During the years 1950-1960, toy copies of this object were offered to tourists.
A major expression of Congolese puppetry, the kebe-kebe (alternate spelling: kiébé-kiébe, kyebé-kyebé, or kiephe-kiephe) remains linked to religion, the veneration of ancestors or the cult of images. Kebe-kebe is primarily puppetry with dance, music, and competition included. The Kuyu (or Koyo), Mbochi (or Mbosi) and Makua (or Makoua) peoples practise this complex art.
Origin stories are diverse. According to Alfred Poupon, administrator of the colonies in the early 20th century, a woman revealed the secret of kebe-kebe to a Kuyu chief. The Nuguilima and Ngaé Mbochi tradition teaches that this dancing marotte was created by women to entertain women. But after a dispute, women were driven out of the kebe-kebe organization by men who turned it into a war dance by adding chants and tam-tam (tom-tom) percussion. The frenetic rhythm, it is said, trains men for war, hunting or arduous work: to rule nature, man must surpass himself. Other sources state that the Mbochi people from Ebmoyi invented the institution: according to Sylvère Tsamas, three sellers of smoked fish returning from Téké-Alima country introduced this new dance from there.
The kebe-kebe has a strict hierarchy and is a powerful organization. The different lodges (kinda) have the following hierarchy from top to bottom: the yombi lodges are the sages who sit in plenary assembly and whose actions are marked by discretion. Although all-powerful, they do not appear so to the public. The andumbè or initiated lodges are administrators who assist the yombi and whose ostentation contrasts with the sages. The imbondo lodge has a double function: they are assistants to the andumbè as they assure transmission towards the non-initiated and are guardians of the puppets. The atsuambondzi lodge is comprised of the actor-showmen-acrobats who appear in masks and costumes. The ikamba lodge is made up of the sculptors specialized in the carving of the iboo l’ifuya (anthropomorphic wooden heads with a grip handle and sometimes crowned by an animal).
The kinda selects the forest area for the apprenticeship and training of the atsuambondzi and there the preparations and rehearsals for kebe-kebe take place.
Though the kebe-kebe has many traditional utilitarian functions (administration of public good, respect for property rights, protection of rare species, rule of societal life, cultural exchanges, etc.), presentations are also sensitive to modern life.
Performances are usually in the afternoon, outdoors on a village square, a sports field, or school courtyard, or somewhere the dancers can move freely. The Mbochi call the marotte an “angel” and name their trainers as “doctors”.
Sculpted heads represent the living, the dead and mythical ancestors – such as Djoku, the snake-born first man, and his wife Ebotita whose many children populated the world. In older performances, the stages of creation were represented with talking statuettes that appeared with the marottes. In more modern shows, political personalities – President Marien Ngouabi (1938-1977) and General de Gaulle (1890-1970) – can appear among the puppets.
The handlers of the marottes hide under a large covering of raffia or burlap that hides even the feet. This large pleated costume is attached to the base of the sculpted head. Guinea fowl feathers are stitched to the head and attached to the robe.
When the kinda lodges emerge, the marottes and their imbondo guardians stay behind the houses. The “angels” never stay alone because they must neither speak to nor hear humans.
The troupe forms a circle symbolizing its zone of influence and authority to others and foreigners are prohibited to enter the area. The drummers of the large tam-tam drums (angoo) are set up in front of where the figures will arrive. The drummers of the mid-size tam-tam drum (endomba) and small tam-tam drum (okimi) are on the right. The song masters stand or sit in the centre or on the perimeter of the circle.
The women arrive gradually and form a line, often to the right of the troupe, waiting to dance with the “angels”. The non-initiated (pombo) stand next to the initiated.
As they appear, performers with their respective marotte mime the gestures and behaviour of the character they represent. An old-time policeman will hold a stick to beat the natives and force them to work. A demon will appear with a spear like a warrior. The interlude is performed by the initiated, from the youngest to the oldest.
Kebe-kebe choreography principally consists of spinning while the body is bent and the concentric circles evoke a bat at rest. A good performer spins quickly (the number of spins per second is determined by the “angel”), can endure fatigue and shock, and makes regular circles (the signature move of the dance). Other movements include jumping, undulating like a snake, trembling, crawling, making small leaps, bending the head completely to one side then straightening, feigning loss of balance, and especially changing sizes. The figure, from being totally collapsed on the ground, in a single bound stands up 2 metres tall or more.
From its ritual and initiation origins, kebe-kebe has gradually become a largely secularized entertainment which today even recruits tourists to watch.
Entertainments and Modern Puppetry
“Toe puppets” (see Toe/Foot Puppet), were reserved for adolescents and originally communicated messages about sexuality. Today, the people who use these playthings (figures of a couple that mime intercourse on a looped string activated by the performers toes) emphasize the dance and sometimes hold a contest with several pairs of puppets competing. More audacious performers replace the traditional toe manipulation with finger activation.
In Brazzaville many entertainers, some from very far away, present circus acrobatics, magic tricks, and puppetry for passers-by and hotel guests. The puppets are sometimes made from old manufactured doll heads that the puppeteer manipulates by holding the hair. Social and political satire can be part of these small productions, which are primarily to entertain.
Travelling Puppet Theatres
During the 1960s, travelling puppeteers for the first time were found on the frontier of the Republic of the Congo and Gabon. The puppets were sculpted by Congolese but played in both countries. Esther A. Dagan described these performances which were composed of several short scenes inspired by daily life with adultery as a theme.
- Dagan, Esther A. Emotions in motion . . . La magie de l’imaginaire: marionnettes et masques théâtraux d’Afrique noire [Emotions in Motion . . . The Magic of the Imaginary: Puppetry and Theatrical Masks of Black Africa]. Montréal: Galerie Amrad African Arts, 1990. (In French and English)
- Darkowska-Nidzgorski, Olenka. “Au pays du kebe-kebe” [In the Country of the Kebe-Kebe]. Marionnettes. Unima-France. Nos. 14-15, 1987, pp. 33-40.
- Darkowska-Nidzgorski, Olenka, and Francine Ndiaye. “Marottes de la République populaire du Congo (Kuyu et Mbochi)” [Marottes of the People’s Republic of Congo (Kuyu and Mbochi)]. Le Courrier du Musée de l’Homme. No. 1, September 1977, pp. 3-4.
- Huet, Michel. The Dance, Art and Ritual of Africa. New York (NY): Pantheon Books, 1978.
- Poupon, M. Alfred. “Étude ethnographique de la tribu kouyou” [Ethnographic Studies of the Kouyou Tribe]. L’Anthropologie. No. 29, 1918-1919, pp. 53-58 and 297-335.
- Tsamas, Sylvère. “Le kyebe-kyebe” [The Kebe-Kebe]. Liaison. No. 59, 1957, pp. 61-65.