Michael Jackson Thrilled The Kids in Zaire

I have only one Michael Jackson story.

Michael Jackson was an international pop icon for a very long time, because he started his career so early. He was also African American. Bob Marley predated Jackson, and was Afro-Caribbean. For these and various other reasons, the face of Bob Marley and the face of Michael Jackson adorned the walls and backbars of clubs and taverns throughout Zaire in the 1980s. Moreover, these were the ONLY faces one saw in these contexts.

Now, you have to understand that Zaire is to Afro Pop music what New Orleans is to Jazz. Or more so. Actually, Afro Pop music simply emanated from Zaire and all other contributing regions were satellites, back in the 1980s. So, at these clubs and taverns, it was Afro Pop being played, and you never, ever heard Bob Marley or Michael Jackson’s music. But their faces were always there, and everyone who lived in the mainstream Urban Congolese culture knew their names and understood their significance.

But, as I said, the actual artistic products of these two musicians were not necessarily known to most people directly. Especially the children who generally were not allowed in the taverns and clubs.

So one day, Bwana Ndege decided to fix that.

Bwana Ndege is a friend of mine who hails from Europe but who has lived in Zaire/Congo since the 1950s. Originally, Bwana Ndege had the job of book keeper on a plantation, and owing to the standard technological time warp experienced by this region of Central Africa, he kept the books with a quill pen. He kept the quill pen behind his ear. So the kids started to call him “Mr. Bird.” Now, go look up Mr. Bird in your handy dandy English-KiSwahili dictionary and you’ll get: Bwana Ndege.

Over time, Bwana Ndege became the owner of several plantations, married a local girl, and eventually gave up the plantations and moved to the city to run a safari company. Since his safari company was heavily involved in logistics, and he had an interest in the area of our research project (his plantations were in that general area) and for various other reasons, people on our research project in Zaire had a lot of interaction with Bwana Ndege. I stayed in his very comfortable home many times, and spent many a dinner there, followed by an evening in the living room sipping something or another, and every now and then depending on availability, watching an old movie on the VHS tape machine with Bwana Ndege, his wife, a few friends including local ex patriots and the occasional missionary.

There were also kids on the compound. These were children, grand children, nieces and nephews of several people in the household, including Bwana Ndege’s wife, his company’s managers, the cooking staff, his sister in law, and so on. I never had a very good idea of who these kids were exactly. But when the movies were on, the kids were gone. They did not live (most of the time) in the compound, but rather, at a different location, so by the end of dinner time, they would be home somewhere. We only tended to see them during the after school, pre-dinner period of the day.

So one day, Bwana Ndege sauntered into the living room were several of us were trying to stay cool while waiting for our truck to get fixed, and said, “Look at this!” as he placed something in the VHS player.

Moments later, the music video “Thriller” came on the screen.

“Some of the kids were asking who Michael Jackson is” he said. “Most of these kids have never even seen the TV working before. This will be fun!”

Later that evening, the children were rounded up and brought to the compound and into the living room. The atmosphere was festive. They knew they were going to see something on the TV. All these kids lived in households with no TV (or for that matter, electricity) but since they had links to this middle class household, they had some idea what a TV was, and in truth, most of them must have seen a glimpse of it now and then. But I remind you, they were here during the post school pre dinner phase of the day. If you know anything about these remote jungle cities, you’ll know this: That is when the municipal electricity is generally turned off. It is, in fact, nap time. So generally speaking, this was probably the first time most of these kids were able to sit down in a room with a TV and actually watch it. And what they were going to watch was Jackson’s over the top ground breaking music video, Thriller.

It was dark. Bwana Ndege turned off most of the lights so it was darker. He put in the tape. The machine made funny noises for a while. Then the music video for Thriller came on.

Some of the little ones seemed ready to cry. There was a great deal of shouting and general utterances of amazement. No one’s eyes left the television screen again. All of the children, and some of the adults who had seen it, were totally freaked out.

Then it was over, then there was silence. Then the kids started to yell.

Mara ingine! Mara ingine! Tena tena tena tena!

… And what do you suppose that meant, dear reader?

Remember thriller? Allow me to refresh your memory.

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0 thoughts on “Michael Jackson Thrilled The Kids in Zaire

  1. As a kid, we had a VHS of “The Making of Thriller”. I don’t know if it was a promotional item or what, but I remember watching it innumerable times. And wondering whatever happened to it, years later, and my father saying he honestly didn’t know. It contained a “behind the scenes” for the zombie makeup, the choreography, etc., and the whole tape was only about 20 mins long, 23-ish if you count the music video proper that starts it out.

  2. I like AfroPop. Once of my first and earliest exposures was to Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa”. He was Cameroonian but damn, that had a nice sound to it.

    And thank last.fm for suggesting similar artists.

  3. I was in Guinea (as in just plain Republic of) in 2003. Michael Jackson was on every box of matches and (1980s) Madonna was on every taxi when you were in the bush.

  4. Why was I shocked and saddened? I guess because I’m almost the same age as Jackson. I saw him as a kid on TV and while I appreciated his talent, I was saddened the allegations about him and his weirdness. Sad that the talented kid grew up to be a talented, weird guy who died young. Sad that for all the pleasure his music gave, he couldn’t get a measure of that for himself.

  5. Phil, I will guess that he had a better life than that, but I agree about the court cases. He was a target for con artists big time.

  6. Overheard:

    “I’ve been listening to him since I was six!”

    “Hey, you’ve been listening to him since HE was six!”

  7. He was no stranger than anyone else. He just wore his strangeness on his sleeve. And his face, and his general wardrobe.

  8. I always wondered how much of Jacko’s strangeness was aver very very well done act by a person who wanted to have a very private life.

  9. Yes, I play with African musicians here in the US and will tour Africa with a group this winter. It is exactly as you say: MJ and Bob posters everywhere.

    Love him, hate him. I respect his talent, although not a big fan, but I wasn’t real happy about his warped personality. As for the child sex allegations, of course I personally have no proof one way or the other, but I will say I thought it was awfully stupid of him to come out on national TV in 1991 and profess the glories of having other people’s kids in his bed).

    The fact is, he was a true ambassador of American culture to the third world, not just Africa, but Asia too. Everywhere. How many kids around the world taught themselves to dance by studying MJ videos? Millions would be a safe guess.

    And to his fans, the court cases are no obstacle to their love for him and his music. This week, we are living in a Michael Jackson world. Walk down any main street in any city and chances are, from somewhere, you’ll hear MJ being played.

    The fact is, in death, as in life, he’s everywhere.

    Only the top cream among even the most elite performers achieve that kind of status. You can’t take that away from him.

  10. “This video is not available in your country [Japan] due to copyright restrictions. ”

    Is it the thriller video ?

  11. “Mara ingine! Mara ingine! Tena tena tena tena!”

    Would you believe it, babelfish doesn’t do Swahili. If that’s even the language…

    “One more time ! One more time ! Rewind rewind rewind rewind” ?

  12. Mara = time.
    Ingine = different.
    Tena = again.

    Mara ingine can mean “another time” like “later” or it can mean “do it again.

    Tena simply means “again”

    So they were saying “Show it again, show it again. Again again again again!!!!”

    Or words to that effect.

  13. Love him, hate him. I respect his talent, although not a big fan, but I wasn’t real happy about his warped personality. As for the child sex allegations, of course I personally have no proof one way or the other,

  14. Hey Greg, I read this article with great interest. I found some old 45s from when I was a little boy living in the Congo (Leopoldville), circa 1965, and I am trying to identify them, however the names of the tracks and in some cases the names of the artists do not appear on any discography that I’ve been able to find online via Google. Names include Tabu Ley, Tora-Tora, Empompo Deyesse, B.E. Batta, and others. I am going to digitize and load them onto SoundCloud and hope that that social media venue can lead to listeners who might know more. Do you have any other suggestions? Thank you!

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