we like you
We arrived in Brussels for the first time. We had been warned that it was the most boring city in Europe. We asked at the hotel desk where the African quarter was and were directed to Ixelles. As we emerged from the Metro station it was obvious that we had come to the right place and soon found ourselves sitting outside a small bar in an arcade drinking cold beer listening to our favourite music and watching the Zairian flaneurs walking up and down, looking like fashion models, stopping only to pose for a photo and to greet friends with handshakes and laughter.
We checked out the record shops and wandered around the area. It was then that we discovered Mambo. The next night we discovered Swede Swede de Bruxelles playing in a small garage bar around the corner. From then on, for the next six or seven years, we went back to Brussels as often as possible, sometimes four or five times a year; not only to dance the night away at Mambo and see Swede Swede play, but also for concerts of other bands from Zaire touring Europe and who almost never got visas and work permits to play in Britain.
Each concert was videoed, to be shown later on TeleZaire when each band returned triumphant from a tour of Europe, and to be distributed to Zairian communities all over the world.
One Saturday night in summer we were in Mambo. The club was almost empty, we were too early. No matter how we tried we were always too early; no matter how late we arrived, everyone else seemed to arrive later. As we sat there drinking and listening to the music, catching sight of the occasional, fascinated but nervous, glances of the Zairians sitting opposite us; in walked three men. They talked loudly to each other and placed themselves conspicuously in the middle of the otherwise empty dance floor looking for all the world like off-duty policemen looking for some action in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We watched them as they made a nuisance of themselves and noticed that the Zairians quietly chose not to even see them. Outback we overheard them making derogatory comments about the condition of the place and racist comments about the kind of people who would come to such a dive. After a while they got bored of standing in the limelight, drawing attention to themselves, and so left.
By two o’clock the club was so packed you could hardly move and people were dancing in the corridors. The music was loud, the atmosphere was electric and we were discovering how to dance on the spot to African music.
At around four in the morning, just as we bought another drink, the doors flew open, the music stopped abruptly and suddenly the club was flooded with police pushing everyone around and ordering everyone to leave immediately. They behaved brutally towards the Zairians, and whilst we did not expect the fact that we were white to affect the behaviour of the police towards us, we did think for some strange reason the fact that we were English, not Belgian, somehow would make them more cautious. We were wrong, and as we pleaded for a few seconds to finish our drinks they were knocked from out of our hands. It was all we could do to get to the cloakroom and get our coats, as the DJ smiled nervously and apologised, before we were pushed into the corridor. Even though everyone had been drinking all night the Zairians refused to be provoked by their treatment.
As we stumbled out of Mambo into the early morning light we could not believe the sight in front of our eyes. From the entrance door of the nightclub right up to the end of the street were two lines of riot police with truncheons drawn expectantly. Above us in the sky was a police helicopter and all around were police cars and vans blocking off every side-street. The police were hostile, everyone was going to have to run the gauntlet and we expected to get beaten before we got to the top of the road.
As the Zairians emerged from the darkness of the club into the street they calmly dusted themselves down, re-arranged their clothes, linked arms with their partners or friends and coolly strolled through the police reception and along the street chatting to each other as if it was the most natural thing in the world. We did likewise. Some even stopped to take a photograph of their companions, dressed in Comme des Garçons or Versace, against a backdrop of a line of riot shields.
With flashing police lights everywhere, the helicopter spotlight trained down on the scene, the occasional camera flash; the Zairians, always well dressed and always the centre of attention, confidently managed to turn an ugly scene of harassment into a triumph; into a scenario of exposure, of celebrity, with the lines of police a guard of honour.
As everyone turned the corner, and out of sight of the police they burst into laughter, slapped each other on the back and hugged each other. We turned to a young Zairian walking next to us and said in French: “What attention…you are all stars.”
He laughed loudly and replied: “C’èst Mobutu.”
Some time later we were back in Brussels. A new nightclub had just opened on the other side of the city and we decided to try it out. We got there as late as we could and soon the place was jumping. At around three the doors flew open and once again the police flooded inside. On came all the lights, the music was stopped, the police lined the walls and blocked all the exits. This time everyone was being kept inside the club. We looked across the room and saw a worried looking policeman fingering his gun. It seemed that they were really expecting trouble.
A short police officer stood near the door and gave an order: “Papiers…papiers.” Another went slowly around the room collecting identity cards one by one, as the policeman opposite looked around nervously and fiddled with his gun. When he got to us we presented him with our passports, which he snatched from us. After what seemed an extraordinarily long time all the papers were thrown together in a large pile on a table.
The officer in charge then stepped forward and picked up an i-D card at random and slowly looked it over. When he was satisfied with it he read out the name as best he could, for the owner to step forward to be identified, and if all was in order, to have the document returned to them. As he attempted to read out the name it became clear to everyone that he had not had any lessons in Lingala (the official language of Zaire) and that the whole exercise was going to take the rest of the night.
He was trying for the third time to pronounce the name when someone spoke up and corrected his pronunciation and then stepped forward to collect their papers with a smile. The officer however was taking his duty very seriously. So onto the next unpronounceable name, the same thing, only this time two or three women tried to help the officer out, until the name was recognised and someone stepped forward.
By the third name, the officer began to realise his mistake, and stuttering, tried again to pronounce the name, only to be helped out again now by a group of women, who began giggling and talking as they repeated the name in various ways until someone recognised the sound of their own name. The atmosphere slowly seemed to change, as the Zairian women gradually turned the whole tedious exercise into a version of a television game show.
The rest of the police began to look at the officer bewildered and got even more nervous. They were losing control of the situation. We looked at the owner of the club who shrugged and seemed to say that if we were going to be here all night we may as well have some music. The music was then turned on very low behind us and could hardly be heard above the women’s debate and giggling.
Perhaps in an attempt to restore some authority and recover his dignity the officer picked up our passports, read out our names and we straightaway stepped forward one at a time to collect them. However, the next name was a disaster and took a good ten minutes for anyone to claim it and this time there was open laughter all round. The music grew slightly louder and two older women bravely got up, went to the dance floor, and started to dance slowly.
It was even worse with the next name and everyone cheered and applauded when the 1-D was finally returned to its owner. Two or three more people began to dance and we nervously joined them on the dance floor. At the next attempt the laughter was becoming contemptuous and we began to get worried about what might happen next. Suddenly the officer, red in the face with anger and embarrassment, threw down the 1-D card he was holding onto the table and then scattered them all across the floor in anger. He turned and stormed out of the front door. The rest of the policemen retreated from the club slowly, not turning their backs on us, until one by one they were gone.
The lights were left on just long enough for everyone to collect their papers. The music was immediately turned up loud but still could not be heard above the laughter and merriment. The owner offered everyone in the place a free drink and we returned to our stools by the bar. As we sat down the old Zairian next to us shook his head and turning towards us said:”C’èst Mobutu…il est fini.”
The very first time we saw Swede Swede de Brûxelles in Ixelles we were hanging around the club after they had finished performing when the soundman, a young Zairian, came over to us and asked us in English if we liked the music. Following our enthusiastic response he told us that if we liked this music we must go to Zaire, to Kinshasa and to the Matonge district. Here he told us there is music everyday and every night everywhere.
He then said with pride: “You will go there, come back home and sell everything and then go back there to live, happy for the rest of your life.” We believed him, but replied that we could never go while Mobutu was still in power.
We were asked many times over the years when we were going to Kinshasa and to Matonge. We always gave the same answer. Although most Zairians we met could be described as political (that is economic) refugees, our reason for not going to Zaire never seemed to make any sense to them. Some replied that it would be worse after Mobutu, others said: “But you are free to travel.”
Finally Mobutu, one of the longest surviving dictators of the twentieth century and one of the world’s richest men, was overthrown; not by the pro-Democracy movement but by a coup led by Laurent Kabila from the east of the country.
Shortly after this we went to the playing fields adjacent to the “notorious” Broadwater Farm Estate in Tottenham. It is here where every Sunday throughout the summer that London-Zairian football teams play against each other. Sometimes there is live music with women selling freshly barbecued fish and meat, and ice-cold beer. The men parade up and down and for one afternoon a week an African ambience fills the air of North London.
This Sunday the atmosphere was jubilant and everyone seemed full of anticipation for the arrival of democracy. People shook hands with us; some said that now they could return to their country to live, others said that now they could visit the country to do business, and we said that now we could go to Kinshasa…and to Matonge. Everyone laughed.
Someone replied: “When you go to Zaire you will be treated well by everybody…from the minute you arrive at the airport everyone will know you…”
We took this to be an expression of hospitality and replied: “You didn’t trust us for five years… it took you five years to trust us.”
“We thought you were Mobutu’s spies… ” was the reply, as everyone burst into laughter.
“When you arrive in Zaire, everyone will recognise you and treat you well… everywhere you go.”
We were confused.
“You have been on TeleZaire so many times, so many concerts… everyone knows you…you are stars in Kinshasa.”
© Art in Ruins 2000
This text was produced to accompany video We Like You: Swede Swede live in East London 1994
Rejected for documenta 11 curated by Okwui Enwesor, Sarat Maharaj and Ute Meta Bauer, 2002
Text first published in catalogue for the exhibition Contemporary Utopia Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, Riga 2001, curated by Frank Wagner. Incl. Julie Ault/Martin Beck, Stan Douglas, Valie Export, Liam Gillick, Katherina Sieverding, Wolfgang Tillmans, et al.
Text included as part of installation East International open exhibition, Norwich Gallery 2000, selected by Kieth Piper and Sebastian Lopez. Exhibition and catalogue.
Also included as part of installation Party Time, Art in Ruins, Galerie Camera Austria, Graz. 2000
See also: We Like You / We Live Here Project by Art in Ruins. Camera Austria No 71 Graz. 2000