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“The white man might have invented clothes,” concludes Brazzaville Congolese musician King Kester Emeneya modestly. “But we have turned it into an art.”
‘The SAPE began when the Congo was a French colony,” clarifies Tamagni. “Many Congolese people were fascinated with French sophistication and decided to emulate the French mode, and their style was further developed during the shift to independence. In the seventies and the eighties, many Congolese immigrants went to France and on their return to Brazzaville brought back ‘the cult of elegance.’”
Indeed, many sapeurs, such as KVV Mouzieto (who works on the Paris Metro but comes back to Brazzaville every summer) believe in the “Matsoua” religion that instigated by Congolese intellectual, Andre Grenard Matsou -who lived for a period in Paris and worked for the French army- lies at the core of Le Sape. A man with a mission, Matsou fought for human rights and freedom from the colonial powers and as such achieved fame as a revolutionary, prophet and consequently- a national hero. Known as the first ‘Grand Sapeur’, he was said to have returned from Paris in 1922 and, as the first Congolese to dress as an authentic Frenchman and not in trad African robes, initially caused indescribable uproar among his fellow countrymen followed by subsequent admiration.
“To go to Paris- the capital of fashion – is historically the dream of a Sapeur,” informs Tamagni. “ This is where they would all like to go one day. Some succeed in obtaining a visa but for others it remains an improbable ideal. Sapeurs all have the same dream: to go to Paris and return to Brazzaville as an aristocrat of ultimate elegance.”
Of course, le sapeur might easily be compared to the young men folk of the Samburu Masai who, by dyeing their hair red and wearing tons of beaded jewellery, easily out do their women folk. In truth, Le Sap, are markedly more radical than any of their African counterparts. In fact, by seizing the accoutrements of their so-called betters they have more in common with the British Teddy Boy of the early fifties (who adopted the style of the moneyed New Edwardians and moulded it to their own devices) than any latter day African fellow.
Irrefutably, it is this blatant refusal to kow tow to the rather dullard rules that society inflicts that has been inherent in every youth cult in the UK since the war – it is what makes us tick. And no different are Le Sapeur. In fact many latter day, Le Sapeur, rose out of the bedlam of the President Mobutu era, their idiosyncratic aspect – as much a means of insurgence as a Sex ‘‘F**k Your Mother’ T shirt in the UK punk era- specifically chosen to both irk and defy the mad leader’s order that all French Congolese should dress in traditional African costume and enjoy only their indigenous culture. Deliberately individual, Le Sape used their appearance to rebel but coupling said portmanteau with a very simple gentlemanly tenet cleverly avoided the wrath of the dictator and thus voiced their invective. In effect, by using the culture of Le Sapeur they exercised a very subtle and thus effective ideological rebellion.