Sapeurs of Congo – A gentleman of Bakongo | Sabotage Times
“Le Sap is our essence,” explains sapeur Willy Cavory a leading practitioner of , Le Sape – The Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (The society for people of elegance and ambiance)- otherwise referred as the ‘religion of clothing.’
“ It is our way of life and not just the dressing,” he continues. “ It is how we express our individuality and our character. Along with our families, Le Sap, is our reason for being. “
Cavory is part of a group of ‘sapeurs’ who emanate from, Brazzaville, the capital of The Republic of The Congo (AKA The French Congo or Congo- Brazzaville) and are the subject of a new, mainly photographic tome, The Gentlemen of Bakongo – The Importance of Being Elegant, by Italian snapper Daniele Tamagni.
A wonderful pictorial essay realised in vivid colour, the book captures the spirit, joie de vivre and creed of Le Sapeur who, with their strict code of honour, conduct and morality, enjoy a style that is certainly not lacking in eccentricity. But, when etched against the backdrop of a country torn apart throughout the 1990s by bloody civil wars which resulted in thousands upon thousands of civilian deaths, is positively more than a little surreal.
“ I found these guys after going on another job to Brazzaville,’ explains Tamagni on the phone from Milan. “I met one took his picture then another and soon I met them all. They are not rich men, are very democratic and amazed me by their manners, elegance and attention to detail that provides such a contrast with their shantytown which has been bombed to pieces. And like a lot of African villages is really very dirty, very messy and very haphazard. But they are normal people – anyone can be a sapeur, no one is excluded.”
Self-confessed dandies, Le Sapeurs, have taken the genteel art of dressing to its illogical conclusion. This particular group of sapeurs enjoy a style whose roots lie in salons of Paris of the twenties but is accomplished in tones bright enough to make one’s eyes smart. Indeed, the aforementioned, Sapologists, knowingly juxtapose symbols of glut, more in common with a seventies black Chicago pimp, against their impoverished shanty towns with astounding aplomb- spending a lot more money on their clothing than on their homes.
Eminent Sapeurs show greenhorn, Sapeurs, the ropes: how to behave socially, how to perfect their decorum and maintain their propriety, how to dress, how to talk, how to walk. Exalted by their community, Le Sapeurs are treated like out-and-out celebrities and wallow in the warmth of exaltation like the poseurs they indubitably are. Often paid to attend weddings, funerals and anniversaries their role is to confer events with a certain je n-est sais quoi that, inherited from an infinitely more courteous age, is entirely deficient in this the 21st Century
‘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.
Today, the cult has in true African fashion taken the principal and, using what is at their disposal, twisted the ethic to create something entirely their own. “The Sape is most definitely an art,” stresses premier league sapeur Hassan Salvadore the respected leader of The Piccadilly Group of Bakongo. “I learned how to dress from my father, [the famous Sapeur Hassan Malanda] but also by observing how television news presenters dress. It is always different for each individual. “
And without a doubt the odd personal quirk abounds. 24 year old Michel favours a white Eton collared shirt, a black and white bow tie, a pipe and a walking stick, another a shocking pink suit teamed with a scarlet bowler hat, tie and shoes while another rum chap Ferolle dons knee high socks, a Tam O’ Shanter and full Scottish evening dress replete with kilt and sporran. “I love the style of the Scotsman,” clarifies Ferolle on the phone from Brazzaville. “ To me it is the utmost of elegance and has to be worn with pride and good manners. As a Sapeur you have to find your very own style, something that is you and the Scottish man’s style is me and many people love it.”
Yet, different in style from their Parisian, Brussels or even Kinshasa counterparts (who follow the example of icon Papa Wemba and trade in brash and eminently tacky designer labels like Cavali and Versace) domestic Bakongo sapeurs such as KVV Mouzieto adopt a style more reminiscent of an Edwardian gent on LSD with a bit of the eighties thrown in., What all Sapeurs, the world over, have in common, however is tons of the ‘blingingest’ gold jewellery dripping from every compartment while the obligatory Cohiba cigar that, for the most part remains unlit, is a given.
“The cigar is the symbol par excellence of the sapeur,” states sapeur, Hassan Salvadore. “The cigar is expensive and has a very important role because it gives value to the suit worn, although it has to be used carefully as a gentleman sapeur is always expected to ask his neighbour, even if he is not in a non smoking area, if he may light his cigar. The cigar is a symbol therefore of excellence and refinement. It is the tool of the Gentleman.”
Undeniably, Le Sapeur lives by commonly agreed aesthetic regulations. “A good Sapeur has to know the rules of harmoniously matched colours without being excessive,” attests Tamagni. “ Their idea of perfection is to combine a maximum of three colours for each outfit. It is important to distinguish between the gentlemen who can wear colourful clothing. Diplomat (usually a politician, an ambassador, a television journalist). The latter has to combine dark tonalities in the choice of socks, shoes, trousers, jacket, shirt, tie and so on, which means different nuances of blue tones, or grey or black. He is obliged to wear specific kinds of clothes and with more conventional colours. The Gentleman is an artist and can wear both conventional and fancy, vivid clothing. In any case eccentricity should never overcome the principles of elegance, according to the Sape. A sense of measure and a good culture is always required.”
It might be easy enough to dismiss the ethic as frivolous excess in times of hardship but the discipline extends above and beyond a pair of trousers “I thinks that a real Sapeur needs to be cultivated and speak French fluently, “informs Hassan Salvadore. “ But he also must have a solid moral ethic: that is beyond appearance and vanity of smart, expensive clothing because there is the moral nobility of the individual.”
“The Sape is an art and real gentleman have to know the concept of gentleness and good manners related to the inherent moral code of the individual,” affirms Tamagni. “ This is why, for these reasons, some famous Sapeurs with a certain culture, experience and refined manners teach those who want to become Sapeurs how to dress and how to behave in a social context. It is more significant to know the rules of elegance than have a Dior or a Versace outfit and not know how to dress.”
Most Sapeurs are Catholic and attend church regularly, dressed to the nines, their ‘do unto others’ attitude in keeping with a profound, and many might say ‘refreshing,’ interpretation of the New Testament. “In my book you will see a picture of a priest in military uniform,” states Tamagni. “He is the priest of the Sapeurs and as he told me: “I dress like a sapeur because the sapeur is a good reflection of God. We respect other people, we don’t like war, we like peace and we have a moral code that is very Christian.’ This is very important for the Brazzaville sapeurs.”
“The sapeurs relationship with the faith is important are believers, they share Christian values,” adds Tamagni. “ During a church service the preacher will always speak about peace and violence and turning the other cheek, and when there’s trouble brewing a true sapeur will always try dialogue, always try to be diplomatic and avoid conflict to the last because a true Sapeur does not hate others while many might have seen war and death first hand.”
Of course such moral high ground has attracted the attention of the government who have attempted to use the group to their own ends. During the celebration of independence last year the authorities invited Le Sapeurs to attend (and thus support them) because, held high esteem, they add glamour, sophistication and positivity to any event. But many sapeurs declined the invitation. As Tamagni attests “A real sapeur is a revolutionary and many do not want to align themselves to any party because tomorrow there might be another election or even a coup and they want to remain totally autonomous.”
Yet, hanging out in the bars of Brazzaville such as the Baba Boum, Le Sape do what guys do – they drink, talk and dance to the Cuban rhythms of Rumba and Charanga, which originated in the Congo and were re-imported from Cuba in 1940’s and 50’s and still dominate the dance floors. Occasionally Le Sapeur hold exhibitions in which they, just as their Parisian counterparts, challenge each other to stylistic jousts or throw downs – their armaments or moves being a Panama hat, a bow tie or even a pair of socks. “ Braces from Jermyn Street, England,” one might say as he opens his purple jacket,” “ Orange tie with matching socks, handkerchief and pants. Beat that!” might call another with a spin.”
“Now that many Congolese Sapeurs live in Paris, the Sape is in continuous change,” explains Tamagni. “Some Sapeurs like to call it, ‘Sapologie’ like a science or a religion: they have their blog where they discuss, they theorize, and they make videos. Many Sapeurs from the Democratic Republic of Congo live in Brussels, and claim Sape was born in Kinshasa. However, what I have tried to document is just a part of the story
from Bakongo-Brazzaville: the real cradle of the Sapeurs.”
“The white man might have invented clothes,” concludes Brazzaville Congolese musician King Kester Emeneya modestly. “But we have turned it into an art.”
The Gentlemen of Bakongo – The Importance of Being Elegant is on Trolley Books