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In the heart of African music

Plucking a way out of poverty, Congolese musicians find fame brings the 'fortune' of taking a crowded taxi instead of a bus to work.

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Chances are, someone will recognize Gianni Mangoma as he strolls down bustling Oshwe Street, past the sidewalk cafes without names and the hawkers pushing everything from peanuts to neckties to tissue packs, past the stereo speakers thumping on every corner.

Someone might yell his name. Or maybe just "WaGianni" – "Gianni's people."

Mr. Mangoma might smile back – a boyish, sweet expression that masks a bit of ego – but he won't break his strut. He knows how to act cool, appropriate for an up-and-coming Kinshasa guitarist, a celebrity on these trash-strewn streets. He also knows the look: baggy jeans that sit below designer-name boxers, a chunky watch, a silver ring that catches the light when his fingers play the lilting notes that have long made this war-scarred city the center of African music.

"I'm a star," he says matter-of-factly.

This is how it is for musicians in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the third-largest city in Africa. They might not have money (that goes to band leaders who, true to the power dynamics in this country, rarely redistribute) or power (which everybody knows goes only to politicians and their friends). But Mangoma and the others who produce Kinshasa's soundtrack have something else: celebrity. And in this city, where almost everything is difficult, you take any edge you can get.

"Celebrity is really a resource in Kinshasa," says Bob W. White, an anthropology professor at the University of Montreal who has written a book – due out next year – on the Kinshasa music scene. "The musicians are well known, so they can drop in on someone and get something to eat; they can get picked up by a rich fan of the band and get a ride across town, and maybe some money for transport.... The way that people get ahead in Kinshasa today is either through politics or through music."

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