Mind your language

Bongo

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

Alexandra Shulman was on Desert Island Discs this summer and one choice was ‘Bongo Bong’. Its words tell a simple story: ‘Mama was queen of the mambo. / Papa was king of the Congo. / Deep down in the jungle / I start bangin’ my first bongo.’ Such were his talents that: ‘Every monkey’d like to be / In my place instead of me / Cause I’m the king of bongo, baby, / I’m the king of bongo bong.’ But when he goes to the big city, ‘They say there is no place for little monkey in this town. / Nobody’d like to be / In my place instead of me.’

With his band Mano Negra, the singer Manu Chao, of Franco-Spanish background, first had a hit with the song under the name ‘King of Bongo’ in 1991 on the album of the same name. It next appeared with almost identical lyrics on his solo album Clandestino (1998). I am not aware that anyone complained of his offensively ‘homogenising’ Africa with his bongo and monkey stereotypes. But then Manu Chao aches for street cred, and publicises the thoughts of Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatistas in Mexico.


‘King of Bongo’ came out five years after Margaret Thatcher appointed Alan Clark as Minister for Trade, in January 1986, despite someone having told her that he was unacceptable because of his ‘remarks about Bongo-Bongo land’. These were made a year earlier, when he was at the Department for Employment. In response to reports of black protests against ethnic monitoring, he said: ‘You mean to say they don’t want us to collect their names and addresses because they are afraid we’ll be going to hand them over to the immigration service so that they can send them all back to Bongo-Bongo Land.’

The journalist who reported that story in the Guardian at the time, James Naughtie, interviewed Godfrey Bloom, the Ukip MEP, last week about his opposing aid to ‘Bongo-Bongo Land’. Mr Bloom said he liked upsetting the Guardian and the BBC. Mr Naughtie said: ‘You’re not upsetting anyone here. It’s quite entertaining in fact.’ But he wondered if someone might be offended. Mr Bloom’s party found it ‘wrong language’ that ‘could seem disparaging’ and told him so.

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