Just as the name Guinea crops up in the names of several countries but also once referred to a great swathe of the African continent, the name Congo appears in the name of both the Republic of the Congo (in whose capital, Brazzaville, we find ourselves briefly now) and the considerably larger Democratic Republic of the Congo (known as Zaïre until 1997). Geographically, it also refers to the lush rainforest at the great green heart of Africa, which fills and surrounds the enormous Congo River basin.
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And just as Guinea, in the form of a guinea pig, eventually came to be erroneously attached to something that actually originated on the other side of the Atlantic, in the early 1900s Africa’s Congo basin gave its name to a dance that found its way onto Western dance floors not from Africa, but from six thousand miles away in northern Latin America.
The drunken staple of countless office parties, the conga is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a dance ‘usually performed by several people in single file, and consisting of three steps forward followed by a kick’. It was first described in English back in the 1930s (when a 1935 edition of a magazine called Dancing Times helpfully explained that ‘the conga is not a ball-room dance’), but it is likely that the dance itself developed slightly earlier than that date would suggest.
The name conga is thought to come from American Spanish (either via Spanish speakers in the United States, or via Latin America) and began life as the danza conga, or literally ‘the dance of the Congo’. It’s possible that this rowdy, beat-driven dance genuinely has its origins in African tribal rituals; tellingly, a Congo dance, performed by African slaves in the southern states of North America, was recorded in American English in the early nineteenth century. But it’s just as likely that the name was concocted only to give the impression that the dance had some kind of ancient or ritualistic origin in the tropical heart of Africa. Whatever its true origins, however, either erroneously or genuinely, it was the Congo that gave us the conga.