Ode to Ota Benga
by Lester Allyson Knibbs, Ph.D.
(formerly Hakeem Muhammad)

A Historical Lecture
With Piano Improvisations

In 1906, a man from the
Congo was put on display in the Bronx Zoo.  Forty thousand people a day came to see the "monkey man".  This is a true story.

In 1904, this same man, along with five other forest people ("pygmies") were on display, along with dozens of groups of people (so-called "natives") from around the world, at the St. Louis World's Fair.

Between 1885 and 1900 the population of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo was reduced from between 20 and 30 million to 9 million under the administration of King Leopold of Belgium.

My "Congo Project" -- of which the "Ode to Ota Benga" is a part -- is being done in remembrance of these events. 
Background: Events in the Congo
For photograph of Ota Benga showing off his teeth for visitors at the St. Louis World's Fair
Bibliography, Alphabetical by Author
Bibliography, by Category
"Ode to Ota Benga" (a work-in-progress) was first presented at the Bronx Academy of Arts & Dance ("BAAD!"), in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, on June 30, 2001.
Read "Scandal at the Zoo" by Mitch Keller, August 6, 2006, in The New York Times.

Part One.  Ota Has a Friend

Improvisation:  Short, subdued musical introduction.
Lecture:  Ota Benga on display in the zoo, in a cage with an orangutan.

Part Two.  The St. Louis World’s Fair
Improvisation:  Extended, busy musical treatment of the fair’s excitement and diversity of cultures.
Lecture:  Ota Benga and the Batwa at the fair.  Many other peoples.  Ota meets Geronimo.

Part Three.  Interlude
Improvisation:  Quiet musical interlude.

Part Four.  Devastation of the Congo
Lecture:  Ota Benga kills an elephant.  Discovers his people have been killed.  The devastation of the Congo.  Tippu Tip (the "Arab slave trader").  Stanley (explorer, worked with Tippu Tip).  Leopold ("King of the Belgians", employed Tippu Tip, but claimed to be fighting the Arab slave traders).  The Zappo-Zap (murderous gangs, possibly left over from Tippu Tip's forces after his retirement).  The extermination (at least 11 million and possibly over 20 million killed, to satisfy Leopold's desire for great wealth).  Finally, Ota on display in the zoo as example of "a human savage."
Improvisation:  Longest musical section.  Intense commentary on the devastation of the Congo.

Part Five.  Conclusion.  Ota Goes Home.
Lecture:  Ota Benga at the seminary.  Desire to return to Africa.  "Pierces his heart with a bullet."
Improvisation:  Meditative musical commentary on Ota Benga's last days.
Congo Project Home Page