The coup three years ago rid this central African nation of its longtime dictator, but his replacement has left people as poor as ever. One year into yet another civil war that no one here wanted, the rebels trying to topple the government have convinced hardly anyone that they will be any better. And so, while this hard-luck city waits for the other shoe to drop, the question most frequently asked is this:

Care to dance?

"The war is terrible," said Emerance Tshela as she wiped sweat from her face while taking a break from the crowded dance floor at the Station Miilhouse. "But we've got to survive. We want to feel that we are still living.

"So we dance," she said, as she surveyed the nearly 300 people who had squeezed into the nightclub on a recent Friday afternoon. "I go out to dance more now than I did before the war started because I find relief in music. A lot of people do. It soothes us."

Not much good has come to Congo in its four decades of independence, and as a result, its people have armed themselves with an almost combative joie de vivre. Disillusioned and deeply suspicious of the armies and autocrats who come and go without improving the lives of the common people, this capital city's population is as bored by the latest war as it is weary of it. So the people dance, and concerts by Congolese musicians have never drawn so many patrons.

Known as soukous, Congolese pop music is a fusion of Cuban rumba and African dance music, usually performed by bands of five or six musicians. With its heavy reliance on guitars and horns, it has become the most widely played music in Kinshasa's dance halls and nightclubs. Just as jazz was created in America by freed slaves who borrowed a little from vast cultural sources, Congolese music is a potluck of African culture and its cross-fertilization with the French and Caribbean cultures during its colonial period. Kinshasa's home-grown soukous has for years been popular across the continent and in Europe.

While rival insurgents have bickered and battled with President Laurent Kabila's army in chandeliered conference halls and dense Congolese jungles, musicians like Koffi Olomide and Papa Wemba routinely perform for audiences even larger than the one that watched the "Rumble in the Jungle"--the 1974 heavyweight prizefight here between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

Hundreds of shops and businesses here have shut down since the war began, but scores of new nightclubs and churches that rely on soukous as a chief attraction have opened over the same span of time. Dozens more have expanded. All stay full on weekends.

When rebels briefly reached the city's outskirts last year, the government imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew here for several weeks. Some club owners skirted the law by turning off their lights and ushering customers in through back doors. Once inside, they listened to Congolese bands play by candlelight.

"Our people can't go without their music," said Lutumba Masiya Simaro, a Congolese band leader for 40 years. "We take it in like we do the air."

Congolese music has become so wildly popular throughout Africa that Cameroon's government has resorted to protectionism to insulate its own music industry from competition, banning both the music and the Congolese ndombolo dance from state-owned television.

"There's no doubt that Congolese music has reached its peak since this dreadful war began," said Fwasa Tombisa, a professor of history and culture at the University of Kinshasa and the host of a local television music show. "Top Congolese artists are now earning the bulk of their revenues from [compact disc] sales and concerts overseas. And if you go anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, you simply cannot escape Congolese music."

Koffi Olomide is one of the industry's brightest lights. With a home and plenty of work in Europe, he returns to Congo virtually every week, commuting both to perform and write music, he said.

"There aren't many quality recording studios here, so most of us have to do most of our recording in Europe," he said. "But I come home to write a lot of my music. It's like I draw inspiration from the Congo River. There's no ceremony, no important event in our lives that takes place without music. Without music, Congo would die."

For more than three decades, Kinshasa and the rest of Congo (formerly known as Zaire) slid into poverty and ruin under the corrupt, brutal rule of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. There was a surge of optimism in 1997 when Kabila's rebel forces drove Mobutu into exile, but disappointment returned when the new regime began to show signs of similar corruption and cronyism--and few signs of democratization. When another rebellion broke out in August last year, it raised few hopes here.

Kinshasans are quick to say that there is nothing romantic about the city's suffering. With the currency in free fall and hardly any jobs available, many scrape together a bare-bones existence by peddling trinkets, newspapers or home-baked bread on dusty street corners. Perhaps the truest measure of Congo's poverty is that there is no measure: Because the government can afford neither a workforce nor equipment, economic indicators such as gross national product, median income or infant mortality have not been compiled in years.

But Kinshasans here take an almost defiant pride in their ability to persevere. When Mobutu banned the wearing of Western-style clothing in the '70s, many youths rebelled by wearing colorful scarves and the latest chic fashions copied from Parisian boutiques and clothing magazines. Kinshasans have become so accustomed to finding joy wherever they can that they have coined a phrase for it. Ask anyone here how he is doing and he is likely to answer with a shrug of the shoulders and the French word debrouillardise. It means "the art of getting by."

At the Station Miilhouse, where weekend crowds have grown since the current war started, Jean-Pierre Manile and his wife, Odette, take a breather after dancing for four straight songs. They go dancing virtually every weekend, they say, and cannot imagine life without it.

"We have lived with so little for so very long that that has become almost in itself a reason to celebrate and to dance," said Jean-Pierre, a civil servant. "As long as we draw breath, we will find a way to dance in Kinshasa."

CAPTION: Nearly 300 people squeezed into Station Miilhouse in Kinshasa, Congo, on a recent Friday afternoon.