Congolese Rumba Fans Aim At Coveted UN Culture List

The band strikes up the rumba, and the dance floor in Kinshasa fills with couples who sway to its slinky, sensual rhythm.

Rumba is a music that has an international following, especially for its brassy Cuban version.

But in Congo, the guitar-driven local variant has a deep and passionate following, and devotees hope that next week the genre will be declared a world cultural treasure.

The Democratic Republic of Congo and its smaller neighbour, the Republic of Congo, are jointly pushing for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to inscribe their rumba on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

If so, it will join Cuban rumba, Jamaica’s reggae music, Finland’s sauna culture, the hawker food of Singapore and other cherished human innovations.

“This is a moment we have been waiting for impatiently,” said Jean-Claude Faignond, who manages the Espace Faignond dance bar, a legendary hangout in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo.

“Is rumba an intangible heritage?” he asked, before replying: “It’s pure happiness — immortality.”

“Rumba is a passion shared by all Congolese… It reaches into all areas of national life,” said Professor Andre Yoka Lye, director of the National Institute of Arts in DR Congo’s capital Kinshasa and president of a “joint commission for the promotion of Congolese rumba”.

Rumba is “a unifier, bringing people together, as well as the past and present.”

The story of the rumba is rooted in the days of the slave trade.

Africans who were captured and transported to the Americas had no possessions when they arrived, but brought with them their culture and their music.

Once there they crafted the musical instruments they had played back home — “percussion instruments, membranophones, idiophones and also the African piano, the xylophone,” explained Gabriel Kele, head of musicology at DR Congo’s National Museum.

As time went by, “the instruments evolved,” said Kele.

As did the style of music, which shifted towards jazz in North America and rumba in South America.

Eventually the music came home.

It returned to Africa, often disseminated by traders or travellers who brought 78 rpm records with them, and was adopted and adapted by local musicians.

Congolese rumba in its modern form dates back around a century, but started to hit its stride in the 1940s, spreading like wildfire in Kinshasa and in Brazzaville, its sister across the Congo River.

It’s a music of cities and bars, of meetings and nostalgia, of “resistance and resilience,” of “sharing pleasure” — a music with its own way of life and dress codes, Professor Yoka said.

In the musicologist’s office, a well-used and weather-beaten instrument sits on a shelf.

“This is Wendo’s first guitar,” Yoka explained reverently.

The instrument was played by Wendo Kolosoy (1925-2008), whom devotees refer to as the “father” of Congolese rumba. His 1948 song “Marie-Louise”, with its spangly guitar hook, is a classic of the genre.

 

Sung mainly in Lingala, rumba songs typically are about love — but political messages have also been a feature.

For many Congolese, the music became intertwined with decolonisation from France and Belgium.

The 1960 hit “Independence Cha Cha” performed by Joseph Kabasele and his African Jazz Orchestra spread beyond the two Congos, becoming an unofficial anthem of African independence.

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