2021 was the year when Congolese rumba music was officially added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This was also the year when a definitive film on the roots and influence of this genre of music was released.
The documentary film, “The Rumba Kings” chronicles Congolese rumba music, the rhythm that helped Congo fight colonial oppression, the music that became the soundtrack to the country’s independence and took Africa by storm with its mesmerising guitar sounds.
Through the voices of Congolese historians, music experts and a cast of legendary musicians like Papa Wemba, Simaro Lutumba of T.P O.K Jazz and Cameroonian Manu Dibango, this is as comprehensive a story of rumba on film as Gary Stewart’s seminal 2004 publication “Rumba on the River”.
American-Peruvian director and journalist Alan Brain started researching the topic in 2012 while he was in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) working for the United Nations peacemaking mission as a filmmaker. The actual filming started a year later and the film was completed early in 2021.
When he first arrived in the DRC in 2007, Brain had little idea about the country’s great tradition of music. “I didn’t know that Congolese rumba stars like Franco and his T.P.O.K Jazz were as big in Africa as the Beatles were in the West,” he quips.
Brain describes an immense wall behind which the cultural hegemony of the West hides the musical treasures of the African continent, in recent times categorised under the generic label of World Music.
His interest in Congolese music was sparked by the discovery that rumba had served as a space of resistance and freedom against colonial oppression that Congo faced as a colony, and that the music grew into a true symbol of national identity.
In the 1950s, a generation of musicians in what was then known as Belgian Congo used the power of popular music to fight colonial oppression. They fused traditional African rhythms with Afro-Cuban music to create a genre known as Congolese rumba.
The electrifying rumba beat carried the country through its quest for independence, producing the popular Pan- African liberation anthem “Independence Cha Cha” recorded in 1960 by Joseph Kabasele (Le Grand Kalle).
This was the first Congolese rumba song that the film’s director listened to and he immediately fell in love with the groove and the story of freedom in the song. “How incredible that in 1960 a dream team of Congolese rumba musicians accompanied the country’s politicians during the negotiations for independence,” says Brain.
He is referring to the Round Table Talks on the independence of Congo when a group of musicians, led by Kabasele, played concerts every night for the politicians to dance and they eventually composed a song about the event that became the soundtrack not only for Congo’s Independence but for most of Francophone Africa.
The upbeat, optimistic lyrics that are a call for unity in the post-independence Congo, were performed by Vicky Longomba of T.P. O.K. Jazz and Kabasele played guitar.
Manu Dibango’s association with rumba is traced to his meeting with Congolese bandleader Joseph Kabasele in Brussels in 1960 who was among the musicians attending the Round Table Talks. Kabasele hired Dibango to play in his band African Jazz and they recorded the iconic Pan African anthem “Independence Cha Cha” and another single called “Table Ronde”
Earlier in 2021, Angelique Kidjo celebrated the influential role of the song in the liberation of African countries, by recording her version of the classic with a shout-out to the 17 African countries, including her own Benin, that became independent in the ‘Year of Africa’ in 1960.
The “Rumba Kings” is a stunning story of how Congolese rumba developed and conquered Africa. Through interviews, music recordings, archival footage, and never-before-seen live performances, the film is the journey of the sound that shaped a nation and gave Africa music heavyweights like Grand Kalle, Dr Nico and the African Jazz Orchestra, Franco and T.P. O.K Jazz, and Tabu Ley with his Afrisa International.
The refreshing aspect of the film is that it allows fans to enjoy long uninterrupted sequences of archival music performances that have never been made public before.
As the film’s director Alan Brain says: “Everybody knows about the immense mineral resources of Congo and the wars that those minerals have fueled, yet few people know about the country’s real treasure: rumba”
His wish is that “Then Rumba Kings” will allow music fans that are not already familiar with African music to break the ‘wall’ and enjoy the vibrant rhythm of Congolese rumba.