Opening at the Village East Cinema in New York City on June 6th, Jacques Sarasin’s superlative documentary “On the Rumba River” can be described as the Congolese counterpart of “Buena Vista Social Club”.
It is a tribute to “Papa” Wendo Kolosoy, who was the first superstar of Congolese music. Born in 1925, he started off in life as a riverboat engine mechanic and a sometime professional boxer. His first album was made in 1948 but like many citizens living under Mobotu’s dictatorship fell on hard times. He would up as a street beggar eventually but was rediscovered in 1997 and has since made a comeback, just like the Cuban musicians in “Buena Vista Social Club”.
A word or two about Congolese music would be in order. The “Rumba River” is actually a reference to the Congo River, where Papa Wendo plied his trade as a young man but Rumba is, as the name applies, the same dance music made popular by Afro-Cuban musicians such as Celia Cruz and Beny Moré.
In an Afropop interview, Wendo explains how he got involved with the music:
In the beginning, my mother didn’t really have rumba music. She had more of the originality of traditional music. She came and she sang on that level. But a few years later, the rumba was there, and as she had the gift of music from God, coming from the traditional side we arrived at the rumba we know today. So I inherited this, the Cuban context, the American one–rumba, biguine, waltz, and tango–and in this way, I Wendo, arrived with a diverse style in between the rumba that you find today and the dance musics around the world.
In 1948, everyone went for rumba, biguine, waltz, chacha. That music comes from the Cuban side. We didn’t know that Cuban musicians played the rumba. Even them, they didn’t know that the rumba was being played by musicians in Leopoldville and Brazzaville, or why the rumba, tango and so on came from us, from our music.
In the 1940s, merchant seamen from Cuba brought their records with them to the Congo and other African nations where the music was adopted enthusiastically by local musicians and given their own particular African twist. Some of the early groups were so mesmerized by the sound that they even sang the Spanish-language lyrics phonetically.
Rumba evolved into Soukous, a souped-up version of the original style that relies heavily on electric guitars and synthesizers, but Wendo’s reunion band plays in the traditional acoustic style. The film follows the musicians around the Kinshasa slums and allows them to tell their stories, often to very moving effect-particularly the guitarist Mukubuele Nzoku (Bikunda) who fled Portuguese repression in Angola in the 1950s.
Bikunda’s crime was to sing in his native tongue Lingala, a Bantu language native to the Congo and parts of Angola, in a local bar. The Portuguese had banned the use of the native language in musical performances and were ready to bomb the bar that Bikunda was performing at. He fled to Congo just one step ahead of the colonial cops.
I should add that there is one significant difference between “Buena Vista Social Club” and “On the Rumba River” that becomes obvious from the minute you see the squalid slums of Kinshasa. Unlike Cuba, the Congo never had a revolution even though Patrice Lumumba was determined to sweep away class inequality before he was assassinated by the imperialists. Even though you are lifted up by the musicians’ reunion, you cannot help but feel that their fortunes are constrained by the economic misery of the country, not to speak of the civil war that has resulted in the deaths of 5 millions of its citizens.
You can watch Wendo and his musicians performing in this French language web documentary here. The music begins at 4:43.
A trailer for the movie is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ql-DpowmyqM