Beneath the beat, Congolese rumba is a link to the past

AIF YOU CLIMB On the dimly lit staircase of La Crèche nightclub in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, you might hear a man’s high-pitched, singsong voice emanating from the roof. There, above the congested lanes of Victory, a dense neighborhood frequented by both artists and pickpockets, couples dance to rumba. The women put their arms around the necks of their partners and together they move, sinuous, on the roof. The aging men playing guitars and playing drums wear sparkly scarves and caps. A flamboyant dress sense is a prerequisite for any serious rumba musician in Congo.

In its modern form, Congolese rumba evolved in the 1940s, largely in Kinshasa. Its irresistible rhythms quickly echoed across the continent and today it is one of Congo’s proudest and loudest exports. Last month, the status of the rumba was elevated when it was added to the list of “intangible cultural heritage” maintained by UNESCO, the UNthe cultural agency of. It joins Estonian smoke saunas and Polish beekeeping on a register intended to promote “cultural diversity in the face of increasing globalization”. Listen carefully, however, and beneath the sensuous beat lies a story of transatlantic cultural exchange and the entanglement of art with politics.

In a simplistic version of its history, the Congolese rumba was inspired by the Cuban genre. That’s true, but the reverse is also true: the origins of Latin rumba can be found in Central Africa. The rhythm was first exported to Cuba by slaves, many of whom were taken from the Kingdom of Kongo (which included modern Congo) beginning in the 15th century. On the island, some made drums from animal skins and hollowed out trees and started playing their traditional music.

“It was spiritual music, a way of praising their ancestors who then conveyed their prayers to God,” explains Lubangi Muniania, a Congolese art historian and journalist. The slaves danced there in pairs, waist to waist, which is why it was called nkumba, meaning “waist” or “navel” in Kikongo, a Congolese language. This turned into “rumba” and over the years the style became intertwined with the Spanish sounds prevalent in Cuba. The rhythm of foot tapping was complemented by guitars, clarinets and pianos.

For centuries, the rumba has bounced from one end of the Atlantic to the other. It was re-exported to the Congo when Belgian colonizers established the country’s first radio station in Kinshasa (then Léopoldville) in 1940 and began broadcasting music from overseas. The upbeat, danceable Cuban tunes, with their familiar cadences, were instant hits. Musicians from Léopoldville – and across the river in the capital of neighboring Congo-Brazzaville – have reinterpreted the genre. “What is funny is that for the Congolese who listened to this music, it was not foreign to them at all,” says Mr. Muniania. “They were playing African music to Africans, so no wonder they picked it up.”

A well-known meeting place for rumba lovers in Kinshasa today, La Crèche was a brothel before becoming a nightclub. A band was first invited in the 1980s to entertain clients on the roof after or between their appointments; the staircase is lined with rooms masked by colored curtains. Another rumba institution is Club Un-Deux-Trois, led by Yves Emongo Luambo, whose father, Franco Luambo, was one of the greatest rumba guitarists and composers of all time. He helped make rumba “our cultural passport,” as Mr. Emongo puts it.

Dazzlingly beautiful in his youth, the musician was nicknamed “Franco of my loveby some female fans and “the guitar wizard” by others. His mythical group, Okay Jazz (later called TPOK Jazz), has released an average of two new songs a week for years, totaling well over a thousand. If Franco has had a tumultuous relationship with women, none has been as long or complex as that he had with Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the country for more than three decades – an affair that epitomizes the nuanced role music in Congolese politics.

Sometimes Franco criticized Mobutu. His most radical piece came out in 1966, a year after Mobutu came to power. The dictator had four political opponents, including a former prime minister, publicly hanged in Victory Square. Franco was in the crowd and wrote a chant to the victims. Like some of her other songs, it was hastily banned; all copies on sale have been confiscated.

Yet he also wrote flowery hymns to the despot. By the time of the 1984 presidential election, in which Mobutu was the only candidate, confidence in him had evaporated as the public watched him use his money to down champagne for breakfast and charter the Concorde to do shopping in Paris. Even so, Franco published an effusive ode entitled “Our Candidate Mobutu”. Its refrain was “Mobutu, God sent you”.

This is an extreme example of libanga, characteristic of the Congolese rumba which testifies to its influence. The word means “pebble” in Lingala, the language spoken in Kinshasa. Musicians throw a pebble, or shout, at wealthy patrons who reward them lucratively. The rumba pieces are peppered with references to politicians, especially before elections. Libanga tends to be mercenary, not ideological, with singers inclined to mention who pays them. Werrason, another rumba legend, once named 110 people in a single song.

Today, the biggest Congolese rumba star is Koffi Olomide, 65 (photo on previous page), who performs in sunglasses and tight pants, as he did recently in a luxury hotel in the eastern city of Goma. Mr Olomide arrived late, after everyone was supposed to have gone home due to a pandemic-related curfew. Wearing a Mobutu-style leopard-print hat, he called a policeman onto the stage to crack jokes about breaking the rules. He may be above the law in Congo, but in France, where he lives most of the time, he was recently found guilty of keeping four dancers in his house against their will.

The case was a blow to the singer’s fans. In the Congo, however, little is constant. Electricity and water supplies are erratic, statesmen are often corrupt and predatory. But the rumba itself is reliable. It has existed, in its various forms, for centuries. It can be heard across the vast country and is best enjoyed with a beer in hand. From the capital to a village on the banks of the Congo River, chances are you’ll find a bottle to sip on as the familiar rumba blares from a nearby radio.

This article appeared in the Culture section of the print edition under the headline “The Rhythm Comes Home”

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