The smooth, groove music of Congolese rumba was added Tuesday to UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list, sparking delight in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Congo Brazzaville, where the genre has provided the soundtrack for festivities ranging from Independence Day celebrations to birthday parties.
A UNESCO summit on Tuesday approved the two countries’ joint application to add rumba to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, where it joins Cuban rumba, the Central African Republic’s polyphonic pygmy music and the drums of Burundi.
“The rumba is used for celebration and mourning, in private, public and religious spaces,” said the UNESCO citation. It is an essential and representative part of the identity of Congolese people and their diaspora, the UN’s cultural and scientific agency added.
The Congolese rumba has just been inscribed on the #IntangibleHeritage list.
Congratulations Democratic Republic of the Congo 🇨🇩 – Congo 🇨🇬 ! 👏
ℹ️ https://t.co/F3fEl1VeU0 #LivingHeritage pic.twitter.com/DqjRgJsEyF— UNESCO 🏛️ #Education #Sciences #Culture 🇺🇳😷 (@UNESCO) December 14, 2021
The addition to the UNESCO list was welcomed by the two countries situated on either side of the Congo River.
“It’s done. The rumba has been registered by UNESCO on its intangible cultural heritage of humanity list. An event to be celebrated on both banks of the Congo River,” tweeted DRC government spokesman Patrick Muyaya.
#RDC : C’est fait la rumba vient d’être inscrite par l’@UNESCO_fr sur la liste du patrimoine culturel immatériel de l’humanité. Un événement à célébrer dans les deux rives du fleuve congo 🇨🇩 🇨🇬 #ChangementDeNarratif https://t.co/yWIVT3AxuS— Patrick Muyaya (@PatrickMuyaya) December 14, 2021
Out of Africa to South America – and back
Specialists have located rumba’s origins in the ancient central African kingdom of Kongo, where people practised a dance called “Nkumba” or “navel” in Kikongo.
Africans brought their music and culture across the Atlantic through the slave trade, eventually giving birth to jazz in North America and rumba in South America.
Traders then brought the music back to Africa through records and guitars in more recent times.
When the music of the slave colonies in Spanish Cuba arrived back in Africa on 78 rpm records, it was immediately recognised as rumba and led to a musical resurgence in the Congo basin area.
One of the best known rumba singles, “Indépendance Cha Cha”, was composed and performed in 1960 by Joseph Kabasele, better known by his stage name, Le Grand Kallé.
It was a smash hit across Africa and the postcolonial world, commemorating “The Year of Africa”, when 17 African nations finally gained independence.
The modern version of rumba lives on cities and bars in the DRC and Congo Brazzaville. Rumba draws on nostalgia, cultural exchange, resistance, resilience and the sharing of pleasure through its flamboyant “sape” dress code.
Of love and politics
Sung mainly in Lingala, rumba songs typically are about love – but political messages have also been a feature of the genre.
There have also been less glorious periods of the Congolese rumba, when the music was exploited as propaganda by those in power.
Rumba stars are occasionally controversial or mired in scandals.
A French court on Monday convicted high-profile DRC performer Koffi Olomide of holding four of his former dancers against their will during tours.