Rumba’s Congolese roots are finally being recognized by Unesco

While Cuba popularized rumba, the Congolese origins of the music and dance genre have been mostly forgotten.
While Cuba popularized rumba, the Congolese origins of the music and dance genre have been mostly forgotten.
Image: AP Photo/Desmond Boylan
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Unbeknownst to many, the origin of one of their favorite Latin dances—rumba—is actually the ancient kingdom of Kongo, that is now the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighboring Congo-Brazzaville. This genre that was popularized in Cuba—and has since the beginning of the 20th century spread to countries in Latin America, Europe as well to Africahas spurred several other music and dance genres across the globe.

It evolved to rhumba, also known as ballroom rumba in the US and is a major influence of rumba flamenco in Spain. Cuban rumba was added to Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2016.

While rumba’s origin is linked to enslaved people from Africa during the era of the Atlantic trade, discussions of its history usually don’t go beyond that.  The people and culture from which it originated in Africa are usually not mentioned. This past week’s addition of Congolese rumba to the Unesco heritage list, hopefully ensures that the African origin of this world famous musical and dance genre will not be forgotten.

“Congolese rumba is a musical genre and a dance common in urban areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo,” Unesco stated on its Heritage website.  “Generally danced by a male-female couple, it is a multicultural form of expression originating from an ancient dance called nkumba (meaning waist in Kikongo). The rumba is used for celebration and mourning, in private, public, and religious spaces.”

Historical context of rumba and the role of slave trade

The Democratic Republic of Congo and the Congo Republic submitted a joint bid for their rumba in October this year. “When our ancestors who were taken abroad wanted to remember their history, their origin, their memory, they danced the navel dance,” said Catherine Kathungu Furaha, Congo’s minister of art and culture during the submission. “We want rumba to be recognized as ours. It is our identity.”

The inclusion of Congolese rumba is important as it brings recognition and celebrates the people and culture from which rumba was introduced to Cuba.

The ancient kingdom of Kongo accounted for a large number of enslaved people that were transported to Cuba beginning from the 15th century and “between 17% and 24% of the African slaves who arrived in Cuba between 1817 and 1843 were Bakongo (another name for Kongo.) The Africans carried with them their culture including the rumba which under Spanish cultural influence developed into the Cuban rumba in the black urban slums of Cuba in the mid-19th century.

Ned Sublette, an American musicologist and music composer who is known for fusing country-western and Afro-Caribbean styles including rumba, says that “Kikongo words and names are part of the common vocabulary of Cuban rumba.”

Music moves back and forth

However, the Congolese rumba as we have it today was influenced by Afro-Cuban music, especially rumba music which was repatriated to the Congo region with the arrival of the “GV series” gramophone records in the Congo region in the 1930s.

The G.V. Series is best known as the first exposure many Africans had to Afro-Cuban music and by the 1940s Cuban rumba had gained widespread popularity in the Congo due to radio airplay, and its familiar sound and dance.

The influence of Cuban rumba elements in the local Congolese music and dance particularly the maringa, which had basic movements in common with the Cuban rumba, resulted in the emergence of the modern Congolese rumba in the 1950s.

Congolese musicians such as Franco and the OK Jazz band, Dr. Nico and Tabu Ley Rochereau of the African Fiesta, and Papa Wendo (the first international star of Congolese rumba) are credited for having played a huge role in developing the Congolese rumba style.

Rumba exemplifies the universality of music. The fact that a genre that emerged from the continent, survived the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, then went on to spur other musical movements globally, including in Africa.

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