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DRC seeks UNESCO listing to reclaim rumba’s rhythms

By Hereward Holland, Reuters | October 7th 2021

From left, Franco, Madillu System, Tabu Ley and Faya Tess. [Courtesy]

Perched on a corner of the stage at La Septente, an open-air club in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital Kinshasa, Manda Chante sings the lilting opening to “Independence Cha Cha”, an old anthem for African anti-colonial movements.

The song debuted one evening in Brussels in February 1960, during negotiations for Congo’s liberation from Belgium, electrifying delegates. Within four months, Congo was free.

Sixty-one years later, rumba remains at the core of African music, and a movement has emerged to cement its reputation and secure its protection.

Authorities in Kinshasa and Brazzaville, the capital of neighbouring Congo Republic, have submitted a bid to add Congolese rumba to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural (Unesco) list of intangible cultural heritage.

Unesco will announce its decision in November.

The list helps demonstrate the diversity of heritage and raises awareness about its importance.

If Congolese rumba were to be added, it would join the hawker food of Singapore, sauna culture of Finland and traditional irrigation systems in the United Arab Emirates, among countless other customs on the list.

“If you look at modern rumba, we have elevated and developed it, but kept references to the icons like Le Grande Kallé,” said Manda, referring to the stage name of Joseph Kabasele, who wrote “Independence Cha Cha” to persuade politicians to shelve their differences to secure self-rule.

Born in the melting pot of 19th-century Cuba, rumba combined the drumming of enslaved Africans with the melodies of Spanish colonisers.

Re-exported to Africa in the early 20th century on vinyl, it found a ready audience in the two Congos, who recognised the rhythms as their own.

“They took our ancestors to the Americas in the 15th or 16th century.

“Congolese rumba was created and embedded with the same dynamics as the story that forged this country,” said Andre Yoka, director of the National Institute for the Arts in Kinshasa, who is leading Congo’s candidacy for Unesco status.

Rumba derives from “Nkumba”, meaning belly button in the local language, a dance that originates “in the ancient kingdom of Kongo”, according to Congo’s submission to Unesco.

“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.

“We want rumba to be recognised as ours. It is our identity.”

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