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Rhumba Night: Discerning the popular event

By -T MICHAEL MBOYA | August 11th 2013


About a month ago, I interviewed ‘Le Grand’ DJ Marto Sibuor at the Signature Club, Eldoret. The topic of the interview was the phenomenon known as Rhumba Night, with which the deejay is intimately associated.

My objective was to find out what Rhumba Night is, from the perspective of its originators-performers-organisers. I sought to know: What are the defining characteristics of Rhumba Night? Why, when and how did it start? Have there been any notable changes in the time it has been in existence? Is a future envisioned for it?

The simplest description of Rhumba Night is that it is a weekly ‘theme night’ musical event in a club that caters for the middle classes, in which a deejay plays modern Congolese popular music of the 1970s to the present. Sometimes a sprinkling of Kiswahili language Kenyan and Tanzanian guitar music of the 1980s is played.

DJ Marto Sibuor locates the distant origins of Rhumba Night in the African Night shows that DJ Alloys Gor Biro hosted at Nairobi’s Visions Discotheque in the ‘soukouss mad’ 1980s. That practice was kept up by the emergence, in the 1990s, of a custom of resident deejays playing Congolese music – still mainly soukouss – during breaks in the performances of touring African artistes, whether Congolese or not, at the Carnivore Restaurant in Nairobi. Positive audience reception of these interlude performances inspired the Carnivore to start a monthly African night.

Over time, the African Night at the Carnivore morphed into the monthly Rhumba Night that currently takes place there. In its pure form Rhumba Night started at the Signature Club in Eldoret. Marto Sibuor came up with the idea. He sold the concept to the proprietor of Signature Club, who bought it both on account of his love for Congolese popular music and out of a feeling of comradeship for the deejay with whom he has a long standing friendship. It was not a business decision. That explains why Rhumba Night was given the slow-business-at-the-club slot of Thursday night, and why the decision not to levy gate charges was taken.

Much to the proprietor’s surprise, Rhumba Night quickly became the Signature Club’s most profitable event. A few weeks after its inception middle aged middle class men – it was mostly men in the beginning – started flocking to the club. These men would come to the club straight from the office. Many of them would be in their neck ties. They were not only drawn to this music that Marto Sibuor opines is ‘relaxed and well arranged … you don’t have to know the language.’ Many of them also enjoyed reliving their younger days, which had these songs for their soundtracks. By coincidence, the start of Rhumba Night happened at the same time that ‘Live Band’ music was going into decline in Eldoret – and in Kenya as a whole. That development was denying the men who constituted the core of the early Rhumba Night public an important avenue of enjoying their leisure. Being (relatively) monied, these men had real spending power. Given their age, they also – generally – had a capacity to carry their liquor. Rhumba Night soon acquired the attractive associations of ‘maturity’ and ‘class.’ In addition, middle age is known to be a season of exciting interrogations of the meanings of life – questionings that often motivate a quest for rejuvenation. All these points gradually attracted other, younger groups. Today, the young generation is firmly part of the Rhumba Night public. According to Marto Sibuor, some of them have picked up the love for the music.

It is obvious from its history that Rhumba Night is yet another aspect of the long tradition of Kenyan engagement with Congolese popular music.

This engagement, which started just after World War II, has had interesting results so far.

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