The band strikes up the rumba, and the dance floor in Kinshasa fills with couples who sway to its slinky, sensual rhythm.
Rumba is a music that has an international following, especially for its brassy Cuban version.
However, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo), the guitar-driven local variant has a deep and passionate following, and devotees hope that next week the genre will be declared a world cultural treasure.
The DR Congo and its smaller neighbor, the Republic of the Congo, are jointly pushing for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to inscribe their rumba on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
If so, it would join Cuban rumba, Jamaica’s reggae music, Finland’s sauna culture, the hawker food of Singapore and other cherished human innovations.
“This is a moment we have been waiting for impatiently,” said Jean-Claude Faignond, who manages the Espace Faignond dance bar, a legendary hangout in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo.
“Is rumba intangible heritage?” he asked, before adding: “It’s pure happiness — immortality.”
“Rumba is a passion shared by all Congolese... It reaches into all areas of national life,” said Andre Yoka Lye, director of the National Institute of Arts in the DR Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, and president of a “joint commission for the promotion of Congolese rumba.”
Rumba is “a unifier, bringing people together, as well as the past and present,” Yoka said.
The story of the rumba is rooted in the days of the slave trade. Africans who were captured and transported to the Americas had no possessions, but they brought their culture and music with them.
Once there, they crafted the musical instruments they had played back home — “percussion instruments, membranophones, idiophones and also the African piano, the xylophone,” said Gabriel Kele, head of musicology at the DR Congo’s National Museum.
As time went by, “the instruments evolved,” Kele added.
The music’s style evolved, too, shifting toward jazz in North America and rumba in South America.
Eventually the music came home. It returned to Africa, often disseminated by traders or travelers who had records with them, and was adapted by local musicians.
Congolese rumba in its modern form dates back about 100 years, but it started to hit its stride in the 1940s, spreading like wildfire in Kinshasa and in Brazzaville, across the Congo River.
It is a music of cities and bars, of meetings and nostalgia, of “resistance and resilience,” of “sharing pleasure” — a music with its own way of life and dress codes, Yoka said.
In the musicologist’s office, a well-used and weather-beaten instrument sits on a shelf.
“This is Wendo’s first guitar,” Yoka said, in a reverent tone.
The instrument was played by Wendo Kolosoy (1925-2008), whom devotees refer to as the “father” of Congolese rumba. His 1948 song Marie-Louise, with its spangly guitar hook, is a classic of the genre.
Sung mainly in Lingala, rumba songs typically are about love — but political messages have also been a feature.
For many Congolese, the music became intertwined with decolonization from France and Belgium.
The 1960 hit Independence Cha Cha performed by Joseph Kabasele and his African Jazz Orchestra spread beyond the two Congos, becoming an unofficial anthem of African independence.
There have also been less glorious periods of the Congolese rumba, when the music was exploited as propaganda by those in power.
“There have sometimes been deviations,” Yoka said.
Congolese music is rooted in oral traditions and person-to-person contact, which explains why it is so lively and quick to evolve.
However, because the culture is not codified, it tends to gets little international recognition, which explains the push for UNESCO acknowledgement, those promoting the bid say.
Rumba’s history is fluid, a tale of return and renewal, Yoka said.
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