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On The Rumba River

by Jacques Sarasin
First Run Icarus Films, New York, NY, 2006
DVD, 86 mins., col.
DVD Sales: $398.00; DVD rental: $125

Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg


On the Rumba River is more significant as a social documentary about the tragic history of Zaire and the Democratic Republic of Congo and the surrounding region than as a film of Zairean Rumba music per se. It conveys little of the dynamic sensual passion and none of the energy for which Zairean Rumba is best known and appears to have been inspired by the vastly more effective documentary about Cuban jazz, The Buena Vista Social Club. Sarasin’s film provides no hint of the immense continental and transcontinental success of the tradition. Instead, one is forced to witness the disaster that is Papa Wenda’s and the common person’s lot in Kinshasa and Brazzaville on the lower reaches of the Congo River. Above all, the film is an account of a pitiful attempt to revive this one man’s career and the impossible dream of getting a gig for his band in America so as to reclaim a space for a musician who was one of President Mobutu’s favored arriviste cultural thugs——by his own account.

As recounted by Gary Stewart in Rumba on the River (1999) and in Graeme Ewens’ "Heart of Danceness" in World Music (2000), African Rumba, its well spring being Zaire, is not Rumba in its West Indian sense but a complex combination of Cuban inspired musical styles. After Cuban Rumba took off in New York in the 1920s and in London in the 1930s, it was transformed in the 1930s and 1940s and thereafter into African Rumba known as Soukous, the word being derived from the French word secouer
——to shake. After African jazz emerged in the 1950s and the post-independence political conflicts in the 1960s, Zairean musicians began migrating to Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya where they continued to sing in Lingala. In the 1980s the Rumba scene took off in Paris and London as best represented in Papa Wemba’s success there. Later, in the 1990s, a fast paced even more intensely sexual form known as Kwasa Kwasa became so popular in Zimbabwe and South Africa as to dominate local music when musicians such as Pepe Kalle the Elephant Man thundered onto the scene. In more recent years in Zaire, the hyper-aggressive sexuality of the latest form of Rumba known as Ndombolo has been considered by the Museveni government to be so obscene as to have been deemed illegal. Naturally, it subsequently became more popular than ever——especially the frenzied whistling and gyrating of the new dance——the Bill Clinton.

If viewers of this film did not have this background to go on, they would think that there was no music to be had in Zaire, never mind any joy or wealth such as best expressed in the decades long fabulous opulent expressive life of the sapeurs whose competitive prestige depends on their public displays of the latest and most expensive European designer clothing and Italian shoes. In contrast, there is an intensely flat and depressive quality to this film. In fact, in order to best get a visual sense of the lack of energy in this film, one should be sure to watch the film Touki Bouki to understand the sheer joie de vivre that can be found in these ghettoes and thus something of the jouissance that gives Rumba its power.

Perhaps On the Rumba River is deliberately designed in this way so as to convey the dispirited nature of these unemployed and relatively impoverished musicians. In this, its real value is that of a social documentary. The film very well provides a vehicle for capturing peoples’ memories of the end of the colonial era, the early years of independence as Mobutu entrenched his grip on power, and the gradual descent into the post-colonial condition aptly portrayed here. And while the film leaves one perhaps thinking that things are calm, if going nowhere, the final text on the screen notes that 4 million people have died in recent years. In fact, three years later, in 2007, further upriver in the Eastern DRC war, mass murder and mass rape is the order of the day as brought to our attention by the gender activist Eve Elsner. The UN and others are now working hard to bring this situation to the international community’s attention through V-day and the stop fistula campaign and in this larger political context, there is surely an uncomfortable space here between the exaggerated male sexual aggression in this dance form and the codified defensive female postures and the climate in which rape is so persistently and wickedly used as an instrument of war. But one would not get any sense of any of this in this film as the Rumba revived here is a slow and refined subtle Africanized dance form more attuned to middle class Cuban aesthetics of the early decades of the 20th century.

Repeatedly the camera and the main figure Papa Wenda return to the river from the ragged broken poverty of the urban squalor the musicians endure. There he sadly watches the great brown river flowing by fast as if mocking time itself while the lost signs of the future, large metal transport and passenger barges, one by one, rust and sink into the turbid and turbulent waters. For those who have read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Naipaul’s A Bend in the River by way of Achebe’s objections, when you next dance to Rumba in Paris and London, you may do so with a certain edge——particularly if you are aware of how the squalid daily life depicted in this documentary is absolute heaven compared to current conditions upriver in the war torn Eastern DRC. One should then perhaps keep in mind when watching this calm and dispirited film that foreign African armies and interests have for a long time now been working with competing local forces to extract the wealth of the nation in some degrees in ways every bit as appalling as the Belgians before them. Thus, images referred to in the media such as the triumphant Rumba musician being carried through the jubilant crowds in Kinshasa on the back of a Zimbabwean tank remind us of the larger context to which this film so morbidly obsessed with a failed past, could only point towards in closing with an epigraph.

If this film has one message it would seem to be that greed and suffering are as constant, as mighty and unforgiving as the flow of this great river and time itself. There is a quality of darkness here in which explicit Conradian metaphors are at work: the broken down steam ships and the long dead engine gauges themselves as modernity’s lingering and lurching deferred failure, the river as all powerful and timeless, greed and decrepitude, suffering all around. Whither goes Africa you will be forgiven for asking perhaps. But in the meantime——shall we dance?



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