The 2 Congos Seek to have the Rumba Recognized as a World Treasure

Putumayo cover of African Rumba disc (Source: Putumayo)

There is no doubt that the Rumba has gone global, or that it has influenced other musical types throughout the world. To those who do not know, Rumba is a music style that originates from Kongo … and here I mean the whole area that is encompassed by both Congos, the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and in the olden days it was even bigger including areas of Angola, Central African Republic and Gabon. The rumba was born in Cuba from the enslaved Africans who had been taken there from the Kongo.

Flag of the Republic of Congo

Today, authorities in both Kinshasa and Brazzaville, the capitals of the DRC and the Republic of Congo, have submitted a joint bid to add Congolese Rumba to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Don’t you wish both countries could join together more often on other topics as well?

Flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo

The submission will help showcase the diversity of the heritage and raise awareness about its importance. If Congolese rumba were to be added, it would join the Budima dance of Zambia, hawker food of Singapore, sauna culture of Finland, handmade weaving in Upper Egypt, traditional pomegranate festivity and culture of Azerbaidjan, Traditional Thai massage, and traditional irrigation systems in the United Arab Emirates, among countless other customs on the list.

Papa Wemba, the king of Congolese Rumba, on his cover of Emotion

The word Rumba derives from “nkumba,” meaning belly button in the local Kikongo language, a dance originating in the ancient kingdom of Kongo.

The music style was born of the melting pot of 19th century Cuba, from the enslaved Africans, combining their drumming and dancing with their melodies and those of the Spanish colonizers. The African slaves who were taken to the Americas created the rumba as a way to stay connected to their inner beings, their histories, cultures, and probably also as a way to escape the daily grind of slavery, the inhumane practice that ripped them of their dignity of human beings.

It was re-exported to Africa in the early 20th century on vinyl, where it found a ready audience in the two Congos who recognized the rhythms as their own.

Catherine Kathungu Furaha, the DRC’s minister of art and culture, said, “when our ancestors who were taken abroad wanted to remember their history, their origin, their memory, they danced the navel dance.”… “We want rumba to be recognized as ours. It is our identity.”

Cuban rumba has been inscribed in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2016. It only makes sense that its counterpart, the mother-source, the origin, the Congolese Rumba be inscribed in the list as well. We will know in November when the committee will decide.

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