Congolese Rumba Wins UNESCO Protected Status

Putumayo cover of African Rumba disc (Source: Putumayo)

Two months ago, the 2 Congos, the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), filed jointly for the Congolese Rumba to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage (The 2 Congos Seek to have the Rumba Recognized as a World Treasure). I hope that this is a start for both Congos to transcend their differences to rise together more often, and join efforts. Isn’t it Unity nice? Enjoy this article from the BBC.


One of the most influential genres of African music and dance, Congolese rumba, now has Unesco-protected status.

Flag of the Republic of Congo

It is the culmination of campaigning by two countries – the Democratic Republic of the Congo and neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville.

They both occupy what was once the ancient kingdom of Kongo – where the sinuous dance originated according to the two nations’ joint application.

The word “rumba” itself comes from the Kikongo word for navel, “nkumba“.

Flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo

Congolese rumba joins other living traditions such as Jamaican reggae music and Singaporean hawker food on Unesco’s “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” list. The UN’s cultural body says bestowing this status helps to “maintain cultural diversity in the face of growing globalisation”.

… Rumba “has been part of our identity, descendants of Africa and all of us, throughout the ages,” said DR Congo’s Culture minister Catherine Kathungu Furaha earlier this year. “We want rumba to be recognised as ours. It is our identity.

When our ancestors who were taken abroad wanted to remember their history, their origin, their memory, they danced the navel dance.”

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Papa Wemba

Among the earliest heroes of Congolese rumba were Wendo Kolosoy, Paul Nkamba, Franco and TPOK Jazz, Tabu Ley Rochereau and Dr Nico. As African nations fought for independence from their colonial rulers, The Independence Cha Cha by Le Grand Kallé galvanised many and is seen as the first truly pan-African hit song. … Later that decade saw the arrival of Zaïko Langa Langa and its breakout star Papa Wemba. Among his many protégés was Koffi Olomidé, who remains popular today along with younger stars such as Fally Ipupa.

… There is no doubt that rumba’s influence is felt across the world, and its champions say it is only right that this be recognised by Unesco and benefit the next generation of musicians.


Papa Wemba: The King of Rumba and King of La SAPE

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Papa Wemba

In high school, while on our way to school, my father would play Papa Wemba‘s album in the car: Emotion. Rightfully titled ‘Emotion‘, Wemba’s album featured a whole range of emotions which added to his unique ‘Rooster-like‘ voice to  make me, as a teenager, feel those emotions, and go to school happy. Try it… listen to the up-beat Yolele, or Fafafa-fa, Sala Keba, or Awa Y’ Okeyi,  … and tell me how you feel, truly, because Papa Wemba rocked my childhood.

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The album ‘Emotion’ by Papa Wemba

So when I learnt that this great man, Papa Wemba, the one who had accompanied me with his voice to school every day, this man who had made me so proud of music, Congolese music, African music, this flamboyant stylish man who had introduced the world to SAPE, the King of Congolese Rumba, this man whose words I still quote “Y a pas match, Kaokokokorobo” had collapsed on stage and was no longer… I was devastated. Oh Papa Wemba, I thought you were going to ride with my kids to school, the way you did with me…. I thought I would always dance to the rhythm of O’Koningana,…Ye te oh, Wake Up, …

When life was hard, I would hum to the tune of your song in the movie ” La Vie est Belle” and instantly life became beautiful again. And ‘Mama‘ was just a loving song to a mother. When I felt lost, I would sing “Show me the way.”

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The movie ‘La Vie est Belle’ starring Papa Wemba

Yes… Papa Wemba was truly a genius. He was born Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba in June 1949 in Lubefu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His love of music can be attributed to his mother, who was a professional “wailing woman” at funerals. Mixing traditional African music with Western rock, he and his successive bands – Zaiko Langa LangaIsifi Lokole, Yoka Lokole, and Viva la Musica – enjoyed hit after hit, including L’Esclave, Maria Valencia, Analengo, and Le Voyageur. He shaped Congolese music in the 1970s -90s, he made Soukous the most popular sound across Africa, and attracted international music figures like Peter Gabriel. I am not sure if there is a great African star he had not sung or collaborated with: from Brenda Fassie, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Pepe Kalle, Lokua Kanza, Barbara Kanam, Manu Dibango, Koffi Olomidé, Bisso Na Bisso, JB Mpiana, Angélique Kidjo, Salif Keïta, Alpha Blondy, Singuila, to Youssou N’dour, and countless others. He also collaborated with the great diva Aretha Franklin. He was a talented man, and he also sought to reveal young talents. He loved to share his gift, his voice, with all.

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Papa Wemba, the King of Sape

So I was sad… But then I realized that Papa Wemba had trained generations of musicians, had inspired numerous people, sang his lungs out for so many of us… then I realized that his flamboyant spirit lives on. His music keeps on… The dress style he created, la SAPE,  still goes on. And yes, I will keep playing Yolele. So is Papa Wemba really gone? Is this great African baobab really gone? No, he has just changed his postal address. However, his music stays with us, and will lead some of us to school or work… always.