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Reviewed by:
  • On the Rumba River
  • Jonathan Zilberg (bio)
On the Rumba River by Jacques Sarasin. First Run/Icarus Films, New York, NY, U.S.A., 2006. 86 min, col. Distributor’s website: <>.

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 Wemba’s and the common person’s lot in Kinshasa and Brazzaville on the lower reaches of the [End Page 411] 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’s “Heart of Danceness” in World Music (2000), African Rumba, its wellspring 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 by 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 be 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 postcolonial 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...


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pp. 411-412
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