Directed by Alan Brain (2021) 94m
Screening at The Sydney Film Festival and on demand. Dates here
Interview with director by Banning Eyer
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with world music knows about the unstoppable global impact of American blues, Jamaican reggae, and Cuban rumba, son and danzon. Muddy Waters and other Chicago blues legends, Bob Marley and the multiple tentacles that spread from the 1996 Buena Vista Social Club documentary and albums all have found their way into millions of homes.
But far fewer are familiar with African music beyond Paul Simon’s huge global leg-up to South African township jive with the 1986 Graceland album, Senegal’s Youssou Ndour’s world hit 7 Seconds Away with Nenah Cherry (1994) and perhaps Guinea’s Mory Kante 1986 monster dancefloor hit Yé ké yé ké.
Most people I know, including those with eclectic musical tastes, could not name a single musician or band from the Congo. But across much of African, Congolese rumba and its faster variant soukous are peerless as a kind of pan-African musica franca. No form of African music other than Congolese rumba has permeated the night clubs and bars of francophone west Africa and beyond. I’ve seen Congolese bands in Harare, Kampala and Nairobi. But in the west it remains marginalised in world music festivals and rarely if ever played on mainstream radio.
I’ve been obsessed with west African jazz since seeing Sam Mangwana and the African Allstars in London in 1984. It was simply a life changing experience that over the next four decades saw me seek out and buy many 100s of albums and spend hours in the African quarters of every city I visited in Europe and north America searching for hard to find albums.
Alan Brain’s documentary is a glorious experience, a testimony to his vast access to extraordinary archival photography and footage of Congolese musicians from a four year period living in the Congo. Much of it is told directly by surviving and recently deceased musicians from the golden era of rumba (1950s-1980s) around which the film is concentrated.
Belgium’s King Leopold II achieved recognition for the Congo Free State in 1885, turning it into the Belgian Congo in 1908. Congolese were treated like slaves by the colonialists and the film has wrenching material showing this oppression. Music emerged as a salve for many Congolese. The Belgians broadcast news through loudspeakers in the streets, but also played music. This drew crowds and foreign music infected an appetite for the new sounds in many Congolese. Cuban rumba records were first brought to the country by merchant sailors from the 1930sand became very popular in Kinshasa. Greek and Jewish entrepreneurs tapped the vast interest in the music and film shows several examples of Congolese singers and musicians from the 1940s who developed followings.
Three pioneering giants, singer and bandleader of African Jazz Joseph Kabasele (le Grand Kallé), the guitarists “Dr Nico” Kasanda and the incomparable Franco Makiadi Luambo are profiled, with superb guided explanations of their innovations. Franco led TPOK Jazz from 1956 to his death in 1989 and released 84 original albums and many more compilations, with one estimate being that across his 40 year career he averaged releasing “two songs a week … which ultimately comprised a catalogue of some 1000 songs”
Western guitar-based music centres around two guitars, lead and rhythm. There’s a spell-blinding scene where three guitarists demonstrate the unique third or mi-solo guitar role in Congolese rumba. There are also several street performances from veteran musicians including a sublime song filmed on a river boat.
Over and again, those interviewed explain the way in which the Congolese infatuation with music lifted spirits and national pride particularly after independence in 1960. My first taste of Congolese music has never left me. This potent film seems likely to drive a lot of interest in this often mesmerising music.
Recommended reading & my Spotify Best African playlist (573 tracks)
Graeme Ewens. Luambo Franco and 30 years of OK Jazz 1956-1986. A history and discography. (1986) Off the Record Press: London 64pp
Ronnie Graham. Stern’s guide to contemporary African music. (1988) Zwan: London. 315pp
Ronnie Graham. The world of African music. Vol 2 (1992) Pluto Press: London 235pp
Graeme Ewens. Congo colossus. The life and legacy of Franco & OK Jazz. (1994) Buku Press: North Walsham 320pp
Gary Stewart. Rumba on the river. A history of the popular music of the two Congos.(2000) Verso: London 435pp