Performing Arts

Rumba Rules: Film offers a glimpse of the contemporary Kinshasa music scene


The social, political and economic influences that have contributed to the dominance of Congolese rumba as a global musical genre make for a compelling story. PHOTO | POOL

The social, political and economic influences that have contributed in the dominance of Congolese rumba as a global musical genre make for a compelling story.

Research studies, books and films have delved into the successes and upheavals of the music through its different iterations.

The story of the fifth generation of Congolese rumba artists is told through the lens of Canadian filmmaker David N. Bernatchez.

He visited the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for the first time in 2004 accompanying students from the University of Lubumbashi on an audio-visual project in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi.

During that time, Bernatchez spent three months in Kinshasa where he developed a strong connection with the music and decided to focus on the workings of the rumba scene in Kinshasa as part of his PhD studies in musicology, anthropology, and social history.

He then became a frequent visitor to the DRC and made friends with photographer, filmmaker and painter Kiripi Katembo and visual artist Sammy Baloji.

“After my PhD, I felt that I wanted to make a film away from academia, working with friends and artists I greatly respected,” says Bernatchez in an interview with the BDLife via Zoom earlier this week from his home in Quebec.

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The film Rumba Rules, New Genealogies which has been screened on the international film festival circuit in the last two years, premieres on the streaming platform True Story today, September 1, 2023.

The project that started in 2015 and took five years to complete, offers a glimpse into the contemporary music scene of Kinshasa through the experiences of Congolese musician Brigade Sarbati and his Hercules Orchestra offering a glimpse into the daily life of the group through studio recordings, rehearsals and concerts.

“We encountered Brigade and his orchestra for the first time in 2015 in Kinshasa after watching many bands during their studio sessions,” recalls Bernatchez.

What fascinated him was the way the musicians would build the music in a format known as generique during the rehearsals and he was curious to see how the bands did their recordings. (generique is the style of rumba when a song jumps right into the dance ‘animation’ and guitar rhythms)

Brigade Sarbati’s band fits the filmmaker’s interest in a band that is young and energetic with a contemporary edge.

They were not looking for a Koffi Olomide or Werrason or any of the A-list Congolese musicians. “When you film a musician at a point when he feels he has arrived where he wants to be, then it will not be the same portrait of Kinshasa that you will get,” he says.

“It was not the idea of making the film with the big star, we wanted the musical and spectacular aspect of the orchestra to be alive. But we also wanted to go further than these images. We wanted to connect with musicians and people that have the story of their lives.”

Brigade Sarbati who was born in June 1980, in Kinshasa, got his big break when he was recruited as the atalaku (animator) in Koffi Olomide’s band and then had a stint in Wenge Musica Maison Mere before forming his own band.

Bernatchez explains that Rumba Rules refers to “the musical rules, rules of rumba community, and the economic rules of the music through what is known as mabanga. (Mabanga refers to the payment that influential people make to musicians for their names to be mentioned in a song)

Rumba Rules is also borrowed from the title of a book by Bob White whose research into the popular music in the DRC has been a useful reference for Bernatchez’s own study.

Ironically Bernatchez didn’t take a liking to the music when he first watched rumba videos on TV in 2004, but his attitude changed after he had a chance to sit in during a rehearsal by Papa Wemba’s band

“From that moment I was completely changed by the music,” he says. It was a time when rumba was dominated by the feud between JB Mpiana and Werrason, who led different factions of Wenge Musica while Koffi Olomide, Papa Wemba, and Felix Wazekwa were producing some of their biggest hits.

“As a percussionist, drummer myself I was really impressed with how these bands were working, organizing and the connections between the guitarists, the atalakus, and dancers,” says Bernatchez. “I like the generique with twisting from one idea to the next, and the energy at the top level.”

“Rumba has undergone huge changes because every generation feels that they are better than the previous generation, and the older ones will say the young ones are not playing rumba,” he states.

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"It is a musical tradition in the purest sense because there is a powerful common heritage which you don’t find in other genres.”

Rumba Rules, New Genealogies premieres on the documentary streaming platform True Story, today September 1st.

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