From Nkumba to Rumba: the Rich Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Congos

The often-untold story of Congolese rumba displays how resilient Africans have shown to been through adversity.

Rumba or “nkumba” (navel in kikongo) in its original form, describes the joining and rubbing of the navels, a dance which marked the celebrations for the populations of the Kingdom of Kongo (which extended over what we know today as Angola, the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

Modern Congolese Rumba, however, is much more than a simple dance or musical style. It embodies the creativity, spirit, philosophies, and culture of the Congolese. It is the legacy of slaves, forced to leave their country for the Americas with nothing but their essence to connect them to the continent. It is the product of a back-and-forth between the two Congos and Cuba, and later a cry for the liberation movements.

It is to the sound of Le Grand Kallé’s “Independence cha cha” that most Congolese celebrated their independence. The song, which was largely broadcasted in the 1960s recounts the events that preceded the independence process. Viewed as one of the first Pan-African hits and Congolese rumbas, this song embodies the power and importance of Congolese Rumba throughout history. Congolese rumba has also helped bridge the gap between the two Congos, strengthening their cultural identities while paving the way for the creation of other musical styles.

More recently, Congolese rumba, with its undeniable contribution to music worldwide but also to Pan-African values and African memory, has been recognized by UNESCO as World Intangible Cultural Heritage. This nomination promises to be a big step forward in bringing Congolese rumba to light, fostering employment and entrepreneurial opportunities in the music industry as well as the transmission of cultural values in the region.

To celebrate the new status of Congolese rumba as an intangible heritage of humanity, two events will highlight rumba in Luanda and Pointe-Noire in the margin of the International Jazz Day. Two concerts by musician Héritier Watanabe will take place in Luanda with the support of the Alliance Française on April 1st and 3rd, celebrating both Angola's 20 years of peace and the recognition of rumba as world heritage. This will be followed by a major festival organized in Pointe-Noire by the French Institute: "Rumba one day, Rumba always" from April 7th to the 15th, offering a rich program of concerts, conferences, workshops and exhibitions, with speakers and proposals from the two Congos, Angola and the diasporas.