Two Congos Ask UNESCO to Honor Rumba

12 October 2021

La Septante is an open-air place for music in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Recently, Manda Chante sang the gentle opening to "Independence Cha Cha" there. It is an old song that represented African anti-colonial movements.

The song was first played one evening in Brussels, Belgium in February 1960. At that time, talks for Congo's freedom from Belgium were taking place. It energized Congolese representatives. Within four months, Congo was independent.

Sixty-one years later, rumba remains an important part of African music. Rumba is a kind of music and dance that came from African people in Cuba. A movement has started to establish its reputation and secure its protection.

Musicians from the Bana OK music group play at La Septante on September 24, 2021. (REUTERS/Hereward Holland)
Musicians from the Bana OK music group play at La Septante on September 24, 2021. (REUTERS/Hereward Holland)

Officials in Kinshasa and Brazzaville, the capital of the neighboring Republic of the Congo, have asked the United Nations to recognize Congolese rumba. They say it is an important part of culture of their two countries.

Officials of the two Congos sent their request to UNESCO, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. They are asking that rumba be added to the U.N.'s list of intangible cultural heritage. The list recognizes important cultural activities and skills around the world.

This list helps demonstrate the diversity of shared human history and brings attention to it. If Congolese rumba were added, it would join a list of hundreds of customs from around the world. The list already has music from Ireland called Irish harping, a Serbian dance called kolo, and reggae music from Jamaica.

Rumba was born in Cuba in the 1800s. It combines African drum sounds with Spanish musical sounds. Cuba was once a Spanish colony.

The musical form was brought back to Africa in the early 1900s on sound recordings. It found its way to a ready group of listeners in the two Congos, who recognized the sounds as their own.

The singer Manda in Kinshasa said, "If you look at modern rumba, we have elevated and developed it."

Andre Yoka is the director of the National Institute for the Arts in Kinshasa. He is leading the movement to add rumba to the UNESCO list. He said, "They took our ancestors to the Americas in the 15th or 16th century." He said rumba was created with the same influences as the story that formed Congo.

The documents sent to UNESCO say the name rumba comes from "Nkumba." "Nkumba" means belly button in a local language. The belly button, or navel, is a part of the body above the stomach. "Nkumba" is a dance that was born "in the ancient kingdom of Kongo."

Catherine Kathungu Furaha is Congo's minister of art and culture. She said when Congolese ancestors in foreign countries wanted to remember their history, their beginning and their memory, "they danced the navel dance."

She added: "We want rumba to be recognized as ours. It is our identity."

I'm Gregory Stachel.

Hereward Holland reported this story for Reuters. Gregory Stachel adapted it for VOA Learning English. Susan Shand was the editor.


Words in This Story

reputation n. the common opinion that people have about someone or something: the way in which people think of someone or something

diversity n. the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization

elevate – v. to raise to a higher rank or level

reference n. the act of mentioning something in speech or in writing

icon n. a person who is very successful and admired