On the Rumba River (FIRST RUN FEATURES dvd):
Available on Netflix.
You’ve never heard of him, but Antoine Kolosoy, a/k/a Wendo, a/k/a Papa Wendo, is perhaps the most beloved musician that the Democratic Republic of Congo (a/k/a Zaire, a/k/a Belgian Congo) has ever known. The peripatetic Wendo got his start as a teenager, traveling up and down the Congo River as a mechanic, boxer, and part-time musician.
He ascended to the ranks of the mono-named in 1948, when his first album became a massive hit and established him as the father of a new genre: Congolese Rumba. After 12 years of megastardom, though, the rise of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in the ’60s reduced Wendo to homelessness—until he was rediscovered in the ’90s.
With On the Rumba River, yachtsman-cum- documentarian Jacques Sarasin has compiled a meditative ramble through the highlights of Wendo’s career, told entirely through song and interviews with Wendo’s musician-colleagues. As a filmmaker, Sarasin has an extraordinarily light touch—a good thing for those who want to sit back and enjoy the music (the toe-tappingly spirited rendition of Wendo’s biggest hit, “Marie-Louise,” is a highlight), a bad thing for viewers unfamiliar with Congolese history and in need of a little context with their rumba.
Wendo Kolosoy was a former boxer and ship’s mechanic from the Congo who in 1948 recorded a song called “Marie Louise” as Papa Wendo. Wendo’s music, an infectious blend of Latin and African rhythms, took the nation by storm and he became an overnight star among the Congolese. However, while the sound Wendo created proved to have a lasting influence in the Congo, his own fame waned, and as he slipped into obscurity, he watched the sad history of his nation unfold, as the end of colonialism led to wave after wave of bloody violence. Wendo’s music, however, has been discovered by a new generation of music fans, and the aging musician continues to perform as often as he can.
This alternately poignant and playful documentary views his achievements from a context of political oppression and economic deprivation. Now 83, Mr. Kolosoy is seen enjoying a reunion with former band mates while dodging his wife’s pleas to get a job.
“We got our independence, but all we do is kill each other,” he tells us while the camera tracks through the misery of the Kinshasa slums, their squalor a shocking counterpoint to the effervescence of the music. Whether proclaiming the indifference of politicians or the thrill of infatuation, the songs — heavily influenced by the music of Cuban seamen in the 1940s — offer a welcome distraction from poverty and civil war.
Filming in late 2004, the director uses his eyes but not his voice, allowing his subjects to guide the story. In the background, the vast expanse of the Congo River flows with a neglected beauty; the country may be falling into ruin, but the songs remain the same.