In 2008, Peruvian director Alan Brain took a job as a full-time filmmaker for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). While there, he worked on news shows and short-length documentaries for the UN, and he also filmed documentaries about urgent issues in the DRC such as human rights, internally displaced persons (IDPs), women’s rights, and child abuse.
But it wasn't all work during Brain's five-year sojourn in the Congo. An avid vocalist, he also started up a salsa band, and at one point one of the other singers in the group suggested that he check out some original Congolese music. He loaned Brain a CD of Congolese rumba music, and the filmmaker became an instant fan.
"I grew up in Lima listening to Cuban music," he explains through a thick Spanish accent on the phone from Morocco, "all these Afro-Cuban stars my mother used to love. She used to dance in the living room when I was a baby, and the Congolese rumba music had a bit of that Cuban music DNA in it, so it was like coming home."
Brain's newly acquired love of Congolese rumba led him to eventually direct, coproduce, and edit The Rumba Kings, which had its world premiere at DOXA on May 6. The film portrays the rise to prominence of various rumba bands from Kinshasa (formerly Léopoldville), the capital and largest city of the DRC, a country that has suffered from decades of political instability, war, and corruption, as well as centuries of colonial exploitation.
The Rumba Kings shows how groups like Le Grand Kallé et l'African Jazz and TPOK Jazz formed in the 1950s before gaining immense popularity and spawning their own national guitar heroes in players like "Docteur" Nico Kasanda and Franco Luambo, respectively.
Using concert footage, interviews, and archival images, Brain's film depicts how the development of Congolese rumba—basically a mixture of Cuban son and traditional Congolese music, with a big accent on electric guitar—became something like a call to freedom for the long-oppressed region, culminating in 1960's "Indépendance Cha Cha", a song that celebrated Congo's independence and became an anthem for similar movements across the continent. The filmmaker says that it took him a while before he realized that that was the story he wanted to tell.
"I didn't want to just make a film about the development of the music," he says, " 'cause that was too technical, too niche just for music lovers, music fans. I wanted to find a narrative, and I knew there was one there, but it took me a long time to see it, because sometimes we don't see what we have in front of our eyes."
Brain says that one of his personal favourite documentaries, the one that inspired him the most, is Playing for Change, Mark Johnson's 2003 film that celebrates the freedom and lives of street musicians in America. He's hoping that The Rumba Kings has a similarly galvanizing effect on viewers.
"What I hope they take away is the power of music, right, the power of music in creating hope, in giving hope, in providing a space of resistance against oppression. And maybe, hopefully, also it could help people see that the world is vast, you know, that the music of the world is vast.
"I can tell you something amazing," he adds. "Many times in Congo I have been with friends who are musicians who didn't even know the Beatles! They didn't know Neil Young! And I love Neil Young! I am a big fan of the Guess Who, Neil Young. I love rock.
"And so I travelled there with all my CDs, and I have introduced some of my musicians there to Neil Young, and to the Beatles. They love it, but it didn't get to them because the world is vast. A lot of the great cultural expressions from Africa are not easy to be found outside, and that goes the other way also."
The Rumba Kings, in French and Lingala with English subtitles, streams until May 16 as part of the DOXA Documentary Film Festival.