Congolese rumba awarded Unesco Cultural Heritage of Humanity status

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  • The Congolese rumba was included in the Unesco Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.
  • Unesco says the Congolese rumba is a multicultural form of expression, originating from an ancient dance called nkumba.
  • Since the list was developed in 2008, a total of 429 intangible cultural heritage elements have been inscribed.

In October 1974, American boxer Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), on the way to beating George Foreman in the highly publicised "Rumble in the Jungle" in Kinshasa, played Congolese drums and got locals chanting "Ali Bomaye" (Ali, kill him!), engraving himself in that country's folklore and popular culture. 

The sound of the time was Congolese rumba and, more than 45 years later, the story of Ali conquering the heart of Africa is still being told through the same genre of music and other forms of art.

On Tuesday, the United Nations Education and Scientific Cultural Organisation (Unesco) Summit accorded Congolese rumba the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity status.

Two countries - the Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo Brazzaville - applied for Congolese rumba to be given special notice.

In a statement, Unesco said they chose to recognise the music genre because it "is a multicultural form of expression originating from an ancient dance called nkumba (meaning "waist" in Kikongo). The rumba is used for celebration and mourning, in private, public and religious spaces".

Some of the most prominent stars of this genre are Koffi Olomidé and Kanda Bongo Man.

In the 1960s, Congo Brazzaville became the music capital of Africa, with the late Francois "Franco" Luambo Makiadi attaining legendary status.

In its citation, Unesco said Congolese rumba was passed from generation to generation through formal schooling and social interaction.

Unesco said:

The tradition of Congolese rumba is passed down to younger generations through neighbourhood clubs, formal training schools and community organisations. For instance, rumba musicians maintain clubs and apprentice artists to carry on the practice and the manufacture of instruments. The rumba also plays an important economic role, as orchestras are increasingly developing cultural entrepreneurship aimed at reducing poverty.

As a career of people's language and culture, rhumba "is considered an essential and representative part of the identity of Congolese people and its diaspora. It is perceived as a means of conveying the social and cultural values of the region and of promoting intergenerational and social cohesion and solidarity".

The sound joins Cuban rumba on the list, a secular genre of Cuban music involving dance, percussion and song, from which it draws some elements of inspiration.

Other African recognitions were Ceebu jën, a dish that originated in the fishing communities on the Island of Saint-Louis in Senegal.

Tbourida, a Moroccan equestrian performance, dating back to the 16th century, also made it to the list.

Moutya, a Seychelles dance brought by enslaved Africans, who arrived with the French settlers in the early 18th century, was also honoured.

Some of the well-known intangible cultural heritage elements on Unesco's representative list include the Gastronomic Meal of the French (France, 2010), Indonesian Angklung (Indonesia, 2010), Chinese Shadow Puppetry (China, 2011), Kimjang, or the making and sharing of Kimchi (South Korea, 2013), Washoku (Japan, 2013), Bagpipe Culture (Slovakia, 2015), Beer Culture in Belgium (Belgium, 2016) and Yoga (India, 2016).

Since the list was developed in 2008, a total of 429 intangible cultural heritage elements have been inscribed.

The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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