A semi-opaque tone poem mainly for the world-beat crowd, the documentary On the Rumba River is a concert-cum-elegy for the Congolese musician Wendo Kolosoy, who died last year and was considered at the forefront, if not the inventor, of African rumba. More liner notes would definitely have helped, since the austere narrative introduces newcomers cold to the legendary African singer and instrumentalist (guitar, piano and organ) in his twilight years in the shanty metropolis of Kinshasa. In obviously contrived scenes, the famous grandpa idles in his garden while his younger, careworn wife (possibly an old backup dancer) despairs about the octogeniarian ever getting up and finding real work for their big family.
What little direct information the film feeds us about "Papa Wendo" comes from second- or third-hand accounts and an ersatz narrative about Wendo coming out of apparent retirement long enough to mount a reunion tour with a few surviving bandmates. Back in the 1930s, when he was dynamic young singer (making ends meet as a boat mechanic before his recordings sold), Wendo's records were in such demand, he ran afoul of Portuguese and Belgian colonial authorities and priests, who thought the native-tongue singing was politically subversive at best, satanic and sinful at worst.
Unless the subtitles are giving us badly expurgated versions, those alarmed Europeans were hilariously off-base. Wendo's bal-lads describe love for sweethearts named Vicki and Marie-Louise. Wendo himself (although he was a personal friend of the ill-fated Patrice Lumumba) shied away from politics, figuring he would just end up used (Bob Marley should've gotten schooled from this dude). After a period of obscurity, during which the newly independent Congo sank into civil war, President Kabila, who came to power in 1997, asked Wendo to come back and record again as a point of national pride.
The concert scenes and jams are the film's highlights. Wendo is joined by old cohorts — including thumb-piano virtuoso Antoine "Papa" Moundanda (who remembers the young Wendo as a boxer-hooligan who would intercept rival musicians at the wharf to beat them up) — for some old favorites, rendered in snug acoustic and club venues. The music is vibrant, but what sticks with you more is the ambiance and ennui of post-colonial Kinshasa, its river choked with wrecked and deteriorating boats, the neighborhoods' blocks and blocks of dim, unkempt, one-story barracks and rusty roofs, its politicians far away plundering the treasury. That picture can't help but resonate; after all, it seems to account for more than half the film. One wishes for more illumination, like when Papa Wendo drops his usual reticence to complain about the state of the republic.