Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Wendo Kolosoy On the Rumba River

We generally envision riverfront views being quite picturesque and desirable, but the Congo River presents an ugly sight, blighted by half-sunken vessels, emblematic of the waste and corruption of the Congolese government. At least that is how Antoine “Wendo” Kolosoy sees the river that launched his musical career, and his perception is backed up the visuals of director Jacques Sarasin in his documentary profile of the Congolese Rumba musician, On the Rumba River, which opens in New York this Friday.

In 1948 Kolosoy, a vocalist and sometimes guitarist, scored a monster hit with “Marie-Louise,” a song reputed to have supernatural powers. Yet despite general acknowledgement as the godfather of Congolese Rumba, Kolosoy’s musical career went through extended periods of obscurity, and still has not really received the international recognition afforded to musicians from the succeeding generation, like Tabu Ley Rochereau. Years after his initial “Marie-Louise” success, Kolosoy had to labor on the Congo River as a sailor and mechanic, until his fairly recent musical renaissance.

Rumba wisely starts with “Marie-Louise,” one of a dozen or so of the best looking musical performances put on film, perhaps since Fernando Trueba’s Calle 54. Often shot in extreme close-up, Sarasin and cinematographer Remon Fromont convey the passion of the music from the point-of-view of a bead of perspiration on a musician’s furrowed brow. These scenes look gorgeous and sound terrific.

When Kolosoy and his band play, Rumba is a joy. There are also the requisite interviews that provide some context, but probably will not particularly stand out for those who see a lot of music documentaries. The strongest non-musical scene comes late in the film, as Kolosoy visits some of the rusting wrecks strewn throughout the river, criticizing the government and society that allows such waste, leading into “Kinshasa,” an a cappella song of protest. It is a moment that effectively underscores Sarasin’s depiction of the river as a metaphor for the country’s neglect for its musicians (especially Kolosoy himself) as well.

Kolosoy’s Rumba shares the same Afro-Cuban heritage that also fertilized Latin Jazz, usually employing combos consisting of guitars, percussion, and small horn sections, making it easily accessible to jazz ears. They also share an improvisational spirit. In fact, one track on the soundtrack is simply titled “Improvisation,” featuring Antoine Moundanda’s infectious thumb piano, accentuated by short brass punctuations. Indeed, Kolosoy’s working band acquit themselves well throughout the film, particularly trumpeter Alphonse “Biolo” Batilangandi and saxman Joseph “ Maproko” Munange.

Rumba has a strong sense of place capturing the often squalid environment of D.R. Congo (formerly Zaire, formerly The Congo). However, the best story it has to tell comes through the music, lovingly shot and recorded, setting it above other music docs. It opens Friday in New York at the Village East.