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On the Rumba River Reviews

Former yachtsman Jacques Sarasin's documentary about 72-year-old Congolese singer-songwriter Antoine "Papa Wendo" Kolosoy is structured around Wendo's efforts to get his old associates back together and play some music. The film's laid back approach is often charming, but deprives the elderly musicians' harrowing personal stories of context: A quick overview of Congo's history of brutal colonization, civil war, iron-fisted dictatorship and economic exploitation would clarify the reasons behind their persecution and poverty. Orphaned as a teenager, Wendo worked an itinerant mechanic, boxer and occasionally performer, travelling up and down the Congo river and composing songs on a battered guitar. He ran afoul of both the Belgian church and the colonial government – the former though he was playing the devil's music, the latter were afraid his liberating rhythms might foment revolution – and was already in his forties when he had his first hit, 1948's "Marie-Louise." Wendo, whose temper was as legendary as his voice (even at a time when educated Congolese generally considered musicians little better than thugs), he enjoyed some 12 years of stardom before the country's changing political climate plunged him into poverty – the brief promise of Patrice Lumumba's 1961 election as prime minister ended with his murder and the establishment of Mobutu Sese Seko's repressive regime, which lasted until 1997. Rediscovered in the 1990s, Wendo is now recognized as a father of modern African music in general and Congolese Rumba in particular. Like THE BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (1999), to which it has been compared, the film's great strength is its performance footage. Wendo and his contemporaries gather in small cafes, start playing when they're ready and the sound draws crowds as if by magic. (In Lingala and French, with English subtitles.)