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On The Rumba River

According to legend, Antoine Kolosoy—who'd later change his name to Papa Wendo—was working as a boat-mechanic on the Congo when he picked up a guitar and invented the music that came to be known as rumba. It's an insinuating sound, rumba. A typical number starts with some circular picking, then adds percussion, horns, thumb piano, and vocals, piece by piece, until the song develops a kind of inexorability. Papa Wendo's buoyant, transcendent style became an instant sensation, though it tended to unnerve the region's ruling classes, who distrusted the peasant language Wendo used, the stirring rhythms he concocted, and—worst of all—the way the rumba made the masses feel united and powerful.

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Documentarian Jacques Sarin covers Papa Wendo in On The Rumba River much the way he covered Mali pop legend Kar Kar in the 2003 film I'll Sing For You. Sarin isn't interested in straight biography; he'd rather weave stark depictions of third world poverty between musical vignettes, talking-head anecdotes, and scenes of a legend in his twilight years. Anyone expecting to leave On The Rumba River with even a rudimentary sense of Wendo's life story and the tumult of Central African politics should scale those expectations back a bit.

But Sarin does record some remarkable stories, from Wendo's wife weepily recalling their dead children to one of his band members describing how he learned to play along with Wendo without any formal training. Sarin captures some stunning images too, contrasting the dusty natural beauty of the Congo with the way much of its populace is clad in cast-off American t-shirts. Mostly On The Rumba River works best when it sticks to the musical performances, which Sarin films in lengthy scenes built from extreme close-ups of lips, fingers and sweaty skin. The genius of the rumba is that the audience can see and hear a song begin, then get so lost in the flow that long stretches can slip by, unremembered, like so much muddy water beneath the hull of a puttering boat.

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