In 1954 Father Guido Haazen left his native Belgium and began work as a Franciscan missionary in Kamina, a copper mining center in Katanga, southern Congo. Within four years, the choir he organized of Congolese boys and their teachers had recorded the international best selling “Missa Luba”. The originality and power of the music derived from Father Haazen’s giving free rein to the singing of the movements of the mass as a tribal folk song. Also on the album were several songs of the Luba and Lulua peoples of Congo.
In the liner notes titled “On Hearing the Missa Luba” Studs Terkel wrote, “He (Father Haazen) might have impelled (sic, ed) European musical values upon the students of Kamina Central School as a house painter whitewashes a wall, obliterating whatever had been there before. Instead, he urged his young proteges to remember the Congolese rhythms and to freely improvise. The joy of being, the thrill of living, was italicized by the accompaniment: Congolese drums.” Terkel concludes his comments with, “The young singers, whom he has guided, are uniquely themselves: artists of the Congo. Truly, theirs is a religious performance, not merely a “Christian” one.”
In comparing the originality of the Missa Luba recording to the recently released movie “Viva Riva” made in Kinshasa, the movie falls way short as it slavishly follows the conventions of classical American gangster films. The first widely circulated film made by a Congolese in ten years, “Viva Riva” inspired high hopes among us Congophiles but mostly disappoints. Sticking to the gangster genre’s conventions established by the 1932 “Scarface”, Riva is alienated from his original family by his appetite for violence and fierce ambition and has to win over the moll of the mobster boss to demonstrate there is a heart inside. The disastrous ending traditional in the genre becomes in the Congolese version a conflagration created by the gasoline Riva has smuggled out of Angola.
With an opportunity to put on display for the world the riches of Congolese folk culture or of modern pop culture, even the soundtrack fails to rise to the occasion. How could we not be disappointed by not hearing any of the classical Congolese pop hits of Dr. Nico, Franco or Rochereau in the film’s musical background.? But more dismaying is the failure to reflect and honor the beauty and strength of the people of Congo except on the most superficial level.
I concede that my disappointment in “Viva Riva” may in part be attributed to my re-experiencing the power of the Missa Luba original recording released in the U.S. in 1964. Here is an example of Congolese taking a musical genre of the Western culture – the Latin mass – and making it authentically and richly African. Listening to the album again after forty plus years was like unearthing a soundtrack buried deep within and simply exulting that it had surfaced at the right time. Listen to the Kyrie clip from the record by going to the amazon address:
Although we celebrate the attention given the film at several international film festivals and the awards received by its writer and director Dio Tunda Wa Munga, “Viva Riva” is notable primarily for the skill displayed by writer-director Dio Tunda Wa Munga’s skill in imitating conventions of a western cultural genre without making it Congolese or showing off the beauties and strength of his African culture. The film is available for instant viewing on Netflix or for purchase as a DVD on Amazon and elsewhere.