Kinshasa has now firmly stated its claim to be one of the world’s most important cities for music, by way of the Congotronics project (bringing the extraordinary, physical and impulsive music of Konono No 1 to a worldwide audience) and the massive success of Staff Benda Bilili.
The latter success story initially proved to be one of the most heartwarming in the history of African music, as a band of street musicians, some part paralysed by polio, became a global sensation delivering a passionate and life affirming live show that invoked adoration and joy wherever they travelled. Tragically, their tale later morphed into something wholly dispiriting, as the cynicism and competition of the international music industry caused the band to collapse in financial and managerial dispute. A version of the band has lumbered on – and two of its founder members, Coco Ngabali and Theo Nzonza, can be heard here, on this brilliant, engaging fusion of Congolese traditions with western production techniques.
Mbongwana Star is also, like a number of jazz bands, a celebration of the insight and vision that can be gained through musical collaboration between generations (Ngabali and Nzonza have joined forces with much younger players here, as well as with Paris-based, highly interventionist producer Liam Farrell). This approach is frowned upon in rock music, where the obsession with youth often threatens to obscure maturity, and where expected career trajectories seem to all too easily proscribe the limitations of what ‘maturing’ artists can attempt. Judging by the thrilling sound generated here, the rock world could benefit from investigating these kinds of creative avenues. The result is an album that both draws from the rich musical traditions in Kinshasa and beyond, but also sounds unlike anything else from the region to have reached an international audience. When Konono No 1 appear with their distorted, amplified likembes on Malakayi, the sound is unmistakable, but it is translated into something quite different by way of Mbongwana Star’s radical new context.
The opening prelude From Kinshasa To The Moon, in both its title and its sound, gives a clear impression of what this music about. It is built over a lithe percussion groove and insistent bass line with layered vocal and instrumental lines overlayed with massive amounts of echo and reverb. It feels like a distinctively Congolese take on dub production values. It is immediate in its emphasis on groove, but also absorbing in its attention to detail.
There are common features with other forms of West African music – the restless, mesmerising, repetitive, stoically consistent grooves of Shegue and Nganshe can’t help but invoke the spirit of Fela Kuti and the guitar lines sometimes draw from Soukous or Highlife patterns. Other elements seem to be drawn from elsewhere around the world. It’s not simply a matter of Congolese-western fusion either. The longing harmonies in the vocals and the echo effects recall Nyabinghi music (Dadawah particularly), or the Caribbean and African influenced funk of the recently reformed Cymande (especially on the slower, gentler, sweetly melodic Coco Blues).
The music is consistently either thrilling, evocative or moving. The band arguably save the best for last with the extraordinary 1 Million C’Est Quoi?, a brilliantly layered, irresistible percussive extravaganza. Its superb combination of muscular groove playing with tenderness and longing is winning, and an encapsulation of the flexibility and versatility that makes Mbongwana Star such an exciting project.