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Mbongwana Star: The shock of the new

Mbongwana Star: The shock of the new

This weekend Yakala ‘Coco’ Ngambali and Nsituvuidi ‘Theo’ Nzonza will perform with their new band, Mbongwana Star, to a 40,000-strong crowd in the UK. Playing at the multicultural World of Music, Arts and Dance festival – better known as Womad – is the culmination of a three-month tour of Europe and a roller-coaster few years for these two Congolese musicians.

For most of their lives, the two men scraped a living as street performers, busking in DR Congo’s capital Kinshasa. They were part of the band Staff Benda Bilili, named after a café outside which they performed (it means “look beyond appearances”).

Ngambali and Nzona are wheelchair users: the group’s 12 musicians included four using wheelchairs or customised tricycles, and one on crutches, all of them childhood polio sufferers. Its members lived in shelters for those with disabilities or slept rough. Instruments were improvised from scrap materials. They practised in Kinshasa’s zoo, using electricity hooked up from an ice cream van.

Then, in 2010, their lives changed. A moving documentary about the group – Benda Bilili! filmed by two French filmmakers over five years – premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

The band subsequently made a name on the European tour circuit, played more than 400 concerts, and released records – but, in 2013, the dream collapsed.

Though the group had stayed together through six years of hardship on the streets of Kinshasa, it took four years of success to break them up.

Time for change

Back home again in DR Congo’s capital, Ngambali and Nzona were just two of the city’s nearly 10m population. Kinshasa is now the third-largest city in Africa. It’s a sprawling Central African hub that covers 10,000 square metres and is home to myriad different cultures, languages and people.

Africa, the last continent to urbanise, is also the most rapidly urbanising continent. The proportion of Africans living in urban areas is projected to grow from 36% in 2010 to 50% by 2030, according to African Development Bank research, against 66% worldwide.

Urbanisation is a double-edged sword. It can increase inequality and poverty, for example, and lead to the establishment of shantytowns if a city’s infrastructure and social safety nets don’t keep pace. Or it can be positive, fuelling economic growth and transformation, and reducing poverty.

UN-Habitat asserts that, because cities are natural meeting places, they are centres of technological advances and innovation, hubs of culture and employment.

Kinshasa’s overflowing urban melting pot has indeed generated musical innovation. For decades, DR Congo was dominated by the fluid Congolese rumba of veteran guitarist Franco (François Luambo Makiadi). But now this has changed.

When Ngambali and Nzonza got together again, they took in a new musical direction with Mbongwana Star (mbongwana means “change” in Lingala) when they met maverick guitarist and producer Liam Farrell. He recorded their vigorous guitar riffs in Kinshasa, made them futuristic, interweaving them with deliberately distorted recordings of the city’s ambient sounds.

The other-wordly video for their debut single Malukayi features a spaceman wandering the streets of Kinshasa.

It was so different that the first hearing was a shock. “In the beginning it was a bit hard,” says Ngambali. “But we understood.”

In a review by the UK’s Guardian newspaper, music critic Alex Petridis wrote of the collaboration: “It doesn’t sound like a European producer twisting Congolese music to his own ends; it sounds like the work of a band, albeit one intent on doing something not many bands in 2015 seem that interested in doing – jolting the listener with the shock of the new.”

Kinshasa supergroup

As well as the successful concept of Mbongwana Star, Kinshasa has been the catalyst for the collaboration that created the Kasai Allstars. These musicians also toured Europe and performed at one of the world’s biggest music festivals – the UK’s Glastonbury with 175,000 festival-goers – last month.

This 25-strong collective is a ‘supergroup’ combining five bands who had migrated to Kinshasa, formed at the “respectful suggestion” of producer Vincent Kenis of Belgian record label Crammed Discs. Although its members are all from Kasai province, they are from different ethnic groups: the Luba, Songye, Lulua, Tetela and Luntu. Each has its own culture, language and musical traditions, which were previously thought to be incompatible.

“The musicians accepted… and it worked!” says Crammed Disc’s founder Marc Hollander. “They had to adapt their music, learn to sing in different languages, invent musical parts that didn’t exist before. The Songye use electric guitars, the Luba don’t: the Luba use xylophones and electric thumb pianos, whereas the Songye don’t. They enjoyed the results and decided to pursue this adventure. This trans-cultural collaboration is quite emblematic and inspiring, we think.”

What emerged was a wild, mesmerising, trance-like musical spectacle mixing unusual combinations of instruments with ritual and dance. Kasai Allstars call its modernised, electrified traditional music ‘tradi-moderne’, which Crammed redubbed ‘Congotronics’.

Best-selling albums were released such as Beware the Fetish and In the 7th Moon, the Chief Turned Into a Swimming Fish and Ate the Head of His Enemy by Magic.

Simon Broughton, editor-in-chief of Songlines magazine in the UK, describes their performance: “The ritualistic element of what they do on stage is so extraordinary, with an amazing selection of instruments – such as an extraordinary drum that looks like a huge sheet of wood, worn around the neck, a massive unwieldy thing…This music is very old, very traditional and yet sounds really contemporary. It’s that paradox that people really enjoy.”

Why compromise?

In DR Congo, Kasai Allstars’ music is appreciated by people from the band’s ethnic communities, Crammed says, and serves a social purpose – they play at weddings, funerals and parties – but the unexpectedness of what both they and Mbongwana Star are doing has caught the global imagination.

“It’s one of the most exciting times ever for music from Africa because people there are more willing to experiment. In DRC, the mood seems to be: ‘Why compromise? Why not do exactly what we want to do?’,” says David Hutcheon, the UK-based Mojo magazine’s world music critic. 

“The result has been albums from Konono No.1, Kasai Allstars and Mbongwana Star that buzz and roar with all the energy of Elvis Presley, the early days of The Beatles or The Clash. It sounds like music brewed entirely for home consumption, with no thought of tidying itself up to sound presentable upon export.

“It is that very authenticity that has struck a chord in Britain and beyond. For once, it feels as if we are part of a dialogue initiated in the jungles, cities and farmlands – we are neither missionaries nor tourists, neither taking the lead nor viewed as outsiders as Kinshasa speaks loudly.” 

Songlines’ Broughton agrees. “The Congotronics movement in Kinshasa is a real phenomenon,” he says. “In West Africa, tradition is also being reinvented, but it is very distinctive in Kinshasa.

“Bands from Kinshasa are traditional but also doing things in a new way. With electrified thumb pianos and distorted guitars and speakers, they’ve caught the ears of people who are into contemporary music or electronic music and not into ‘world music’.”

African musicians are willing to experiment, and their inventiveness is galvanising the globalisation of music from the continent. Hollander sums it up: “The African influence on young rock bands is reaching beyond the ‘world music’ genre…The remarkable feature is that the music of Kasai Allstars and Konono No.1 appeals to young Western musicians and fans, who come from the most adventurous, avant-garde segments of the indie rock and electronic music scenes.”

According to Mbongwana Star’s Farrell, “It’s up to journalists to think up a label for the music we’re making. Some people talk about us like we are ‘world music’, but we’re simply a rock’n’roll band.”

Photo by Florent De Le

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Written by Alexa Dalby

Alexa Dalby is a freelance arts and business journalist, with over 20 years varied experience of writing and broadcasting about Africa, and is currently assistant editor of African Business and African Banker magazines. She is a film critic and a specialist in African and Middle Eastern cinema.

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