In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 65% of the population live in poverty. In the capital, Kinshasa, the state is seemingly incapable of, or disinclined to, provide even basic utilities: the power supply constantly goes down and there is no sewage system. “The pain is so quotidian and so deep and unmerciful that people are attempting to find solace through pleasure,” says Didier Gondola, a Congolese academic.
How does this escape translate to people’s everyday lives in a culture where luxuries like televisions and mobile phones can be acquired, even if they come via the scrapheap, while essentials are routinely denied? There is the preening dandyism of the Sapeurs (celebrated/appropriated in a recent Guinness advert); there is sport, but organised opportunities are severely limited; and there is a traditionally vibrant music and dance scene. Since the Second World War, Congolese music has been dominated by the imported rhumba, mixed up with traditional African rhythms and vocals, and its descendants Soukous and Ndombolo. The music scene, along with the rest of Congolese society, was decimated by the civil wars of the 1990s and early 2000s, which have left an impoverished community who now more than ever have to rely on their wits for survival.
Throw into this daily grind the added difficulties of coping with the crippling effects of polio and you get some idea of the sheer tenacity of guys like Coco Ngambali and Theo Nzonza, the founder members of this year’s Africa Oyé headliners, MBONGWANA STAR. After years of surviving in disabled persons’ hostels and on the streets of Kinshasa while playing in a variety of bands, they burst out of their local scene in 2009 with the band Staff Benda Bilili, whose album Tres Tres Fort went global and saw them touring Asia, Europe and the US. I mention some well-known Western artists who have also suffered from polio to them, including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Ian Dury, and ask if they have tackled the subject of polio in their songs. Their reply is a rebuff to my presumptuous Eurocentricity: “We don’t know these people, but yes we are talking about it: like in Staff Benda Bilili, the song Polio; or in Mbongwana in Coco Blues.”
After an acrimonious breakup from Bilili in 2013, Coco and Theo, now in their 50s, didn’t waste any time wallowing in self-pity but quickly sought a new direction, which they describe as “a change in the colour of the project” (mbongwana means ‘change’ in the local dialect, Lingala). The new project, after numerous line-ups that included a veritable choir of family and friends, was finally kicked into shape when the band were introduced to producer Liam Farrell, aka Dr L, by maverick filmmaker Renaud Barret, who had previously documented Staff Benda Bilili. Dr L, who had produced Tony Allen’s Afrobeat album Black Voices, which Coco and Theo loved, flew into Kinshasa for 10 days of recording and returned to his Paris studio with a seemingly impenetrable wall of vocally dominated sound. In an interview with the Guardian’s Tim Jonze (June 2015), he explained that he introduced “more space into the music – made it more groovy and psychedelic – without space there’s nothing for the listener to dream of.”
There is more than one kind of space in the subsequent album From Kinshasa and its accompanying videos. Released in May 2015, with the pared-down line-up of vocalists Coco and Theo joined by guitarist R9, percussionist Sage, drummer Randy Kalambayi and Dr L on bass, the album garnered near-universal five-star reviews. Tristan Bath stated in his review for Drowned in Sound that the album represented a “turning point for the music of the entire region”. I ask the band if comments like that put any pressure on them but their response is again revealing. “We don’t feel any pressure. Maybe now we are representing something new in the West, but we can assure you, we have in Kinshasa so many new talents, using all that they can to express it. In fact, it’s not really new: many Congolese and other African musicians have always experimented [with] new stuff. The only problem is just Western producers were and still are looking for exotic music, or just what they think the audience in the West are looking for. Fortunately, there are some others who just look for talent whatever is the style.”
One such is Dr L, who responds to accusations that his involvement in the band amounts to little more than cultural imperialism in brusque fashion – “I think if you like music, if you like art, colour’s got fucking nothing to do with it. It’s not me inventing them. They’re artists.” The Guardian’s album review states: “Who did what? When it’s this exciting who cares”.
And it is an exciting album. From the opening track, From Kinshasa To The Moon, it is shot through with elements of techno, dub and rock over or under which, depending on the track, lie elements of traditional rhythms and vocals. The music sounds fresh, pushing Congolese music into new territory in which the old traditions are glimpsed like faded sepia portraits in a gallery of bright digital saturation. Theo alludes to this in the Andy Morgan article (who called them “Afro-junk revolutionaries”) when he says: “the roots of Congolese music are still in the rhumba. That will never disappear, but this is rhumba-rock”. The Guardian stated that “fusion is too smooth a word to describe it”, and maybe From Kinshasa is more like two continental shelves sliding along in opposite directions, throwing up brilliant volcanic eruptions of pyroclastic sound.
Suzanna, which, from the title, you might expect to be a ballad about a beautiful woman, crashes in with a heavy-duty techno riff and proceeds at a pace with traditional rhythms flying along beneath. The beautiful slow burn of Coco Blues is awash with shimmering guitar while Coco’s vocals intertwine with a lovely female voice over a delicious melody. Shegue (street children) features a jazzy organ lick over a dub bass and weaving soukous guitar lines, the call and answer vocals persistent and urgent, and the fadeout electronics sounding suspiciously like distant gunfire.
I ask them what the songs are about and whether Lingala has a strong tradition of poetry and storytelling. “Like in many African languages the lyrics are taking the place of books in a continent where people don’t read so much. We are talking about many aspects of life: poverty, democracy, street kids, corruption, love, the difficulties for couples to get married as the customs force people to have money when most of the people haven’t….”
The accompanying psychedelic-sci-fi-slumdog videos, produced by Dr L and the aforementioned Barret, are no less striking. Out of the darkened streets and alleys loom a cast of local characters: dancers, street children, the Congo Astronaut (a guy who dresses in a DIY garbage spacesuit and wanders around Kinshasa at night), and the band half-glimpsed in the gloom. In Kala, a crippled man dances on the floor and at one point appears to be trying to eat his own hand, on the verge of anguished tears. The videos, say the band, “are more or less to reflect as much as possible the atmosphere of the music”, and in their edgy blend of verité-noir they succeed.
How will they translate the sound of From Kinshasa and the new songs that they have been working on to a live audience? “In fact, live is more rock probably, and the vibe is more energetic; we want to shake dancefloors across the world.” If the energy levels at Africa Oyé are even higher than those on the album, this is definitely going to be worth seeing, and when we’re shaking our cosseted Western asses around in the beautiful surroundings of Sefton Park to these guys, let’s not forget the journeys that went into the making of this particular vibe.
Mbongwana Star headline Africa Oyé on 19th June. Their debut album, From Kinshasa, is out via World Circuit.