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18 May 2015 08:36
Newly formed Congolese band Mbongwana Star have released a stellar debut album. (Image via Facebook).
The video for Mbongwana Star’s debut single, Malukayi, was a mysterious and rather compelling thing. Figures loom out of a low-lit,
smoke-wreathed gloom: a dancer, a frantic percussionist, a couple of
middle-aged men in wheelchairs, and, most intriguingly, a spaceman wandering
the streets of Kinshasa.
The latter seemed like the perfect metaphor for a
track that seemed to have fallen out of the sky, that somehow managed to be both
identifiably Congolese - you can’t mistake the amplified likembes of guest
stars Konono No 1 - and utterly unlike anything else the fertile Kinshasa music
scene had yet produced: hypnotic rhythm patterns that clattered and echoed as
if they were being played at the end of a vast tunnel; vocals coated with so
much distortion they sounded like something picked up on a shortwave radio; a
beautiful, keening male voice marooned over spacey electronics and mournful
gusts of feedback to eerie effect.
It turned out to be the work of Coco Ngambali and Theo Nsituvuidi, formerly famed as two of the guys in the souped-up tricycle
wheelchairs from Staff Benda Bilili, the band of paraplegic and homeless
musicians whose rise from grinding poverty in Kinshasa to global recognition
was one of the more startling musical stories of recent years.
In recent years, westerners attempting to capture the
music pouring out of the Democratic Republic of Congo have tended to use a
touch that was light to point of transparency. Vincent Kenis, producer of both
Staff Benda Bilili’s albums and Crammed Disc’s celebrated Congotronics series – which alerted the wider world to Konono No 1 and the Kasai Allstars – even forwent
a studio, preferring to set up his laptop and microphones in the open air and
record the artists live.
Farrell, on the other hand, seems to have placed
himself slap in the middle of the action. He produces the album in a way that
couldn’t be further from Kenis’s verité, pretend-I’m-not-here approach, slathering on the reverb and echo, wilfully coating rhythms and vocals alike in overdriven fuzz: even the album’s most ostensibly straightforward track, an astonishingly lovely ballad called Coco Blues, comes backed by a rhythm that’s been warped until it sounds as if it’s made up of shuffling footsteps. Kenis once paid Kinshasa street kids to try and stamp on some toads who were making their presence known during a Staff Benda Bilili recording session; Farrell, on the other hand, claims to have woven deliberately distorted recordings of Kinshasa itself into Mbongwana Star’s sound. He also performs on it, and appears in the accompanying press shots as a band member.
But quite what Farrell plays on the album isn’t entirely clear. If that sounds like a criticism, it isn’t meant that way. Quite the opposite: it tells you something about why From Kinshasa is such a success. Collaborations between musicians from wildly differing cultures - particularly from the west and Africa - are almost always done with the best intentions, but they run the risk of sounding artificial, as if one element has been grafted on to the other. On From Kinshasa, it’s almost impossible to work out where the Congolese musicians end and the European guy begins. The sounds on the album - whether scratchy samples of breathing, or effortlessly fluid soukous guitar lines, bursts of electronic noise or frantic call-and-response vocals in Lingala - wind around each other into a knot you can’t really unpick. 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.
There are certainly noises that feel oddly recognisable
to western ears in Mbongwana Star’s dense mesh of sound. Put through a
distortion pedal, Ngambali and Nsituvuidi’s guitar lines frequently bear a
weird resemblance to the itchy, agitated sound of post-punk: a track called
Kimpala revolves around a wah-wah guitar riff that might have stepped off a
late 60s acid-rock album. Opening track From Kinshasa to the Moon points up the
similarity between the basslines of Congolese rumba and reggae, while Suzanna
takes a frantic, tribal rhythm track and distorts it until it sounds like
something that might have been released on German techno label Basic Channel.
Whether these similarities are intentional - knowing references, cannily
designed to appeal to a hip European audience - or completely coincidental,
they’re not really the point of From Kinshasa. As soon as a little burst of
familiarity appears, Mbongwana Star have a winning habit of snatching it away,
wrongfooting you, shifting their music somewhere you don’t expect. Suzanna’s
dark, techno-like pounding is topped off with an unexpectedly pretty, honeyed
vocal, the appearance of which changes the track’s mood entirely.
At other points, From Kinshasa defies comparison, because
it doesn’t really sound like anything else. Nganshe is built around an ominous
bass pulse, clattering percussion, and a bizarrely hypnotic squeaking sound,
somewhere between a Brazillian cuica drum and the scrape of fingers moving
about an electric guitar’s fretboard. Over the top, voices chatter, while
harmony vocals, flurries of distorted guitar and likembe fade in and out. As
with a lot of From Kinshasa, listening to it feels like arriving in a bustling,
unfamiliar city, a very long way from home: a gripping mix of excitement,
apprehension and sensory overload.
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