Mbongwana Star: thrillingly wrong-footing Congolese music

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. After their acrimonious departure from Staff Benda Bilili in 2013 over management disputes – anyone in the market for horrible irony might note that it took the good old music industry less than four years to break up a band that had previously stuck together for six on the streets of one of the poorest cities in the world – the fiftysomething Ngambali and Nsituvuidi recruited younger musicians from their hometown, apparently intent on making something radically different to Staff Benda Bilili’s stew of Congolese rumba and R&B. The other main protagonist on From Kinshasa appears to be Dublin-born, Paris-based Liam Farrell, once the drummer with Les Rita Mitsouko, subsequently a trip-hop producer and latterly a collaborator with Afrobeat legend Tony Allen.

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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Alexis Petridis
Guest Author

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