Kanda Bongo Man's revolutionary sounds travel to SA

Right note: Kanda Bongo Man’s take on rumba music helped transform it into what became known as kwassa kwassa. (Sony Pictures)

Right note: Kanda Bongo Man’s take on rumba music helped transform it into what became known as kwassa kwassa. (Sony Pictures)

Being in South Africa evokes a sense of nostalgia, says one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s greatest exports, Kanda Bongo Man. The musician says his rise to superstardom was assisted by a South African after his move to Paris in 1979.

Kanga Bongo Man spoke to me from Cape Town ahead of his performance at the Nu World Music Festival over the weekend.

“Jumbo Vanrenen, a South African guy, discovered me in a nightclub and boosted my international career,” says the singer of talent scout Donald Vanrenen, who linked him to UK musician Peter Gabriel.

Referred to as a musical vanguard of his time, Kanda Bongo Man’s take on soukous music revolutionised the genre – which has roots in Congo’s rumba music – and transformed it into what became known as kwassa kwassa, a vibrant dance music.

“Kanda was at the right place at the right time,” says Vanrenen, who has retired to Cape Town and sometimes deejays African music. Vanrenen says that, after completing a stint at Virgin Records: “I saw him perform in Paris and I was introduced to him.”

A few months later Womad was looking for musicians and he put the festival and Kanda in touch.Since then the musician, also known for his debonair suits and hats, has gone on to tour the world and record many albums.

This weekend, he will headline the festival and share the stage with South African stars, including Simphiwe Dana and Ricky Rick.

I read that you’ve relocated to South Africa. Is this the case and, if so, how are you finding it?
Not really.
I come to South Africa to do work – perform and record – but normally I live in London. I do have a house in South Africa, in Limpopo. I travel a lot all over the world. I’m always on tour.

And while in South Africa, what are your thoughts on its music?
I’ve been a big fan of South African music for a long time. Since a young age, I have followed the music of Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela and later Mbongeni Ngema. Even today, the younger generation of musicians here still have it.

I actually have a long history with South Africa. I went to France in the late 1970s and in 1981 I met a South African guy called Jumbo Vanrenen. He used to work at Island Records in London and he had a label called Mango at Island Records. When he came to Paris one weekend, he found me singing at a nightclub and said: “Woah! The guitar from this music sounds like it’s from Soweto.” He discovered me and said: “I want to take you to London and promote you.”

At that time I was a very young man and Jumbo introduced me to singer Peter Gabriel, who played in the band Genesis. Peter Gabriel then created a festival called Womad in London and I was invited to play it. So it was Jumbo who introduced me to the international music market.

You’ve had a very successful career, which includes you having pioneered kwassa kwassa music.
The proper name for the music I play is rumba, but which became known as kwassa kwassa because I am part of a generation from Congo who tried to bring something more to soukous music. I enjoy African music in general because African music is very rich. Each corner of Africa and each country possess its own kind of melody and beat; it’s rich and inspires me a lot.

What are some of your career highlights?
When I went to New York in 1993, I performed at Central Park and I had 25?000 people in the audience. There was also a live recording of it called Soukous in Central Park.

That was such an amazing moment; I never thought I could bring together so many people, ­especially in New York. Other ­highlights are having performed in Burkina Faso, Mali in West Africa and Kenya, where the stadium is always full.

Who will you be playing with at the Nu World Music Festival?
It’s the band that I use when I’m in Africa because of the travel costs, but I have another band in London and we travel to America and ­Australia. When I come to Africa I use this band and they are all great ­musicians.

What are you currently working on besides the tour?
Right now we are working on my live concert DVD and CD of a live recording show I did in March. After the DVD comes out, I will record again next year.

And, lastly, what advice do you have for young musicians?
Don’t give up, just keep on working. It can be very hard but don’t stop and be serious about your craft. Also, be motivated and listen to other artists that inspire you to continue.

The Nu World Festival takes place from July 17 to 18. For more information, visit capetownnuworldfestival.com

stefanie jason

stefanie jason

Following studying towards her Film & Media degree at the University of Cape Town and North Carolina State University, Stefanie Jason began work as a copy editor and writer for various South African publications, including Bona, True Love and Sowetan, as well as the Mail & Guardian. For the M&G's arts & culture supplement Friday, she writes about art, music & lifestyle when she isn't relaxing, traveling or checking out Jo'burg's many art galleries. Read more from stefanie jason

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