INTERVIEW

BEYOND WORDS: Congolese band MBONGWANA STAR have made a deeply progressive debut album that dispels the Western myth that African music is forever retrospective

mbongwana-star

Kinshasa is Africa’s third largest city, equal to London in size and home to almost ten million people. It is teeming with life, with noise and with bustling activity. It is also teeming with extreme poverty and with entire communities of people having spent their lives on the streets for generations. The Second Congo War (or Africa’s World War) started in 1998 and ended in 2003, claiming 5.4 million lives in the process. The fall-out of the war, followed on from the effects of the first, can still be felt in the city today as it attempts to regroup from the intense disorder; crimes ranging from petty theft to homicide all still being relatively high, whilst the extent of the poverty has meant that 80% of the population were reported to be living on less than $2 a day in 2010. The street children, or shegue as they are commonly referred to, are not just a small unfortunate section of an ostracised community but instead represent a significant proportion – they are a culture themselves.

Coco Ngambali and Théo Ntsituvuidi (both permanent wheelchair users after they contracted polio as children – a common occurrence amongst street children many years ago) were part of a group of street musicians (the majority of which were also disabled) called Staff Benda Bilili. They hand-crafted instruments from what was lying around in the streets – one particular instrument called a satongé was composed from a fish can, a piece of wood and one guitar string – and they were a relative hit amongst western audiences as a result of the documentary Benda Bilili and the subsequent world tour it sparked. However, success caused friction and Theo and Coco left the band in 2013 and last year formed a new outfit Mbongwana Star – Mbongwana meaning ‘change’.

Whereas the sound of their previous outfit was deeply rooted in traditional Congolese Rhumba music, their new output, as perfectly captured on their recently released debut album ‘From Kinshasa’, is something altogether new. It’s a timeless, seamless amalgamation of styles, rhythms and approaches that takes the deeply rhythmic and dance-inducing grooves of African music and runs a sort of dub-influenced post-punk bass through it, complete with experimental electronics and itchy guitar lines. It sounds frighteningly progressive and is a reminder of the fact that Afrobeat is not simply a retrospective stylistic touch applied by modern bands wanting to reference or capture it, but that it was once a driving force – the future – with Africa leading the way of musical progression in the world, and that’s exactly what Mbongwana Star currently embody through their radical music.

I attend their first ever UK show at Café Oto to meet with the group, who in total consist of Coco Yakala Ngambali, Théo Nsituvuidi Nzonza, Randy Makana Kalambayi, Jean Claude Kamina Mulodi aka R9, Matuzolele Rodrick and Doctor L. With only one of them speaking any English it proves to be pretty tough. They all sit around a long table drinking beer, eating some brought-in Jamaican food as the music blares in the background. The producer of the album, as well as member, is Doctor L. The Dublin via Paris musician and producer – a man who has a rainbow coloured swirl of piled up dreadlocks on top of his head – has gone AWOL and I shake the group’s hands apologising for my very primitive French as they smile enthusiastically but ultimately do not understand me. Their manager reluctantly steps into the role of translator but between his apathy and the answers coming from a variety of different people’s input, the answers are short and simplistic. “It is a nice city and we love it, we like to be there. It’s our country,” is the condensed response I get when asking to gain some cultural insight into Kinshasa. “We wake up everybody there [when making music] everyone was sleeping. We mixed together everything we had in our heads and hearts, we just play music.”

Doctor L soon returns and the role of translator is passed onto him. I pass on my sincere congratulations about the record, which I dearly love, and as Doctor L translates it I pick up on him saying: “Deteste le disc” and “Merde”. I’m no good at French, but I do know enough to realise he’s telling them I think the album is a piece of shit. It’s clearly a joke but I counter drastically: “No, no, no – C’est Super, C’est Super!” waving my arms wildly. The response is a round-the-table cheers with Theo shouting “good, good!” enthusiastically, whilst fiercely shaking my hand, which he does a lot when I try and chat to him.

Doctor L soon stops translating most of the questions and just answers them himself. “Kinshasa is like 1980s New York,” he says. “The chaos, the freedom – and non-freedom – it’s not like world music, it’s different.”

The project is new, still unfolding, still developing and finding its collective groove. “What’s nice about this project is that it’s like an adventure,” he says. “We’re making it as we’re going along – it’s nice and exciting.”

It’s a little infuriating having the whole band there and being unable to communicate with them as they look on, and gradually they return to their beers and dinners as they realise they are being slowly phased out from the conversation. I try to bring it back around a couple of times but Doctor L seems keen on answering the questions I aim towards them himself, pointing out such issues as the general ignorance attached to Africa and African music by westerners. Which is fine, and I’m sure he’s acting out of practicality more than anything else, but I’d rather be told that by the group of African’s sat next to me than the white westerner speaking for them. Either way it makes little difference because the support band starts up and the interview is cut short after fourteen minutes.

The Mbongwana Star show that soon comes, however, is fantastic. It’s a little looser, rougher, and more traditionally focused than the album, but it’s riveting and joyous nonetheless, the endless tip-tap drums, hypnotic bass and snappy vocals that cut between chants and gospel hyena barks are all enough to send the room into a universal groove – Theo looks like he’s set to eject himself from his wheelchair at any moment, such is the vigour of his dancing movements.

I manage to catch up with Doctor L again with the hope of having a little more peace and quiet this time around although our phone connection (him in Kinshasa) is a bit of a nightmare, stalling us further. “There’s very little stuff here,” he says of the set-up used to get the band in action. “I brought some old mics up with an eight track and a sound card – it’s really simple, I can work with nothing sometimes. When you’re recording it’s interesting to have bad equipment because it gives you new ways of listening to stuff. In this town I’d be running around recording from different parts of the room because everything is so loud, there might be a loud TV coming from one corner, there’s four churches that start their bells ringing at five in the morning everyday. The sound here is super loud and super distorted all the time, it’s amazing. You just listen to the sounds going on, there is never silence.” With almost perfect timing to illustrate his point, a series of dogs can all be heard barking wildly in the background, but he seems unaware of their comic timing, perhaps being used to their incessant howling.

Doctor L worked on Tony Allen’s (the Nigerian musician – primarily drummer – who helped shape the Afrobeat sound: “Without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat,” said Fela Kuti) ‘Black Voices’ album and, supposedly, Theo and Coco loved the sound captured on that record so much that it drove them into collaboration, although apparently not so according to Doctor L.

“That’s incorrect,” he says. “I think, to make it simple, because this question comes up quite a lot, this record is like a project and it’s like if a movie maker went somewhere to choose his artists to become actors of the movie, these guys are actors of the movie, Mbongwana Star. If you’re doing music, you’re doing art, you’re doing film, it’s all the same shit.

“Do you think in Congo they know what a producer is?” he continues. “They’ve got no idea about the answers to half of the questions people are asking me. I think people don’t realise that the way of thinking in these other places aren’t based at all on the same references from the places people are asking them. Sometimes I wonder if people travel. They [people in Congo] don’t have any idea of what the music business is; they don’t have any experience of having a record produced. They don’t know what we’re talking about, it doesn’t exist here. How could they be thinking about producers if they don’t know what it is? Music here is spontaneous – they do music live, they don’t do recordings. That’s what’s interesting because they meet a guy like me, then we get together and do something. Now they understand more about what’s involved, and producing stuff. ” L tells me this with a slight degree of frustration in his voice.

As an active musician who has worked in Africa for a prolonged period of time I’ve no question that his knowledge outweighs mine on the subject and geography but something sits a little uneasy about the amount of voices he seems to be speaking on behalf of here so I try and touch upon it. “There’s all this ‘black and white’ – fuck this black and white thing,” he says. “I think Africa needs lots of mixed bands because it builds bridges; it gets other people interested – they relate to something. The idea is to relate – you can have everything: punk, hardcore, gay, whatever the fuck here. That would be more the idea anyway, a bit of freedom… you know what’s missing from Africa? That white folks don’t come here enough. There’s thousands of Africans in Europe but there’s no white people here, man. That’s what’s missing. Music isn’t just about the ancestors of your village, we’re in 2015 – let’s be there. We’re not saying anything is bad or good, we just need different statements, different ideas – the more you’ve got in the diversity of music the more you have in freedom and expression – it makes culture for people and culture is life.”

Musically, ‘From Kinshasa’ is a record that transcends; it transcends time, genre and convention and Doctor L’s bridges that he intended to construct appear to have worked in that respect, as the album continues to clock up rave reviews from traditionally genre-specific publications to 5* reviews in the broadsheets. “That’s the idea, that’s what’s interesting – you can be a guy who likes African music, a guy who likes techno, a guy who likes rock. That’s the idea, I don’t know if different styles really exist anymore – it’s time we just made something that relates to people or even music that doesn’t relate to people and people have to get involved to then relate to it. Sometimes the effort has to come from both sides. We’re trying to bring energy and sometimes energy scares people, you know?”

I’m not entirely sure I do know, to be honest. Doctor L – despite his impressive musical credentials and involvement with this truly amazing band – has something of the demeanour and conversational tone of a 5am Glastonbury conversation with someone at the stone circle, full of enthusiasm and sincerity but occasionally clouded by a condescending and generalised delivery. This reaches a peak when he explains to me that I have to be aware that producers and DJs are not the same thing. “If there’s one thing you’ve got to be careful of today [it’s that] people think producers are fucking DJs. Most of the producers these days are DJs, making music for clubs; these are not at all the same thing. This is a band, this is an identity of a band who are looking for something. I’m not a DJ producer, it’s more like a movie, a band situation is a story, something you get involved with – it’s not just taking snaps and going to the club, you know?” Again, I’m not sure I do. However, that’s fine. This is a band that eclipse words or the need for explanation – they are a band whose lyrics I don’t understand and I was unable to even have a basic conversation with but they have still made one of the greatest album’s of the year because they embody all the things in art that language or words are not required for: invention, progress, change, innovation and experimentation. There is an image of an astronaut on the front cover of their album for a reason, this is a group grown from history and tradition – something learned – but spurred on by a desire for exploration into realms previously unexplored.

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