Reviews June 2, 2015
Mbongwana Star’s debut album From Kinshasa (World Circuit) could just as easily be called From Outer Space. The album's cover is graced by an astronaut, standing among an eerie background of a dark night giving way to a spotlighted dancer and purple-tinted smoke. That astronaut is also featured in the tremendous video for the album’s first track, “Malukayi,” along with the gifted female dancer depicted on the album cover, likembé playing, and a rocket ship. Disco balls are planets in the night sky of Kinshasa overhead. Reinforcing this cosmic connection, the opening track on Kinshasa is called “From Kinshasa to the Moon.” Its alien-sounding synth lines mix with a dramatic drumbeat and mournful sing-chanting to create a totally unique sound that nevertheless retains the authentic feeling of Kinshasa that was captured by the band’s predecessor, Staff Benda Bilili. That band combined exquisite musical expertise with a fascinating backstory, told in a documentary, Benda Bilili! that premiered at Cannes and tracked the rise of the group of mostly disabled musicians, who practiced regularly in Kinshasa’s zoo. From humble beginnings, the band gained international attention, and sold out major venues around the world. They also had the chops to back up the intense focus. The musicians of Staff Benda Bilili mastered the rumba and soukous repertoire of legends like Franco and Le Grand Kallé, and created their own innovations, such as the addition of the satonge, an electric one-string fiddle. After releasing their second album, Bouger Le Monde!, the group broke up, due to financial disagreements sparked by their overwhelming overnight success. Mbongwana Star is led by singers Coco Ngambali and Theo Nzonza, both of whom were members of Staff Benda Bilili. This time, the two veteran Congolese musicians have teamed up with Doctor L, an Irish producer, whose eclectic discography has stretched from synth pop (Taxi Girl) to French hip-hop (Assassin) and Afrobeat (Tony Allen’s Black Voices). This is an inspired choice for collaboration, as the band thrives in L’s experimental mindframe. On “Shegue,” warped-sounding synths mix breathtakingly with the vocal interplay of Coco and Theo, and some well-placed outer space sound effects. The Kinshasa of Mbongwana Star sounds light years away from the familiar sounds of Franco and Kallé. At times, the production style is willfully screeching and disorienting, and then a warm, crooning refrain breaks through the alien electronics, giving the music an emotional, human soul. On “Masobele,” rapping and falsetto vocals playfully interact over the buzzing sound of distortion. From Kinshasa dips into a lower register for the gorgeous, soothing ballad “Coco Blues.” Ultimately the album is tied together with a punk ethos that bursts out thrillingly on “Malukayi,” one of its best tracks. “Malukayi” features Konono No. 1, whose Congrotronics albums reach similar heights of electronic experimentation. As harsh as the production gets, it never sounds unpleasant. On “Suzanna,” a simple, lovely chant and swirling guitar lines hold the discordant, rumbling electronic background in check. It’s as if the band is saying, “Look, we could make a perfectly adequate album of classic-sounding rumba and soukous. But you’ve heard that before. So how about something a bit more interesting?” Then there is “Kala,” a track of pulsating, unstoppable forcefulness that sounds completely unlike anything that has come before it. The song is a real monster, full of throbbing synth lines, warbling, clanging sounds, and huge melodies. Appropriately, the song’s black-and-white video showcases incredible dancing in the streets and alleyways of Kinshasa. By the time the Afro-futuristic space odyssey has completed, Mbongwana Star have fearlessly broken new ground for Congolese music. From Kinshasa is a testament to the tremendous creativity that is still making their city shake decades after its reign as the center of the African music industry.