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Mbongwana Star
From Kinshasa Clyde Macfarlane , May 13th, 2015 09:23

Over the past few years, Kinshasa has established itself as a city where otherworldly bands rise out of its innumerable slums, hit the international scene with a scrap-heap adapted bang and then become recycled as younger, more streetwise members take control. Highlights have included Jupiter Bolondji, a stalwart bandleader who toured Africa for decades before his ever expanding group, Okwess International, released Hotel Univers to critical acclaim in 2013. Bolondji was a key name to be headhunted for DRC Music, a 2011 Damon Albarn/Warp Records collaboration which exploited the earthy, mysterious excitement that Kinshasa holds in its belly. In typical Warp fashion, the resulting album revelled in an oppressive wall of sound, occasionally punctured by chattering Congolese voices and xylophone-like bleeps.

The best example of Kinshasa's relentless spirit of adaptation is surely Staff Benda Billi, a group whose core consists of four paraplegics who get by on homemade tricycles. Staff Benda Billi have a life thanks to the opportunities a rubbish dump presents, and from this twisted form of modernism comes empty-solvent-can percussion, distorted thumb pianos and DIY amplification. These elements create the percussive heartbeat of urban Congolese music. The soul then comes from soukous, a Cuban inspired genre defined by soaring, gloriously upbeat guitar licks that has spread throughout the African continent.

The hottest current Kinshasa group are Mbongwana Star, a 7-piece outfit endorsed by renowned label World Circuit. Members Coco Ngabali and Theo Nzonza were founding Staff Benda Billi members, and so bring an authoritative love of Congolese rumba to a band predominantly built from a younger generation. Mbongwana Star's debut album, From Kinshasa, has an additional deep electronic pulse, with French producer Liam Farrell (aka Doctor L) cloaking this project in a Warp-worthy ambience. Vocal exchanges are enriched by resonating woody echoes, and bizarrely versatile drums thump out hypnotic rhythms.

'Coco Blues' is a slow, hazy montage of dominant soukous and overdubbed vocals, with the track's namesake clearly revelling in his worthy status. But on much of the album the soukous guitars are pushed into the background. They call out like the murmurs of a distant carnival, harking back to a revolutionary period which gave birth to one of Africa's trademark sounds. An urban jungle of interesting noises has since grown from Kinshasa's streets, and Doctor L interprets these layers with a solid understanding. "Sometimes I over-boost mics that are recording nothing," he says. "There could be three TVs going full blast. Distortion multiplies the energy".

It could so easily have turned into a mess, but Mbongwana Star have made probably the most consistently listenable album to emerge from Kinshasa's rapidly evolving new genre. Coco and Theo have invaluable experience both musically and in recognising talent from within Kinshasa's sprawl, while Doctor L has a connection that can only come from a heavy immersion in Congolese culture. It seems like every band member is queuing up to stamp their name; a lazy rap on 'Masobélé', a funky keyboard riff on 'Kala'. There is a menacing attraction here, and Mbongwana Star cleverly balance the sunshine vibes of soukous with the gritty reality of life in a Kinshasa slum.