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Mbongwana Star are the latest big noise from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their debut album has received rave reviews, they are on a tour of Europe, and at the end this month they will make a much-anticipated appearance at Womad UK, Europe’s largest world music festival. Frontmen Yakala Ngambali and Nsituvuidi Nzonza — known universally as Coco and Theo, respectively — have previously enjoyed fame in the west as part of Staff Benda Bilili, but when I meet them, ensconced in a café in the City of London and surrounded by suited bankers ordering takeaway coffees, much of the band’s energy is devoted to not talking about their past.
Staff Benda Bilili were made up of paraplegic (Theo and Coco both use wheelchairs) and homeless people, who formed a community based around the zoo in Kinshasa, the DRC’s capital. “We rehearsed in the zoo,” Theo corrects me, sharply, in French. “We lived on the streets.” The band played high-energy Congolese rumba augmented by eerie-sounding homemade instruments that they assembled from garbage. They had a couple of hit albums (by world music standards), sold out huge concerts in Europe, and were the subjects of a documentary film. “There were lots of festivals,” says Theo, not without weariness. “I’m not sure where I’ve played.”
But in 2013, Staff Benda Bilili imploded in a bitter dispute over money, which culminated in a tussle over who would manage the band. (A new version has arisen, now touring with the old repertoire and are still tied to the original record company, Crammed Discs.) After licking their wounds, Theo and Coco formed a new outfit along with their old manager Michel Winter. “After that adventure,” says Theo, pronouncing the last word as if what he actually means is “catastrophe”, “we created Mbongwana Star. I’m never going to be able to do anything else than music.” He spreads his hands wide. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one now wants to look back.
They recruited some new, younger musicians (one of whom, R9 — pronounced “Erneuf” — is with us in the café), and Winter also looped in the Irish-born, Paris-based producer Liam Farrell, who goes by the nom de guerre Doctor L. “Our former band,” says Theo (no one refers to Staff Benda Bilili by name), “played rumba. This for us was a project about the whole planet — there is funk, rock, Afrobeat in this project. It’s the sound of the world”.
The album, From Kinshasa, fizzes with echoing, metallic percussion and guitars saturated with distortion. Synthesisers bleep and whoosh and wobble. “Malukayi” sports a buzzing drone of traditional likembé from their former labelmates Konono No 1, but for the most part the record sounds like nothing on earth.
The Congolese members of the band are at pains to emphasise the modern musical richness of their home city. “We listen to all sorts of music in Kinshasa,” says R9. “There are all sorts of music, all international musics. Even from here.” He waves an indicative hand towards Liverpool Street.
Audiences have responded warmly to Mbongwana Star. “They didn’t know the songs,” says R9, “except from the record. But they sang along with us, and danced a lot. France, Germany, Holland, London — several cities but the same reception. Yesterday, c’etait un catastrophe!” (Which, by contrast, he seems to mean in a good way.)
The band’s debut album is released by World Circuit, best-known for more traditional releases by groups such as Buena Vista Social Club and African artists such as Toumani Diabaté and Ali Farka Touré. The pairing came about almost by chance, when Winter slipped World Circuit’s Nick Gold a demo CD at a concert at the Barbican in London. “We had a rough mix of five songs. I gave it to Nick. If we’d sent it to his office maybe he’d never have listened to it, but he played it in his car. I wasn’t necessarily thinking he’d sign us, it was more to have his opinion, but for them maybe it was a new window.”
Doctor L arrives in the café, lean, tall and dreadlocked. At high speed, in an accent equidistant from Dublin and Paris, he sets out his own manifesto for Mbongwana Star. “Sadly, Coco and Theo’s old band became famous because they were black, they were poor, they were handicapped and they lived on the street.” (Theo interjects: “We all have houses now.”) “My job,” continues Doctor L, “is to take all that out and produce the art.”
He moved to Kinshasa upon signing with Mbongwana Star and set about rehearsing and recording. “[Most] African artists dig what European producers think European audiences will want. But in Kinshasa you hear heavy metal, hip-hop, soukous, rumba, everything. They want to be musicians of this century.”
The record’s distorted, futuristic sound reflects the circumstances of its making. “It’s a very noisy city. Open churches, people making music from tin cans,” says Doctor L — “People selling eggs”, interjects Winter — “Yes, them!” Both men briefly imitate the outcry of the egg vendors. “Everybody’s making their survival system,” says Doctor L.
The producer is used to making records on the fly. “A band need to be always in creative moments. I could do an album in a hotel room — I did Tony Allen’s last album on a bus with a laptop. [In Kinshasa] we had shitty mics and no equipment. The philosophy is: take good advantage of what’s broken. Put it in front, don’t hide it. Everything is distorted in Kinshasa. Everyone’s cranking it up because it’s all so loud. Everything is oversaturated, which gives it energy.”
Michel Winter, tactfully, questions the label’s decision to truncate the album’s name to From Kinshasa. “The full title is From Kinshasa to the Moon. In other words, we’re not doing World Music. We’re letting African people do the music they do.” “Exactement”, says Theo. “C’est ça.”
Mbongwana Star play at the Womad festival in Charlton Park, Wiltshire on July 25. mbongwanastar.com
Photographs: Florent de la Tullaye/Renaud Barret