Mbongwana Star

  • courtesy of the artist
  • Mbongwana Star

The Belgian producer Vincent Kenis, who made music as a member of the late-70s experimental-rock band Aksak Maboul, has thrived at taking motley assortments of traditional musicians from far-flung locales and forming bands out of them. He was one of the guys who rounded up a group of village musicians in tiny Clejani, Romania, and convinced them to work together as Taraf de Haidouks, the popular Romani string ensemble currently in its third decade (with a new album called Of Lovers, Gamblers & Parachute Skirts out on Crammed Discs); he was the guy who coined the term “Congotronics” and helped propel the veteran Congolese group Konono No. 1 to global fame; and he helped turn a crew of homeless paraplegics living on the grounds of Kinshasa’s zoological gardens into the touring band Staff Benda Bilili. Coco Ngambali and Theo Nzonza, former members of that group—which fell apart acrimoniously after releasing its second album in 2013—have returned in Mbongwana Star, a new group driven in part by European helpers. The group’s stunning debut album From Kinshasa (due from World Circuit on May 19) was made with the assistance of Parisian producer Doctor L (a dance-music specialist who’s previously worked with Tony Allen, the drummer who famously invented the distinctive rhythms that drove Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat sound).

There’s a strong Western vibe at work, a mixture of numbed postpunk and funk grooves with local traditions, as if a group of soukous musicians stumbled into the sessions of Fear of Music—liquid guitar lines and soulful Lingala vocals float over throbbing rhythms and the occasional blown-out guitar. I don’t know how this project came together and I can’t say who’s ultimately responsible for the aesthetic—loads of musicians involved in that Congotronics community seem to have embraced electronics—but this new album is a blast. There are songs on the record that convey a simmering soul vibe, such as the sultry ballad “Coco Blues,” while on the album closer “1 Million c’est quoi?” post-Franco guitar and simmering vocals maintain a fierce balance with funk grooves, the latter of which sometimes dominate the proceedings elsewhere. Today’s 12 O’Clock Track is the album’s first single, “Malukayi,” which pointedly features Konono No. 1 contributing its trademark distorted likembe lines to the floor-rattling bass and stuttering beats.

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