“Here, in the streets, it’s the anti-technology thing that works. Everything’s recorded in the red! Sometimes I over-boost mikes that are recording nothing, just to pick up the kind of environment that’s around me now. Can you hear it? There are three TVs going full blast. Distortion multiplies the energy. I love it!”
Doctor L’s grin pixellates as an atrocious Internet connection dices up our Skype conversation. It doesn’t stop him. He seems to revel in the unpredictable zaniness that kicks in when technology breaks down. His words keep coming, delivered with an accent traceable to some obscure point between Paris and Dublin, his lean face a flag of fearless cheek under the ragged mound of dreadlocks that he credits with the ability to disarm any feelings of hostility a lone white man might otherwise attract in the ghettos of Africa.
It’s not just the sonic dirt that excites him; it’s the free spirit you sometimes find in places that no one is paying any attention to: the garage lands where garage bands turn streetwise anger into DIY productivity, revelling in their own ostracism and self-reliance. Punk rock, in other words. But Doctor L isn’t talking to me from underneath London’s Westway or on New York’s Lower East Side; he’s talking to me from Avenue Kasavubu in downtown Kinshasa, just opposite the Academie des Beaux-Arts. He seems to have found the eternal punk ethic alive and well on the banks of the Congo river, in the raucous swelter-skelter of Africa’s third largest city (equal to London in size), and he’s working hard to bottle it and bring it back to Europe. “It’s not that going to Africa is any big deal,” he says. “The big deal is to try and get something out.”
Horror stories about the Congo have been feeding the gorier side of the European imagination since the British Consul Roger Casement published his report on the abuses of the Congo Free State in 1904. The rape of that immense land, witnessed amongst others by Casement and his friend Joseph Conrad, whose classic Heart of Darkness remains one of the most controversial literary statements about Africa ever written by a white man, has continued to this day under both European and African rulers. It has been perennially justified by the global need, or rather greed, for certain raw materials deemed fundamental to modern existence, rubber initially and then a cornucopia of minerals including copper, gold, diamonds and, latterly, the rare-earth metals that make our digital ‘smart’ lives possible. The Congo wars of the 1990s and 2000s currently sit at No. 15 in the Wikipedia chart of the most costly conflicts in history in terms of human life, and No. 1 in African history. And yet who, outside Central Africa, remembers them now. Rape, followed by injury, insult, ignorance and forgetfulness: is there any other part of our earth that has been so abused and misunderstood?
But the place has its fans. Among them are the Belgian music producer-manager Michel Winter and the French filmmakers Florent de la Tullaye and Renaud Barret. Toiling away down in showbiz’s steerage class to bring some of Kinshasa’s street-level wonders to the attention of the world, they belong to a rare breed. The nightmarish penumbra that envelopes the Congo in the Western imagination tends to repel all but the hardiest souls. It takes a special kind of cultural adventurer to lift the curse and see Kinshasa for what it surely is: a place of immense human creativity, ingenuity and style, with the potential to become one of Africa’s creative powerhouses. It seems that Doctor L has just joined their ranks. “The city becomes a drug,” he says. “Freaks like Michel, like Renaud, like Florent are important. I give the crown to all those guys.”
Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye first travelled to Kinshasa in 2004, two virtually penniless wannabe film-makers enticed by an invisible force: ‘invisible’ as in hidden from the rest of the world and ‘force’ as in the tenacious will to survive and create. “At that stage of my life, France was just screwing my head,” Barret remembers. “All those people crying into their cups because they had to have the support of the state just to create something. In Kinshasa, it was the complete opposite; it was people who create out of a sense of urgency, who create because it keeps them alive. I said to myself: “That’s it! That’s the truth, not in the calculation but in the act of creation first and foremost.”
Barret and de la Tullaye’s first documentary film Jupiter’s Dance was a portrait of the Kinshasa music scene through the prism of a musician and street-level philosopher by the name of Jupiter Bokondji. While they were making that film they stumbled across a bunch of musicians in wheelchairs serenading the denizens of the Kinshasa night: prostitutes, renegade soldiers, hustlers and street kids or shégués as they’re known locally, apparently in mysterious homage to Che Guevara. The band was named Staff Benda Bilili (“the people who see beyond”) after a local beer joint. Barret and de la Tullaye spent the next five years and every ounce of energy and courage they possessed making a film about Staff and the extraordinary underworld they inhabited. It was called Benda Bilili and when it came out in 2010, it became the most successful non-Western music documentary since Buena Vista Social Club, helping to propel the reputations of both band and filmmakers to unimagined levels.
But Staff Benda Bilili’s success didn’t bring a deluge of music and film producers to Kinshasa. The ‘freaks’ carried on ploughing their solitary field; the curse remained in place. One reason perhaps is that both Benda Bilili and the other well-publicised Congolese tale of musical triumph against adversity – the undoubtedly remarkable story of the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste which was turned into the film Kinshasa Symphony by Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer – drew their power, for Western audiences at least, not from the originality of their art, but from their shared themes of gargantuan self-improvement and self-empowerment through music. They seemed to satisfy Matthew Arnold’s conviction, so entrenched in the Western humanist mindset, that art can elevate the lowest into the realms of ‘sweetness and light’, the only limiting factors being work, will-power and self-belief. Inevitably, there also was a complex element of pity involved.
And though none would dare admit it, both Staff Benda Bilili and Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste had something of Samuel Johnson’s proverbial dog walking on his two hind legs about them: “It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.” The allusion is unkind of course, and largely inaccurate, as was Johnson’s original statement, which he made in reference to female preachers. Speaking in purely musical terms, Staff Benda Bilili added a credible new chapter to the very old story of Congolese rumba, a style that, along with its louder, brasher offspring soukous and ndombolo, has been the dominant musical force in the Congo and larges swathes of sub-Saharan Africa since the 1960s. Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste might not yet have achieved the technical brilliance of the London Symphony Orchestra or the Berlin Philharmonic – who could possibly expect them to have done so – but their renditions of Carmina Burana and Beethoven’s Ninth exude a courage and cohesive pride that can ignite powerful joy in those with an open heart and sympathetic ear.
But self-improvement and the triumph of human will over poverty and disability can only inspire and sustain the career of an artist or musician for a limited time. The journey from rags to riches can only be taken once. The world must eventually judge an artist not by the journey he or she has taken, but by the intrinsic qualities of their art, not only the skill but, more importantly, the creativity and originality.
When Staff Benda Bilili split under the weight of their own success in late 2013, their main songwriter ‘Coco’ Yakala Ngambali teamed up with fellow singer ‘Theo’ Nsituvuidi Nzonza to form a new band. At first it was called Trio Mbongwana, then Staff Mbongwana International and finally Mbongwana Star. Mbongwana simply means ‘change’ or ’switch’ in Lingala, the lingua franca of the Congo River. “In Mbongwana Star, we’ve changed all the rules,” Theo says in one of the band’s early promotional videos. “We’ve decided to take control. We choose to produce our music ourselves. We are all bosses now.” Theo went further went I interviewed the band in London recently: “We also changed the rhythm,” he said. “We built a tempo that can wake up any dancefloor on the planet.” Talking to the Theo and the rest of the band, it quickly became clear to me that what the band refer to as ‘rhythm’ actually means something broader, something closer to ‘style’.
Following the global success and painful breakup of Staff Benda Bilili, whatever style Mbongwana Star chose to play had to be new and surprising. It couldn’t just be a re-run of Staff Benda Bilili minus the brilliance of the young Roger Landu and his self-made satongé (one-stringed tin-can harp), both of whom added such a unique dimension to Staff Benda’s sound. Nor did Theo and Coco want to perpetuate the Dickensian sentiments invoked by their rags-to-riches story and the fact that they’re both handicapped. That was old news. They wanted their music to stand by itself, crutchless and proud, and for it to do that, they needed to find a sound that was startling and irresistible, one that mirrored the creative genius of their home city.
But that mission was still vague and unfocussed. Both musicians were carrying a heavy load of influences and habits accumulated during long lives hard-lived (“All the lives of ghetto people are like odysseys,” says Renaud Barret). That made the task of reinventing themselves harder. Coco was turning sixty, and Theo had left his fiftieth birthday way behind. The Congolese rhumba artists who had nurtured them as children and young men still dominated their creative outlook. It wasn’t easy to imagine a new style that paid respect to those greats whilst breaking the mould they had bequeathed.
The Congolese rumba that was born in the 1940s, a love child of the country’s obsession with imported Cuban dance music mixed and its immense wealth of native dances and rhythms, has become a religion in the Congo. Its ‘gods’ – Franco, Tabu Ley le Rochereau, Le Grand Kallé, Zaiko Langa Langa, Papa Wemba – are cultural icons that inspire pride and loyalty. Their legacy cannot not be toyed with lightly, or irreverently. “Sounds can change, according to what we’re living over there, to what we come across in the streets and elsewhere,” Theo says. “But it’ll never change completely, because we’re still in the rhythm of our forebears: the rumba rhythm. Those are the roots of Congolese music. They’ll never disappear.”
Coco and Theo both contracted polio in childhood, but in contrast to the cruel ostracism suffered by many a Congolese child similarly afflicted, both were treated well by their parents. Coco only left home at the age of 14 when he realised his presence was becoming a burden to his family. He preferred to live with his friends in a special shelter for the handicapped where there was a possibility of learning a trade (tailoring for women in his case). Theo’s father, a fisherman, went to see all the traditional healers in his locality to find a cure for his son, without success. Despite this, Theo was sent to school at the age of six and stayed there until he was fifteen. Then, on the advice of his parents, he travelled up to Kinshasa to live with his older sister and learn a trade, which also happened to be tailoring.
At the time, Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator of what was then called Zaire, took a paternal interest in the plight of the disabled and passed laws to ensure that they were, for the most part, properly fed, housed and taught some employable skills. Mobutu also exempted them from charges and duties levied on the river ferries that chugged back and forth over the Congo River between Kinshasa, capital of what had been the Belgian Congo, and Brazzaville, capital of what had been the French Congo. Mobutu’s stroke of largesse attracted many handicapped people to the Kinshasa river port, where, several times a week, their self-made hand-cranked wheel chairs would be loaded up with trade goods and heaved up the gangways onto the ferries for the tax-free journey across the river.
Kinshasa was already a huge city back in the 70s and 80s, and because many of these handicapped traders lived in shelters that were hours away from the river-port, they often decided to move closer and sleep outdoors on large flattened cardboards boxes or tonkara in the local argot (derived from the French slang vocabulary known as verlan, which ‘flips’ the syllables of two-syllable words, turning carton or ‘cardboard box’ into toncar). Despite their street-level existence, the handicapped often managed to achieve a level of security and financial stability that was denied to millions of their fellow Congolese, thanks to the perks afforded them by the law and the strength they found in numbers.
Coco’s father went down to the port to try and persuade him to return home, but he refused. His new life down by the river suited him well. His uncle, who was a musician, bought Coco a guitar and he started to entertain his fellow street-dwellers with the popular rhumba hits of the day. He would jam and hangout with another handicapped river-trader by the name of Nzalé, who was an excellent guitarist. Coco was about eighteen years old when the pair began to busk in the swanky bars and restaurants frequented by whites in Gombé, the downtown ‘entertainment’ district of Kinshasa. Years went by in this way: trading, busking, hawking, surviving.
Theo and Coco started playing together after they met down at the river-port in 1999. Theo had learned the traditional music of Bas-Congo from his father and later become the singer in a band in Brazzaville. In 2002, Coco, Theo and their fellow riverside troubadours came to the attention of one of the Congo’s most renowned international stars: Papa Wemba. Enchanted by their rough-cut melodies and fearlessness, Wemba offered them free use of his downtown rehearsal studio, but his patronage ceased after barely more than a year when Wemba was indicted by a court in France for visa-fraud and people smuggling. Not long after this setback, in late 2003, Coco joined up with Nzalé and Papa Ricky, another handicapped musician and doyen of downtown street life, to form Staff Benda Bilili. Theo joined soon afterwards.
“Something you find a lot with people [in Kinshasa], be they musicians or boxers, is that dreams are a way of surviving,” says Florent de la Tullaye. “Dreams allow people to walk tall and create projects. Even if they come to nothing in the end, just the energy of those dreams increases the chances of survival.” Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Coco and Theo lost so little time after Staff Benda Bilili imploded nine years later, before launching themselves on another adventure. When one dream dies, give birth to another one…quick style!
The first Mbongwana Star rehearsals were fairly chaotic. “They bought along this guy and that guy,” remembers manager and exec producer Michel Winter, “mates, members of the family and I don’t know what. And we quickly ended up with a kind of church choir, at least in terms of the voices. It was more like demo stuff than music by a band that was ready to release an album.” According to Renaud Barret, it was Theo who was most aware that what they were doing lacked originality. Barret told him about a friend called Liam Farrell aka Doctor L. Liam and Renaud got to know each other in St Ouen, the scruffy suburb north of Paris city centre where they both lived.
Liam is the son of the Irish artist Michael Farrell, who exiled himself to Paris when Liam was still a child. He grew into a maverick young drummer and producer on the Parisian hip-hop and electro scenes before becoming one of the most innovative (you might even say ‘disruptive’) producers of music from Africa. Liam had been collaborating with Kabeya Tshimpangila aka Cubain, a percussionist from Kinshasa who seems to have played with everyone who’s anyone in the city’s grass roots music scene, including Jupiter and Staff Benda Bilili. Cubain also happened to be in Kinshasa helping Coco and Theo set up Mbongwana Star. The connections were multiple.
Renaud Barret played Coco and Theo some songs from Black Voices, the album that Liam had made with the Nigerian drummer Tony Allen back in 2004. The name Tony Allen was already enough to put some heat into the idea of a collaboration. Coco and Theo were fans of Afrobeat, the rhythm that Allen had invented with Fela Kuti back in the late 1960s; Black Voices had put new life into that rhythm, just as it was emerging from the confines of African and ‘World’ music fandom and attracting an entirely new audience of white funksters and hip electro-dance priests. “That’s it!” was Theo’s reaction on hearing the album, “that’s the direction we should go in. Because mbongwana means ‘change’. Because that’s the future.”
Liam ‘Doctor L’ Farrell and Michel Winter travelled to Kinshasa in early summer of 2014 for the first real recording sessions. Michel had rented a small house in its own yard near the city centre, a parcelle in local parlance, which offered the most basic accommodation. Doctor L slept in a tiny badly ventilated room that baked in the tropical heat, day and night. The grid provided electricity only for short periods, if at all, so a generator had to be hired to run the amps, mikes and recording equipment. Coco’s wife would arrive everyday with the food – sometimes chicken, sometimes fish accompanied by fufu, rice, manioc, beans. It was the kind of set up that Doctor L thrives in.
The music that Coco and Theo played to Michel and Doctor L was a heedless assault of percussion, guitars and voices that was unsure of what direction it should be heading in. There was work to be done. The sound that everyone was searching for was still latent, like a beautiful stone sculpture embedded in a rough-hewn boulder. Doctor L began to record as much as he could, chipping away, paring down, honing. “When we started, we were still doing the same ideas as before,” Theo says, “but when Liam got involved he proposed a lot of changes.”
“We were looking for something fairly rock’n’roll,” says Winter, whose CV also includes the management of Staff Benda Bilili and the dukes of Congolese distortion – Konono No.1. “We wanted to try and get out of the 100% African, afro-African, straightjacket, into which everybody tries to stick African bands and get back, not in the music necessarily but in spirit, to the 1970s when Africans were really modern, maybe more so than us. I found that Coco already had that in him. People here are a lot more creative than we can imagine; Kinshasa is crawling with creativity. You couldn’t care less if it’s African or not! We just thought ‘Let’s just go for it! Because it’s there anyway. You can feel it in the streets. It exists!’”
“First off, it wasn’t easy,” Theo admits, “but afterward we adapted to the rhythm very well. We changed very quickly…changed rhythm, changed everything. We called it ‘rhumba rock’, because we sing in Lingala, but the rhythm is rock.”
After a few weeks, Doctor L went back to Paris and worked on the material in his studio. He spent the rest of the summer working on it. It was an alchemical process, taking raw sketches of sound, stitching them together and transmuting them into something that shone bright and grabbed the ear. The direction was as evident to him in Paris as it had been back in Kinshasa. There was something out there, a street-level Kinshasa aesthetic that had be captured and distilled into musical form. It wasn’t the old rumba or soukous, whose heyday was in the 1970s and 1980s, or anything traditional or folkloric. Traces of all those elements were present, but the spirit itself moved beyond all of them. “Coco and Theo, they’re not talking about their village anymore,” says Doctor L. “That can be generations away from them, and they get bored of this kind of caricature. What they have [in Kinshasa] is a certain ‘Yoruban’ way of life.”
Doctor L’s use of the word ‘Yoruban’ is strange. It’s not meant in the strictly ethnic sense of course; Kinshasa is “a cauldron of all the 400 ethnicities of the Congo” according to Renaud Barret, with the Kongo, Luba and Anamongo in pole position and Yoruba holding only a minority presence if at all. To Farrell, ‘Yoruban’ seems to have more of a spiritual meaning related to the dynamic and polyglot freedom of an immense urban space: “Kinshasa reminds me of the New York of the 1980s. In fact, Kinshasa is more New York than New York itself! It’s Yoruban, and from a Yoruban place you can have a gay band, new wave, punk rock, what the fuck! It’s not griotic, with heritage from your father or your grandfather. It’s more like the European way, like garage music, like when you get ‘Louie Louie’ African style, or James Brown from Ghana, or the like the late 60s and 70s in Lagos, when it was rock’n’roll man!”
Technology, the Internet, have changed the game in Kinshasa, like as they have everywhere else. The gamut of influences has exploded. “Cable TV is only four or five years old in West Africa,” Farrell continues, “and already, in four or five years, it’s totally changed the kids. They won’t listen to rumba any more, they’ll be listening to Beyoncé. They already know so much more about London and Paris than we’ll ever know about Kinshasa, and that changes what the expectations of people are from music. But it’s good. I mean, fuck it, the world is like that. Everything needs to be communicating; it’s difference of style, of vibe that makes your originality.”
For Doctor L, this opening up of the arteries of communication and influence isn’t just inevitable, it’s positive. Roots may be important, but they can’t entangle an artist in modes of expression that limit his vision or prevent him being an honest mirror to the life going on around him. “I think Africa deserves, like everybody, to have artists who can take different trips, which may or may not be 100% related to Africa,” he says. “It’s not like we’re busy saying ‘We’re European!’ What does that fucking mean? It’s important that all this magic of art can exist there as well, without it being Iike me saying ‘Ok, I’m going to Ireland to do Celtic music because that’s who I’m supposed to be.’ We’re not talking about Africa here, we’re talking about guys who are doing music.”
When Doctor L’s mixes were heard back in Kinshasa, the effect was one of puzzlement, stupefaction even, followed by escalating excitement and wild dancing. “It was a bit different compared to our rhythm here in Kinshasa,” Theo remembers. “Really, really different. We loved it from the beginning.” Really? From the beginning? “Immediately! It was…WHAAAA?…oh yes, this is good! Those were rhythms that we could get close to.”
What about guitarist R9, one of the ‘youth wing’ of the band? How did he react when he heard the mixes? “Well, it was brand new music,” he said, “but it wasn’t complicated, because it was based on music that we’ve already been hearing for a long time. It was a just a modification for us. For me, it was a joy; I was happy to have created a new style with that. The youth of Kinshasa are more interested by new things. It’s really very important.”
Barret, who was with the band in Kinshasa when Liam’s mixes came through, remembers them dancing all over the place. The songs were on constant replay. Crucially perhaps, the reaction of the band’s entourage was also very encouraging. Fans would gather whenever the band rehearsed in their studio in the Ndjili district. “They would throw flowers at us, support us, shout ‘Mbongwana Star Forward!” remembers Sage, the band’s percussionist and vibe master. “We never expected that. They [the mixes] were great. And they made everyone dance. Without even singing the style, people were already dancing.”
For Theo, danceability is the ultimate litmus test of any new musical venture: “Whether it’s in Kinshasa, or here [in Europe]: that’s the most important things for me. We’ve done quite a few concerts and everybody dances; everyone is into that rhythm.”
Thanks to a fortuitous meeting at a soirée in London dedicated to music from the Sahara Desert, Michel Winter pressed a copy of the mixes into the hands of Nick Gold, famed founder and A&R man of World Circuit. Love at first sight in rare in showbiz, and the offer of a contract on the basis of a simple demo even rarer. But those Congo River gods must have been working overtime because Gold listened to the mixes on his way home that night and a deal was on the table within weeks. Not only was Mbongwana Star the first new band that World Circuit had signed in a long while, it was also the first in over twenty years to be produced by someone other than Gold himself and the first ever to have come from the Congo (Mali and Cuba being World Circuit’s habitual hunting grounds).
By the time Liam and Michel returned to Kinshasa in November, Coco, Theo and their new musicians were busy making the new sound their own. “What’s really interesting with Coco and Theo is that they’re ready to run with it if they feel it, whatever it is,” Liam says. “It’s not me inventing them. They’re artists. This is something really interesting that I love in Africa, and that people don’t talk about a lot: the strength and rapidity they have to integrate whatever comes up.”
The band line-up was beginning to reduce and solidify. First on percussion, then drums, was a handsome young ghetto dude with an intense gaze, a neat splay of short dreads and an easy respectful manner. Forty years younger than Coco, Randy Makana Kalambayi was born in Kinshasa to a family who survived by hawking and doing odd jobs. When he was still a child, his father decided to move the family to Bas Congo but died shortly afterwards. Randy went back to Kinshasa to live with his mother’s family; it was hard to make ends meet. At the age of seven, he met Coco, who was the neighbour of one of his uncles. Coco set him up with a family in Brazzaville; the mother sold peanuts down in the market and Randy contributed by selling plastic bags on the streets. Water had to be fetched from a standpipe hundreds of metres from the house. Life was an accumulation of all these little rites of survival.
Randy played percussion in a local church in Brazzaville before deciding, aged only eight but not quite tender anymore, to go back to Kinshasa and reunite with Coco. He became his mentor’s chief wheel-chair pusher, a position that earned him Coco’s protection, as well as some standing in the informal street syndicate of the homeless and handicapped. In the brutally Darwinian world of Kinshasa’s streets, such an alliance could mean the difference between survival and obliteration for a young shégué or street kid.
Randy even joined Staff Benda Bilili for a while and contributed percussion to their first album Très Très Fort. But before he could board the sweet chariot that carried the band off to Europe and success, Randy was persuaded to come back to Brazzaville by his mother to help support the family. He worked as a fare-collector on the busses and a labourer on a building site, a job that turned out to be lethally hard and very badly paid. Eventually he crossed the river once again and landed back in Kinshasa. There Randy learned that Staff Benda Bilili had become a worldwide success and were currently on tour in Japan. When they returned they asked Randy to rejoin the band, but visa problems prevented him from going on Staff Benda’s next tour. He did play some percussion to the band’s second album however. Then, when Coco and Théo decided to quit and set up Mbongwana Star, they invited him along as drummer.
Although Randy is a father now, he still lives in a shelter for the homeless and handicapped, a place that functions, according to Farrell, like an African village lost in the middle of a megapolis. He’s become a master of the Kitéké rhythms of the Batéké plateau, the old name for the country surrounding the ‘pool’ between Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Those rhythms, subtle and strangely familiar, are the pistons of the new Mbongwana sound.
For the pivotal role of guitar-player, an instrument that has supplied the melodic pulse of Congolese music since the 1950s, Coco and Théo chose Jean-Claude Kamina Mulodi, aka ‘R9’ because he was the ninth and last child born to his parents. R9 is a thirty-something guitar hero, who long ago pledged his allegiance to Zaiko Langa Langa, the Congolese band who dominated the pan-African soukous boom of the 1970s and 1980s. He’s also a huge fan of ACDC and Angus Young, but his stock-in-trade remains the intricately flowing, delicately sparkling Zaiko-esque guitar loops, the ones that send your soul skywards while your feet make love to the ground.
R9’s father, who was in the army, had a career in the Catholic priesthood mapped out for his son; but R9 had other ideas. He began making his own instruments out of junk when he was barely five years old, and was taught how to play by his elder brothers, who sang ndombolo. Having started off as a drummer, R9 gravitated towards the guitar and eventually became lead guitarist in a band in his hometown of Dibaya in Bandundu, a huge province that lies to the east of Kinshasa. R9’s parents had both died by the time he was seven, and his brothers sisters drifted away leaving him alone to survive on the sums of money sent him by his siblings. After graduating from the local lycée, R9 travelled up to Kinshasa and began performing with small neighbourhood groups, eventually working his way up to becoming a guitarist in the band of Pépé Kallé, a huge star in the Congo. When Coco and Théo formed Mbongwana they asked R9 to become their guitarist. “The guitar loops he plays made Liam and I think of techno and electro music from afar,” says Renaud Barret, “so he adapted well to that electro aspect of the project.”
Completing the line-up was Sage (as in the French word that rhymes with ‘massage’ and means ‘kind’, ‘good’ or ‘well-behaved’). Son of Coco’s wife Marie, Sage is a self-taught percussionist, a tropical cyclone on-stage, a ghetto rude-boy who enjoys his strolls on the wild side. “Very rock’n’roll” was Barret’s succinct description of Sage’s lifestyle.
In January 2015, just as Kinshasa was going through one of its periodic spasms of political violence and mayhem following President Laurent Kabila’s unconstitutional attempts to extend his time in office, Coco, Theo, Farrell and the other musicians were holed up in the Hotel Finesse on Avenue Kasavubu, patiently working out how to reproduce the challenging dynamics of Mbongwana’s revolutionary new style live on stage. Farrell’s position in the project had evolved from that of mere producer to producer, bassist, synth and sound FX player, arranger and conceptualiser. He was no longer the white European strategist who stays in his studio, one step removed, and envelopes his charges in a skin of sound that will, he hopes, make them palatable to the ears of the world. Mbongwana Star was no longer a purely African band. It was a trans-national, trans-ethnic, trans-cultural sound machine, a coalition of black and white, Africa and Europe. Don’t think James Brown; think Sly and the Family Stone.
Given the pressures of history and the build-up of sensitivity around topics such as race, culture and colonialism, it’s easy to guess at the prevalent line of questioning that Mbongwana star will be subjected to in the media and the cybersphere. Can a white man play such a prominent role in a black African band? Does it not risk smelling of appropriation, paternalism, cultural colonialism, exploitation, racial arrogance, dilution or all of the above (delete as applicable)?
Not only is Liam unapologetic about the level of his involvement in this project, he also considers the sensitivities and malaise that often surge to the fore in reaction to any cultural collaboration between white Europeans and black Africans to be misplaced, even reactionary: “I think, if you like music, and you like art, colour’s got fucking nothing to do with nothing. That’s what’s great about this world. We all need each other. Let’s stop pretending. I’m very happy that white guys make black guys exist and vice versa. It’s like all these old Analogue Africa records. You always need these white mad motherfuckers to dig out all the old dope African music…that’s what’s great about this world. And I’ve got African records where the mix is over the top man! The guitar is 20DBs too strong, but it’s fucking killing! It’s like magic. I never could have done that. So thank you guys!”
Why do I believe him? Several reasons. First the passion and sense of commitment that boosts the voltage of everything he says. Secondly, the time he’s sacrificed to this project, to sleeping in bedroom ovens, plugging into chugging generators, making videos on shoestring budgets, mixing, remixing and remixing the remixed remix, all in search of his grail: a sound that IS Kinshasa, right now in 2015. Thirdly, the feeling that Doctor L has moved beyond the naiveté that paints African musicians as angelic beings, imbued with a mystical spiritual power that a ‘fallen’ white man can only admire and serve. Like musicians everywhere, African musicians are humans who suffer from creative blocks, daft ideas, moments of madness, bad-judgement and breakdowns in reason. Should they be allowed to own their own music and determine their own creative path? Of course they should. The answer is so obvious that it makes the question superfluous. But they should also be able to search any place, consider any approach and collaborate with anyone they want to, white or black, European or African, to create something extraordinary.
Although there’s black blood in almost every note ever played by a white pop musician since the end of the First World War, the traffic has never been one way. Ragtime, jazz, blues, RnB, funk, soul, all have been fed by a minority of white as well as a majority of black cultural influences. In fact, the band with arguably the biggest influence on the evolution of black music in the last three decades, was white. And German! So, as Farrell suggests, let’s not pretend. The true creative impulse is colour-blind. It goes where it wants, talks to who it feels like talking to, collaborates with anybody that takes its fancy. As well as a mutual respect, it’s the brilliance, the originality at the end of the process that counts. “What’s interesting with Coco and Theo is that they’re ready to run if they feel it, whatever it is,” Farrell says. “We’re not like dictators. It’s not me inventing them. They’re artists.”
Coco repays the compliment: “Really, I like Liam. We work well with him. He’s courageous. He’s a real artist is Liam. I recognise that.” And when I ask the band if a white man can play African music, the response is heartfelt, and unanimous: “It’s not colour that plays music,” Theo says, “it’s the spirit. We don’t see the white, the black, the yellow, the red. We all have red in our veins. We’re together. We play music.”
Mbongwana’s aim is to express an attitude, a creative spirit that already exists in Kinshasa. It’s a spirit built on garbage. Renaud Barret has coined a cheeky moniker for it – System K – which he intends to use as the title of a forthcoming feature documentary. It refers not only to Kinshasa, but also to rue Kato, the downtown drag that has become the epicentre of the garbage-to-art revolution. It’s also a skit on the French term Système D, after the verbs se débrouiller (to get by, to find a way) and se démerder (to find a way without landing in the shit). Roughly, Système D means to manage and survive in the face of poverty and rejection with only your wits and your courage to protect you. The term combines English concepts such as the underclass, the black economy and the daily hustle of survival into one neat tag.
“System K runs the entire city,” Barret explains, “that’s to say, it’s imposed by the current climate, by la débrouille (making do), by all those gestures of daily life that are the creativity of survival. As you know Kinshasa was once the musical capital of Africa. Then everything crashed politically and so [there were] no new instruments or anything. De facto, a whole generation of young musicians with nothing in their hands and nothing in their pockets began making their own instruments, not to get into any kind of found-object art, but just out of necessity. Rue Kato is an artery, about two kilometres long from end to end, and on both sides of the streets you’ve these guys making stuff and creating stuff. They’re creating a new musical style. [They’re] recycled grooves but it makes me think of the first Wu Tang album, very minimalist stuff, all based on recycled materials. There are at least 10 creators there, who create loops with tape machines that are themselves reconstructed, and then people come and add stuff, whether it’s a female singer, a rapper, poets. Poverty has created this sound. That’s what’s fascinating. And It’s totally creative. If you listen closely, all the sounds of the city are in there.”
The rue Kato isn’t just producing musical instruments: Fashion, sculpture, video, photography, art, jewellery, automata, pedal power contraptions, motorised vehicles are all rising like the undead from the inexhaustible scrap heap. “Every instrument could be in a museum, with special lighting trained on it,” Barret says with a chuckle, “but it’s all happening in an atmosphere of general indifference, as always happens out there, a kind of enclosed world with no horizon.” In other words, it’s the old curse. Few people know about what’s happening in rue Kato, or the rest of Kinshasa, and few care. Barret hopes that his new film will shine a positive light on this subterranean world.
But the new spirit has to exist; there’s no choice: “That energy, that desire, that electricity, that vibe, it’s not just an invention,” Barret says. “It’s really coming through and it’s nourished by the fact that people are fed up with politics, with what’s happening at the summit of the state. It’s very new in fact. I’ve never seen that anger before, that punk aspect that’s swelling up.” When I ask Mbongwana Star about that spirit, Coco makes an uncharacteristic demand to be heard: “I can answer that particular question,” he says. “First of all, we’re an a-political band. If we’re asked questions, they should be about music. There are problems in Kinshasa, many problems, but they don’t concern us.” I point out that I’m not talking about politics, but rather a spirit of self-reliance. “If you can get hold of some money,” Coco answers, “then yes, with that spirit, you can build things like schools, where children can study, you can help friends too maybe…”
In our excitement about the potential of Kinshasa as a temple of creativity, it’s easy to forget that, in the end, it’s all about means and graft and courage. The band are well aware that, as they sit in a London hotel, talking to journalists, drinking coffee and playing with their smart phones, thousands back home are still tight-rope walking on the meagre line that separates survival from oblivion. “God pushes us to rediscover what we really see,” says R9, “so it’s a big feeling. What I can say to our friends who are still behind us, they have to work hard and give their energy to go further. No job is unworthy. Only people are unworthy. All that can be done, must be done, must be expressed. One mustn’t go backwards, or stay blocked; you have to give your energy, your inspiration. May we always remain mobile and work hard to prepare the future…”
The video for ‘Mulkayi’, the first single by Mbongwana Star, is a remarkably innovative piece of work by any measure, doubly so if you consider the tiny budget Barret and Doctor L had at their disposal to shoot and edit it. It features a local character, a happening on two legs called The Congo Astronaut, who wanders around the ghetto in a space suit for no obvious reason other than to be seen, be noticed and be stylish. When Renaud ‘premiered’ the video on a huge screen at Kinshasa’s École des Beaux Arts, where the video was shot, the response was exhilarating, heartening. “Everybody was saying ‘that’s it! That’s us!’” Renaud recounts. “And when we played them Liam’s mixes of Mbongwana star, those guys said ’that’s our music! We want that! Our artistic imagery is completely incarnated in that music.’” Coco agreed: “I thought it was great. It made me happy.” Doctor L and Barret’s second video ‘Kala’, is zinging twitching black and white celebration of Kinshasa dance styles, filmed down alleyways, deep in the shanties, out on the drags. They’re working on a whole string of further videos in the same lo-fi System-K spirit.
If the master plan succeeds, Mbongwana Star could become the Trojan Horse that penetrates the bastion of the world’s indifference (and revulsion and paranoia) and lifts the curse to bring that creative power out of rue Kato, the Beaux Arts, and other parts of Kinshasa. “The Beaux Arts is like a town within a town,” says Renaud. “Mbongwana Star has started rehearsing there and there’s a correlation with visual artists, stylists, people working on logos etc. It’s this kind of electric movement, this new vibe in Kinshasa that we’re trying to mix in with the music and the image.”
Theo, Coco and the other members of Mbongwana Star are all aware of the talent that exists back home, and the potential ways in which it might transform their visual appearance and live show. But they remain patient: “All that will come bit by bit,” he says. “We have ideas, but we’re starting with what we’re doing right now and then, little by little we can add other things.”
The journey ahead may be long, but the time for lift-off has surely come. The Congo Astronaut has waiting long enough.
Bristol, June 2015