Mbongwana Star’s gig in Oval Space on the Sunday night after Halloween was packed; the night was all the more vibrant courtesy of a resilient crowd: they weren’t going to let a Halloween hangover stop them witnessing the legendary Congolese group fresh from Kinshasa.
Mbongwana Star are a splinter group from Staff Benda Bilili, the musicians catapulted from homelessness to worldwide fame in 2006 by a French producer, who encountered them using found objects on the streets of Kinshasa to create music. Some of the band members suffer from polio, and their fervour and energy in makeshift wheelchairs (which doubled as instruments) was as responsible for their popularity as their zany metal pizzicatos and unusual high-pitched nasal harmonies.
The fifty-something Coco Ngambali and Theo Nsituvuidi quit Staff Benda Bilili along with drummer Cubain Kabeya over disagreements about pay in 2013, and their collaboration with younger Congolese musicians and producer Liam Farrell is what we see today as Mbongwana Star. Their album From Kinshasa is a far cry from the Graceland aesthetic of a dominantly European sound laced with a window dressing of African harmonies and rhythms. From Kinshasa uses electronics in order to amplify and experiment with a pre-existing soundscape, fully their own. Ngambali and Nsituvuidi bring the stunning, naked pitch of their voices to multi-textured songs. We visit post-punk, rock, electronica, acoustic guitar, on our journey from Tower Hamlets to Kinshasa. And we dance, entranced by the raucous rhythms, evocative of something – one can’t quite know what. Is it Kinshasa? Is it simply the unknown and as yet unnamed? And I say we dance to the rhythms, but really we fail to – the rhythms are constantly blind-siding us, changing into different musical creatures we didn’t expect. Malukayi’s addictive beat is overlayed with half-spoken lyrics in Lingala.
When Coco Blues comes on, the crowd becomes solemn. A moment of reflection in the midst of this energetic dance-party, the a cappella harmonies turn the warehouse bathed in blue light into a church.
Ngambali and Ntsituvuidi carry the show, singing with unrivalled passion and dancing feverishly in their wheelchairs, inviting audience members on stage. We come away sweaty, warm, feet itching to dance more. From Kinshasa to the Moon is the album’s opening track. As we tumble back out into the fog-enveloped night, it feels like we’ve been from the moon to Kinshasa, and back. Put your space suits on – these musicians are out of this world.