We get a lot of music sent to DJ Mag Towers. Like, tons. We like quite a lot of it, and try to cover it in all manner of ways — it's mostly electronic stuff, of course. Sometimes, though, something comes along that is as funky and dynamic as the best electronic dance music — but isn't made with any machines whatsoever (hardly). The new album by Mbongwana Star is one such missive.
Coco Ngambali and Theo Nzonza from Mbongwana Star were originally in Staff Benda Bilili, quite a successful band from the Congo. They toured the world before the band went tits-up, but not before a couple of French documentary film-makers had documented them over a 10-year period.
These film guys happened to be neighbours of French DJ/producer Doctor L, the producer behind French rap group Assassin and numerous solo hip-hop albums and projects.
“I didn't just see the documentary, I saw hundreds of hours of film, and then I got to meet the manager of various bands over there and we organised the recording about a year ago,” Doctor L tells DJ Mag. “The original recording was in the garden of a house in Congo, we recorded outside.”
Doctor L is from Dublin originally, his dad was a painter and in the 1970s his parents moved to Paris when Liam was four. He's been instrumental in developing the French hip-hop scene, producing over 100 records, and lately has immersed himself in various new projects.
He produced Afrobeat sensation Tony Allen's 'Black Voices' album a while back, and when he hooked up with Coco and Theo's new band Mbongwana (it means 'change') it was inevitable that they'd collaborate.
Doctor L tells DJ Mag he'd been going to Mali a lot over the past decade, “but then there was a war so I stopped going”. Up for a new challenge, he explains how there were 10 members of Mbongwana originally, including five singers, “but it was too much, it was bringing it too much to a choral thing, so we stripped down the singers to Coco and Theo — the two guys in wheelchairs in the photos. They're great guys, they're really courageous, and good show guys as well.”
Listening to the rich, earthy sound of first track 'From Kinshasa to the Moon' — all booming dubby percussion and renegade bass, overlain with chiming guitar and expressive wailing from Coco and Theo
—and other album cuts like 'Malukayi', featuring Konono #1 and their tintinnabulating thumb pianos, and driving dervish disco-not-disco pieces Shégué' and 'Suzanna', not to mention 'Kala' with its electroclash synth sound, and you could be forgiven for thinking that there has to be electronics involved — so funky and futuristic are some of the tracks.
“No, there aren't any electronics involved, but it sounds electronic — it's the way we get it to groove,” says Doctor L. “At the moment there's two drummers, I've split my guitar so I play bass and guitar at the same time — so we don't have a bass player — and we've got two singers and a guitarist. Music-wise it's kind of minimal.”
Liam says that it was important to make the Mbongwana album playable onstage in its raw form. “I didn't add anything to the record at all really, there's no machines or anything like that,” he says. “I didn't add synths and drum machines or anything like that, cos I want it to be a band.”
Doctor L says he doesn't see why there can't be punk and new-wave bands coming out of Africa like there was in the '70s and '80s.
“And I think it's really important that we're white, we're black, we mix all together to make a bridge to the rest of the world, and that people stop looking at Africa like 'It's a Congo band, it's a Cuban band' — that doesn't mean nothing today, it's like if you say 'Oh, it's an English band' — what does that stereotype mean?”
He's right. Although Mbongwana recall African acts like the Bhundu Boys from Zimbabwe a bit, their sound is universal. Kinshasa is the main capital in Congo, the third largest city in Africa, and Liam calls it “a party-time place, for sure.
Nobody goes there cos they're scared, but I've been going for a while and I'm friends with a lot of people there now”.
He talks about how he doesn't know how people scrape by, cos they have nothing, and that “half of the band are from the street, they live in the street on a mattress. Music gives us hope.
It's a big accident this project, it's not like a record company thing. These guys have great energy, they're great people. It's more like a punk rock band. It's a mutual thing”.