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Mbongwana Star and the Changing Rhythms of Congolese Music

Rhythms pulsing like a rapid heartbeat, so infectious you can’t help but let your body be carried along; soulfully wailing vocals that call you back to a place you know; a mixed up electronically-driven funk that throws you into the bouncing night of a busy city or underground club. These are just a few of […]

Mbongwana Star. Photo: Courtesy the artists

Mbongwana Star. Photo: Courtesy the artists

Rhythms pulsing like a rapid heartbeat, so infectious you can’t help but let your body be carried along; soulfully wailing vocals that call you back to a place you know; a mixed up electronically-driven funk that throws you into the bouncing night of a busy city or underground club. These are just a few of the feelings evoked by From Kinshasa, the debut album from Mbongwana Star that landed on many of the top-50 charts for 2015, including the New York Times, NPR, and SPIN.

The two central figures of Mbongwana Star, Yakala “Coco” Ngambali and Nstuvuidi “Theo” Nzonza, were originally key members of the legendary band Staff Benda Bilili, which began on the streets of Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Soon after achieving major international success, Staff Benda Bilili disbanded. Now, Mbongwana Star offers a fresh, new look into Coco and Theo’s hometown, which boasts one of the most lush histories of music to be found anywhere in the world.

Western media perpetuates unfavorable impressions of the Congo by latching onto news about political issues like child soldiers and violent warfare. Yet underneath this one-sided perception, a rich and vibrant branch of Congolese music history has shaped popular music throughout the continent, and the broader world.

The perceived inaccessibility of the Democratic Republic of Congo, with its extreme poverty, ongoing conflicts, corruption and lack of basic public facilities, provides a barrier to musical tourists. The irony is, of course, that the music is joyful and uplifting; anything but dark— although there is also a rich tradition of social and political commentary in Congolese music.
                                                                                                                    —The Guardian

Dating back to the 1930s when Afro-Cuban rumba traveled back across the Atlantic, Congolese music has been at the forefront of innovating new sounds and musical culture. Driven by the influx of jazz from Europe along with the rhythms of rumba, musicians in the Congo became masters of combining different elements to create their own style. Today the most popular, lasting form of the rumba is known as soukous, derived from the French word secouer—”to shake.” It is defined by its syncopated rhythms and intricate contrasting guitar melodies, which the Congolese adapted from the rumba’s drumbeats.

Before the rise of popular bands like Mbongwana Star and Staff Benda Bilili, Franco Luambo Makiadi—the king of Congelese Rumba”—ruled the airwaves, producing 100 albums and close to a thousand songs. “His style of music, a blend of Cuban rumba and authentic Congolese rhythms, wowed both the old and young. His influence can still be heard in Congolese music, which remains popular in nightclubs all over the continent” (BBC). Franco’s popularity reached across international borders and helped solidify Kinshasa’s prominence in pop music. In addition to being a masterful musician, Franco used his talents for political advocacy. Franco’s way of creating music that speaks to the community resonates with the work of Mbongwana Star today; clearly this is a band that plays homage to its origins.

Combining electro-funk sounds and distorted grooves to the classic rhythms of rumba has helped skyrocket Mbongwana Star to fame. From Kinshasa doesn’t just bring sounds from Africa, but influences from Cuba, Paris, American Jazz, punk, rock n’ roll, and beyond—defying traditional genres and appealing to a broad spectrum of people from around the world.

While many challenges still face the Democratic Republic of Congo, with looming political issues and the rise of combatants and rebel militias, Mbongwana Star continues to persevere with a message of hope and a desire for change (mbongwana is a Lingala word meaning change). The band’s popularity and critical acclaim has changed the way many view their home country, bringing awareness and recognition to the realities of contemporary life in the Congo, and illustrating the fact that even when faced with hardship, music and history can be shared.

This Friday, Minneapolis will welcome Mbongwana Star for the first time. The Walker planned to present Staff Benda Bilili in 2011 as a part of Despair Be Damned: New Music and Dance from the Congo, but unfortunately that tour was canceled due to Visa complications. Our current political climate makes opportunities to embrace artists like Mbongwana Star more important than ever.

Mbongwana Star performs with Minneapolis-based Afrofuturist band ZULUZULUU on Friday, March 3, 2017 at 8 pm at The Cedar.

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