“Listening to it feels like arriving in a bustling, unfamiliar city, a very long way from home: a gripping mix of excitement, apprehension, and sensory overload.” —The Guardian (UK)
Minneapolis, February 14, 2017— Hailing from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mbongwana Star features a new generation of Kinshasa musicians embodying the concept of change (mbongwana) led by Coco Ngambali and Theo Nzonza, two founders of Congolese supergroup Staff Benda Bilili. Along with maverick Parisian producer Doctor L (Tony Allen), the band creates a sound that embodies the “smashed-together” nature of the surroundings from which it was born. The group fuses traditional Congolese rhythms with European post-punk bass and busted electronics from recycled and reconstructed instruments, amplified and distorted in unexpected ways. Their celebrated album From Kinshasa (World Circuit) has won numerous awards. Mbongwana Star makes their Midwest premiere at The Cedar on Friday, March 3 at 8 pm. ZULUZULUU opens the show. The Cedar is located at 416 Cedar Avenue South in Minneapolis. Copresented with the Cedar.
This is a standing show with an open floor.
Tickets to Mbongwana Star are $28 ($22.50) and are available online at both thecedar.org and walkerart.org/tickets, by phone at 612.375.7600 (Walker) or 612.338.2674 (The Cedar), and at Depth of Field, Electric Fetus, and The Cedar during shows.
About Mbongwana Star
Welcome to the rue Kato. Welcome to Kinshasa. Welcome to System ‘K’.
There was a time when Africa’s third most populated city was number one in musical terms. The whole continent danced to its premium musical exports: rumba and soukous. Then war, corruption and chaos bought Kinshasa to its knees and its population fell back on what the French wittily refer to as Système D, after the French words se débrouiller and se démerder. Roughly defined, Système D means to cope, get by and hack out a living at the coalface of poverty with only your wits to guide you and your courage to protect you.
But Kinshasa, an immense agglomeration of shanty-villages with their disparate maze of peoples, languages and cultures, has never gone in for self-pity that much; it’s too busy staying alive and being obtuse. Away from the gaze of the world, its artists, musicians and creators are cooking up their own revolt against the grotesque pantomime of life in 21st century Congo. Necessity, ingenuity and an innate sense of style are conspiring together to make “magic out of garbage”, to quote producer Doctor L. It’s a new spirit, concocted from the waste of consumerism in one of the most abused and rejected places on earth, with its epicenter in the rue Kato, a two-kilometer-long drag that slices through the pretense of Kinshasa’s downtown commercial district. If that spirit were in need of slogans then “Screw your Pity!” and “Dream or Die!” might serve well.
Yakala ‘Coco’ Ngambali and Nsituvuidi ‘Theo’ Nzonza, know all about Système D. They’ve been living it for fifty years and more, down by the Congo river docks, out in the combustible atmosphere of Kinshasa’s streets, in night shelters, on roundabouts, with the other ‘cripples’ and rejects, polio victims and shégués or street kids. Their love of Congolese rumba and its pantheon of demi-Gods -Franco, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Pepe Kallé - provided the early impulse to learn the guitar and play music. About fifteen years ago, they formed a band with other street hustlers, both handicapped and able-bodied, and named it after a local beer joint. Staff Benda Bilili - “the people who see beyond” - became an unimagined worldwide hit. Kinshasa specializes in producing the unimagined.
After releasing two albums, starring in the acclaimed film Benda Bilili and touring the world, Coco and Theo left the band in 2013. The split was testing and uncomfortable, but they saw no reason to shed any tears or dwell on it. Within months Coco had begun composing songs (he was the main composer in Staff Benda Bilili) and gathering musicians for a new project: Mbongwana Star. “Staff Benda Bilili? That’s the past,” says Coco. “I concentrate on the present.”
Coco and Théo knew that they had to look beyond the rumba funk of Staff Benda Bilili and find a new direction, a USP, a sound that faithfully mirrored the creative genius of their home city. One day the filmmaker Renaud Barret (half of the team that gave us Benda Bilili, Jupiter’s Dance and other seminal documentaries about Kinshasa) played Coco and Theo an album called Black Voices, by the Nigerian drummer Tony Allen. It was produced by Liam Farrell, aka Doctor L, the son of an Irish painter who grew up in Paris and became involved in the Parisian hip hop and electro scenes before applying his maverick aesthetic to African music. “That’s it!” was Theo’s reaction. “That’s the direction we should go in. Because mbongwana means ‘change’. Because that’s the future.”
The first recording sessions with Doctor L took place in a hired yard in downtown Kinshasa, with a chugging generator pumping out the electricity that the perfidious politicians of the DRC were incapable of providing themselves. Everyone admits that initial proceedings were fairly shambolic, with friends and relatives piling in to swell the numbers and music gushing forth with joyful but unfocused energy. When Doctor L took the masters back to Paris the alchemy began: rhythms were laid bare, voices honed, guitars given a new sonic garb. The result was revolutionary.
“I wanted to change the classical pre-conceptions about African music,” Farrell says. “Kinshasa reminds me of New York in the 1980s…a place where you could have a punk band, a gay band, a new wave band…what the fuck! Like everywhere else, Africa deserves to have artists who can choose whether they’re related 100% to Africa or not. We’re not talking about Africa, or wheel chairs, we’re talking about guys who are doing music.”
When Coco and Théo heard the demos, it was a shock, but a happy one. “In the beginning it was a bit hard,” Coco says, “But then we really understood. We work well with Liam, he’s a real artist. And he’s courageous!” Renaud Barrett remembers that the new sound was received in Kinshasa with wild dancing and escalating excitement.
World Circuit’s Nick Gold heard the demos and immediately signed the band to the label. Farrell and manager Michel Winter returned to Kinshasa in late 2014. By then Mbongwana Star had made the new sound their own: “That’s what I love about Africa,” Farrell says, “the strength and rapidity by which they can integrate whatever comes up.” The group had been honed down to Coco and Théo on main vocals, Jean-Claude Kamina Mulodi aka ‘R9’ (so called because he was the ninth child in his family) on guitar, a young street-kid called Makana Kalambayi aka ‘Randy’ who’d been Coco’s wheel-chair pusher and part-time member of Staff Benda Bilili on percussion and drums and Coco’s step-son Sage on vocals and general vibe-mastery.
And Liam Farrell on bass and effects. That’s the point. This isn’t an African band per se. It’s a trans-global barrier-busting sound machine that demands the unfettered horizons of any artist who values originality and creativity, wherever in the world he or she might live.
“We wanted to try and get out of the Afro-African straightjacket into which everyone tries to put African bands,” says Michel Winter, “We wanted to get back in spirit, if not music, to 1970s when Africans were really modern, maybe more than us. There’s a lot more creativity there than we can imagine. Kinshasa is crawling with creativity.”
Mbongwana Star’s first video ‘Malukayi (feat. Konono No.1)’ was shot by Renaud Barret and directed by Barret and Farrell. It features a character called The Congo Astronaut, a 100% pure ghetto boy who has decided that his life will, for the time being, consist of dressing up in a space suit and wandering the streets of Kinshasa. The Congo Astronaut is just one phenomenon to have come out of the rue Kato, where the city’s garbage-to-art revolution is in full spate. It’s not just about music; artists, sculptors, stylists, photographers, jewellery designers, self-made engineers and technicians, all of them are at work in rue Kato, or the nearby Academie des Beaux-Arts, refashioning waste into unimagined objects, sounds, happenings, ideas. Minimalism, style and raw urban energy hangs heavy in the air, like tropical moisture. “Here we’d call it ‘hacking’ or ‘up-cycling’ or whatever,” Barret says. “There, it’s just necessity.”
Barret set up a giant screen at the Beaux Arts in Kinshasa to premier to the ‘Malukayi’ video. The whole academy was there to watch it. The response was fervent: “That’s it! That’s us!”
System D is becoming System K, a revolution that won’t be televised, not for a while at least. But you’d be fool to miss it.
Minneapolis has a long history of distinctive R&B styles and flavors. ZULUZULUU arrived in 2014 and began to expand on that with an eye on the future but with respect to the past. One of their first shows was playing a Clash tribute; months later, they landed on First Avenue’s Best New Bands 2014. After bursting onto the scene the band took a hiatus and gathered back together to build and contribute to the new vanguard of black music.
ZULUZULUU is made up of six musicians/producers: MMYYKK, Proper T, Greg Grease, DJ Just Nine, ∆RT P∆RTÉ and Trelly Mo; armed with various synths, drum machines, and instruments they’ve set out to bring a new, exploratory modern sound influenced by the greats of funk, soul, and jazz with electronic excursions, hard grooves, Afro-futurism and soulful melodies.
ZULUZULUU explores the psyche and searching for Black Excellence: “ZULUZULUU is church, it’s therapy, it’s family, it’s a space where we can express ourselves freely as black men with no limitations”, states multi-instrumentalist/vocalist MMYYKK. The band works in communal fashion and continually seeks a greater a truth. The band sees the group’s mission as part of a bigger movement “we see ZULUZULU as a vessel, a spiritual, sonic culmination of our experiences and influences from our ancestors”.
About the Walker Art Center
One of the most internationally celebrated art museums and multidisciplinary art centers, the Walker Art Center is known for presenting today’s most compelling artists from around the world. In addition to organizing traveling exhibitions and presentations of its world-renowned collections, the Walker presents a broad array of contemporary music, dance, design, theater, and moving image.
In 2015, the Walker celebrated the 75th anniversary of its founding as a public art center dedicated to presenting and collecting the art of our time with a series of institutional initiatives, exhibitions, and events that spanned more than a year. Although it was more than 125 years ago when lumber baron Thomas Barlow (T. B.) Walker built a room onto his Minneapolis house, mounted his 20 favorite paintings on the wall, and opened his door to the community, it was in 1940 that the Walker’s contemporary-focused mission to be a catalyst for the creative expression of artists and active engagement of audiences was born. Supported by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Walker became a public art center presenting the work of living artists, forming a collection beyond the 19th-century holdings of its founder to the multidisciplinary works of today’s artists.
About the Cedar
The Cedar Cultural Center is an eclectic music venue that is located in Minneapolis’s Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Over its 27-year history, the Cedar has become a premiere US venue for world music by fulfilling its mission of promoting intercultural understanding through the presentation of global music and dance.
Support for Mbongwana Star provided by Producers’ Council members Nor Hall and Roger Hale.
The Walker Art Center’s performing arts programs are made possible by generous support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation through the Doris Duke Performing Arts Fund, the William and Nadine McGuire Commissioning Fund, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Performing Arts programs and commissions at the Walker are generously supported by members of the Producers’ Council: Goodale Family Foundation; Nor Hall and Roger Hale; King’s Fountain/Barbara Watson Pillsbury and Henry Pillsbury; Emily Maltz; Dr. William W. and Nadine M. McGuire; Leni and David Moore, Jr./The David and Leni Moore Family Foundation; Mike and Elizabeth Sweeney; and Frances and Frank Wilkinson.
Major support for the Walker’s commissions and presentation is provided by the William and Nadine McGuire Commissioning Fund, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.