Those lucky enough to be at the Cedar Cultural Center Friday night learned an important word: mbongwana.
That’s Lingala for “change,” a concept at the core of the Congolese band Mbongwana Star’s music. Hailing from Kinshasa, the Congo’s capital city and home to a dynamic and richly varied music scene, Mbongwana Star formed in 2013 to create a new sound that combines traditional Congolese rumba and soukous genres with a rocking, futuristic electro-funk.
And their first Twin Cities appearance, the first show of their five-city U.S. tour, sure did rock. Lead guitarist and vocalist Jean-Claude Kamina Mulodi (aka R9), kicked open the 80-minute set with a muscular guitar introduction into “From Kinshasa to the Moon,” and gradually singers Theo Nzonza, Coco Ngambali and Sage (who also contributed cowbell throughout the set) ascended to the stage, their voices combining in rich layers. Eventually five of the seven band members chimed in over and under R9’s unfettered vocal wails, and these intertwined voices – Coco’s serene incantations and percussive calls, Theo’s sincere baritone, R9’s velvety viola-like intonations – complimented each other powerfully throughout the performance.
By the second number, “Malukayi,” featuring a sunny R9 guitar line, the audience began to move, following Nzonza’s lead -- his arm motions and wheelchair spins electrified the crowd. (Nzonza and Ngambali are both wheelchair users due to childhood polio). The audience could hardly keep up with the third song, “Shégué.” Markedly faster than the recorded version, the tune started at a breakneck tempo and seemed to accelerate right up until drummer Randy Makana Kalambay’s final cymbal crash.
Live, the band leaned more towards garage-rock than the space-age vibes of their debut album From Kinshasa, largely due to R9’s blazing guitar work -- the standout element of the performance. R9 supplied fiery solos, warped pedal effects, hypnotic loops, and sheer volume.
The difference in their live sound might also stem from personnel changes. Curiously absent from the performance was Liam Farrell (aka Doctor L), the band’s producer on From Kinshasa and a guitar and bassist in its original lineup. A key player in the creation of the band’s inventive sound, the Irish-born, Paris-based musician was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Nzonza introduced us to two American musicians on guitar and bass.
Mbongwana Star’s music is for moving, and the Cedar’s audience picked up on that, grooving much more than a typical Twin Cities audience. From arm movements and body spins mirroring Nzonza’s to plain old jumping up and down, everyone found a physical connection to the music.
The band’s performance of “Nganché,” a show highlight, was accompanied by synchronized arm moves from vocalists Nzonza, Sage, and Ngambali, and a call-and-response opportunity, met somewhat apprehensively by the audience but selfishly appreciated by this reviewer, who had been singing along to this infectious song all week.
Local favorites ZuluZuluu opened with a smooth, funky, forward-facing set. The vocal range of this powerhouse sextet is awe-inspiring -- they went from crooning to choral to rap to robotic through the course of their 40-minute set, all held together by an Afrofuturist aesthetic, irresistible funk, and an astral vision of peace, tolerance, and above all, change.
The crowd: Experienced concert goers drawing equal parts Walker/ Cedar/ ZuluZuluu fans, ranging widely in age from 25-65, with a few younger outliers holding down the dance zones.
Overheard in the crowd: “Oh, this must be the smoking section.”
Critic’s bias: I’ve never seen a bad show at the Cedar.
From Kinshasa to the Moon
1 million c’est quoi