From Kinshasa

Issue section: 
(405)

Kinshasa is the capital of the long suffering Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and From Kinshasa is the latest remarkable music to emerge from it. It is a startling mix of innovation and tradition. The music is recognisable yet new. The album’s cover shows a spaceman in Kinshasa exploring new places and new soundscapes. His suit is a patchwork created from recycled materials.

Given how long DRC has suffered under colonialism — Cold War dictatorship and one of the world’s most brutal and least known wars — the quality and breadth of music it has produced is astounding.

In the 1960s Congolese music came to define a new confident African independence. It peaked with the smooth African guitar pop of Franco, though locals came to see the sound as old fashioned.

In the new millennium the hypnotic electronic dance music of Congotronics bands such as Konono No 1 and Kasai Allstars has emerged. Staff Benda Bilili became an international breakthrough. Based around disabled street musicians who were deeply aware of the traditions from which they came, they fused them with the US R&B and hip hop that is everywhere.

From Kinshasa combines the world music of Staff Benda Bilili with some of the drone of Konono. Indeed it has emerged from the collapse of the former band. Mbongwana Star’s core members, Coco Ngambali and Theo Nzonza, are two of the musicians in wheelchairs from Staff Benda now working with a younger generation of new musicians.

The album is intensely produced by Liam Farrell, who has previously worked with Nigerian legend Tony Allen, one of the greats of Afrobeat.

All too often Western producers either impose their own musical framework or look for a “pure” African sound. But no such thing exists in electric African music and neither of these problems occur here.

The iconic Congolese sound was heavily influenced by the redefined African rhythms of Cuba Rumba. Nigerian master Fela Kuti developed his distinctive Afrobeat sound after travelling to the US and hearing funk and jazz.

It is one of the fascinations of combined development and musical history that the most creative users of technology are often not those with the most expensive new kit, but people at the fringes. From Kinshasa recalls something of the layered chaotic distortion of the great reggae producer Lee Perry at his 1970s peak.

The remarkable track “Malukayi” freatures Konono No 1 and their trance beats. Compare it to the rich, but much sparser “Coco Blues” to see the range of sound on the album.

It’s hard to pick a favourite track, but “Masobele” with its laid back interactions between vocalists over tripping rhythms is my pick for today.