Mbongwana Star // Live Review

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Oval Space – November 1st 

It may seem a strange thing to say about a Congolese funk band who include a cowbell-wielding, gyrating MC, two guitarists testing the extremes of their FX pedals and a pair of charismatic frontmen grooving in their wheelchairs, but Mbongwana Star proved a relatively conventional live act compared with the one captured on their debut album, From Kinshasha. Shorn of that record’s electro-futurist production and psychotropic steel percussion, the six-piece made do with simply filling the cavernous Oval Space (actually more of a triangular prism, but we’ll let it pass) with a crowd-pleasing fiesta of electrifying highlife and hypnotic Afro-funk.

The band warmed into their 90-minute set on an Alpha Blondy-like roots reggae tip – rhythm guitarist Liam Farell manipulating the basslines courtesy of some sort of octave-shifter – before setting the tone for the rest of the night with a riotous Afrobeat belter centred on R9’s relentless pirouette of rockist hammer-ons. Mbongwana Star’s dexterous drummer, Randy, soon emerged as the powerhouse on which the band would whip up a fierce Congolese rumba and paste in traces of Isaac Hayes-like choppy funk, boisterous Specials ska and overdriven psych-rock. There were rapturous versions of ‘Shégué’ with its rotating soukous guitar lick, and the super-quick ‘Nganshe’, an example of Mbongwana Star at their best – guitarists, drummer and all-three vocalists intertwining rhythmically across an incessant groove. At such times you could almost feel the heat from a wild night in Kinshasha and forget your misty Sunday setting in the shadow of Bethnal Green’s gasometers.

During the frenetic Afro-techno pound of ‘Suzanna’, vocalists Coco and Theo were keen to encourage audience participation, despite the attention of an officious member of security. That the resulting minor stage invasion was conducted, at length, by such a disparate bunch of enthusiasts only added to the night’s sense of carfree abandon. The band’s English didn’t extend far beyond “London!” and “Very good!” but no matter. When they asked “Vous etes fatigue?” before the encore, everyone roared back that they were happy to dance all night. No more eloquent endorsement was needed.

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Buy: Mbongwana Star – From Kinshasha