Review: Kanda Bongo Man @ The Forge (London, 28-09-2014)


For the final night of the 12th London African Music Festival, we are treated to the high energy sound of the Congo, the Soukous flavours of the legendary Kanda Bongo Man. Performing in the intimate surrounds of London’s Forge, in Camden, Kanda and his band create an electric blend of vintage and modern congolese dancing music. Soukous is a sound that you simply cannot sit still to, originating from the Cuban Rumba, it fuses fast finger picking style guitars with bold staccato drum patterns, heavy conga rhythms and intricate bouncing baselines. The band kick off before Kanda joins them with their Kwassa Kwassa dancer Matte, and backing vocalists wearing an intriguing mix of traditional English bowler hat and flat cap, coupled with bright African coloured shirts. The tune is mellow but builds nicely to create a fervour ready for the main man to make his way on to the stage. You can feel that the audience, which is a great mix of ages, races and intriguing faces, reminiscent of the Womad festival crowd, are ready for some serious hip shaking!

The first track Nairobi trumps in with an intense drum stab and bursts into glorious harmonies with Kanda’s husky, yet powerful tones filling the spaces between the tones of the two backing vocalists. The electric guitars dance around the fretboard, each choosing a zone to play on the neck and remaining there for the duration each track, weaving intricate melodies around the constant Soukous rhythm from the bass, conga and drums. the dreaded drummer appears to be pouring with sweat before even the first track is out as he gives this small acoustic venue a pounding from behind the skins, one which we can’t escape from and must inexorably dance!

The band certainly fill the space, at one point 10 people are on the stage, stirring the audience into a euphoria of whoops and cheers coupled with the traditional hands in the air back and forth of the Kwassa Kwassa. The call and response style of singing that is ever present in many styles of African music, creates a sense of us needing to respond in unison to the lyrics, if only we could all could understand them and sing along, something I always feel when watching bands sing in languages I don’t understand. The crowd does well enough though, urged on by Kanda, to respond to his lead. At 59, this powerhouse of Soukous music is showing no signs of slowing down. History tells us that these incredible African artists can go on and on, much like his particular style of Soukous, which stretches these originally shorter dance floor tracks, out to Afrobeat length of 10-12 minutes long, incorporating guitar and drum solos after every verse.

After a short interval, we return to the gig with a further 5 tracks that slowly build in tempo and energy from a lovely tropical sway, including 2002’s Balobi, to the fervent pulsing drive of Monie, complete with growls and sliding basslines, and a catchy twinkling guitar pattern. The night finishes with the crowd baying for more, and as we trapes out onto the streets of Camden town, imagining we have just come from the heart of the Congo, I overhear a lovely lady who sums it up perfectly. “If you come out of any Kanda gig without having poured with sweat, you are doing something wrong” Well hopefully next time we see him it will be in the heart of winter and we can be transported once again to somewhere altogether a little more tropical!

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