Wednesday 15 June 2016

From Kiwis to Kinshasa - Estère and Mbongwana Star at Norwich Arts Centre

I know that, culturally, I rather over-indulged myself during the recent Norfolk and Norwich Festival, and that, what with family commitments and visitors, I have somewhat neglected other gigs since. Tonight would be my first live music in almost two weeks. No wonder I had been getting nervous and irritable - it wasn't just the rain, or England's inability to hold on to a 1-0 lead against Russia in the football.

 No, tonight I was off to Norwich Arts Centre to immerse myself in African rhythms and have myself a good time. Let the beats hit my feet. Have a rumble in the jungle. Take an apricot, a guava and a mango. Dance a dainty tango. Tonight, all the way from Kinshasa in the Congo, I was off to see the mighty Mbongwana Star.

First on stage is Estère, or Estère Lola and The Machine Band, as she sometimes calls herself. An exotic blend of Kiwi and Cameroonian DNA, this 24 year old music producer and singer has already supported the likes of Kitty Daisy and Lewis, Eryka Badu and Morcheeba, and plays her first Glastonbury later this month. Lola and The Machine Band are already on stage - it's the name she gives her Akai MPC and clutch of electronic instruments. A hand-written sign hanging from the synth stand reminds us, in a quaint craft-fair kind of way, of her name.

At this point I will admit to my own two musical prejudices. Both without foundation, but that is exactly what a prejudice is. The first are artists that choose to use only their first name on stage. The second are solo artists on stage surrounded by electronic instruments. I guess I have seen too many performances come unstuck when tracks refuse to cue properly, or computers that freeze  mid-set and cannot be re-booted. It just makes me nervous. That's all.

Estère helps to placate my fears on both counts, partly by including her instruments into her billing, but mostly by appearing to be in complete control of all the technology that surrounds her. Not only does she play and sing, but she throws some pretty cool dance moves into the bargain, yet never misses a cue or lose eye contact with her audience. True, her Antipodean twang contains a slight hint of nervousness during the links, but that vulnerability is also kind of endearing. The singing voice is incredibly confident, and versatile. The songs are personal, and often quirky - a song about young people's reliance on technology ironically has the line "I remember when a tablet was a type of medicine". Another, about a high-class prostitute who becomes President of the United States, is greeted with topical amusement. Just who is she thinking of?


Mbogwana is a Lingala word meaning 'switch' or 'change'. When Kinshasa band Staff Benda Bilili (stars of 2010's Benda Bilili, the most successful non-Western music documentary since Buena Vista Social Club) finally split in 2013 main songwriter 'Coco' Yakala Ngumbali joined with fellow singer 'Theo' Nsituvuidi Nzonza, and the seeds of Mbongwana Star were sown. Their success lies, in some part, in the involvement of French film-maker Renaud Barret and musician Liam Farrell, son of Irish artist Michael Farrell. Liam had become a leading producer in Paris' hip-hop and electro scene. Both were living in the northern Paris suburb of St.Ouen. Together they made introductions that finally led to a recording contract, and Liam (as 'Doctor L') became bass player in the band. 'Randy' Makana Kalambayi was recruited on drums, guitarist Jean-Claude Kamina Mulodi ( aka 'R9' - i.e. child number nine) came on board, and Coco's own step-son, 'Sage', a self-taught percussionist, became the band's vibe-master. The musical equivalent of the Happy Monday's Bez, perhaps.

The music that Mbongwa Star created still had its roots in the Congolese rhumba rhythms but in every way was something completely new, designed to appeal to the nation's youth, but without abandoning the heritage of the past.


It is guitarist R9 that first appears, making his way on stage via the crowded auditorium. He is joined by Randy, Sage and Doctor L before Coco and Theo make their entrance, Coco sporting a leather jacket, trilby and shades and looking every part the hip-hop hero. He is now sixty years old, but as the band kicks into the opening number he is every part the contemporary spirit and soul, the heart of the new sound of the Congo.

They play the type of music that enters via the ears, leaves via the feet, and leaves a trail of warmth and happiness as it travels downwards through the body. Within seconds the first three rows of the audience are dancing. What is going on behind me I do not know, as I have also started moving, no doubt inventing a whole new genre of African Dad-dancing in the process.

Randy is producing rhythms out of a standard drumkit that you would not believe possible, R9's guitar playing sends intricate loops spiraling upwards towards the roof void, leaving a sparkling trail in their wake. Sage is giving it everything he's got, whilst Coco and Theo hold court front of stage, pausing only between numbers to towel the sweat from their overheating brows. The leather jackets are way too cool to remove, but it still seems a high price to pay in the name of art.


By the time the set ends the whole auditorium has communed with the spirit of Mbongwana Star. The music is a triumph, a testament to the resilience of a nation that has witnessed so much savagery and brutality in recent years. In a week when a handful of thuggish football hooligans have made headlines for all the wrong reasons, let the message of Mbongwana Star ring out for the whole world to hear.

Thanks to Norwich Arts Centre for bringing Mongwana Star to us. It was never going to be easy bringing a band with two disabled artists to play a converted medieval church, and involved hiring a specialist wheelchair lift just for the night, but it was so, so worth it. Thank you. It was an evening we will all remember for years to come.

Estère can be followed on Facebook at . Watch out for the new album.

Mbongwana Star are on Facebook at

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