Over the course of a four-decade solo career, Congolese soukous artist Kanda Bongo Man has cultivated an international following, becoming one of Africa’s most widely-loved musicians. Harnessing the infectious hip movements of kwassa kwassa dance and the talents of nimble-fingered guitarist Diblo Dibala, his early eighties output defined a mellifluous, rhythmic musical template, that has developed throughout the decades while inspiring listeners and younger musicians alike.
From the outset, Kanda found an admirer in the broadcaster John Peel, who left ten of Kanda’s LPs in his collection. He was invited to play at WOMAD festival in the early eighties and ever since, has maintained strong ties to the UK — just as he has France, South Africa and numerous other countries. Ahead of his highly-anticipated return to Band on the Wall on Saturday 24th August, which sees DJ SNO on the ones and twos before and after the show, here are four favourites from the Kanda Bongo Man catalogue, providing just a small sampling of the music he has created.
Having moved to Paris in the late seventies, Kanda met a producer willing to work with him, and was able to pour the experience he had gathered in Orchestra Belle Mambo into his 1981 solo debut. Iyole is its opening track: slightly slower in tempo to some of his later hits, but allowing the groove to breathe, the guitar parts to be sharp and defined, and his melodies to draw out over the instrumental backdrop. After its gentle opening stanzas, drummer Domingo Salsero shifts the groove up a gear, with slique snare rolls beneath Kanda’s calls of “ambiance!”. The result is a mesmerising rhythm with lashings of feel-good melody.
Featuring on both his eponymous 1986 LP and 1989 album, Kwassa Kwassa, Lela is an anthem for positivity, encouraging the listen to be strong. Its title and chorus lyric derive from the Lingala term kolela, ‘to cry’. Diblo and Lokassa’s lead and rhythm guitar parts lock together from the outset, creating a rigid, recurrent melodic structure for Kanda to weave his vocal lines around. A beautiful, light and uplifting piece of dance music!
If ever one song and video encapsulated all that is brilliant about a particular artist, this is it. Bili takes shape around clean drums — polyrhythmic strokes and four on the floor — hypnotic guitar licks with subtle tape delay, and Kanda’s inimitable, breathy harmonies. Its video sees the Congolese star playing the man about town: from barbershop to restaurant, dancing kwassa kwassa with the hairstylist he has taken out.
A story both sweet and unsavoury lies behind Wahito, the third track from Kanda’s 1993 album, Le Rendez-Vous Des Stades, aka Sana. It is said that, during Kanda’s 1991 tour of Kenya, he fell for the woman about whom he sings, but wasn’t able to develop a relationship with. That same tour resulted in his deportation from Kenya, with one account suggesting that a politician, angered by Kanda’s inability to perform at a private function, saw that his performance permit was withdrawn and subsequent attempts to return to Kenya, denied. Kanda has since returned to the country, where his music is immensely popular, and has also maturely downplayed the controversy in interview. Yet, the backdrop to the song remains intriguing, adding layers of emotion to the words he sings.