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What a mediocre show from Kanda Bongo Man

For hours, revellers had waited patiently to usher in the New Year, and they had quite the motivation to wait — a performance from Congolese 90s rumba star Kanda Bongo Man. However, when he got on stage minutes after midnight, it was a dismal show.

Photo By Michael Kakumirizi

“That beginning of ‘Muchana’, I would not have recognised it had he not mentioned it at the start,” Dan Atuhaire, a music critic and reviewer of Congolese rumba, said of Kanda Bongo Man’s performance in Kampala on New Year’s Eve.

The ‘kwassa-kwassa’ musician filled Sheraton Kampala Hotel Gardens with many revellers in the VIP section frustrated with lack of space and seats. He took to the stage shortly after the spectacular fireworks over the towering hotel had dazzled revellers.

Sadly, that was just about what was going to be spectacular that evening.

The year 2019 saw Kampala feed in the hands of two popular Congolese rumba musicians in Awilo Longomba and Kanda Bongo Man. Both came to play their old songs from the 90s going back, songs popular among rumba fans in Kampala.

But there was a gulf of difference between the two shows. One could only imagine what it would have been like in that same place with revellers feeding off the hands of Awilo Longomba.

For his show in Kampala in April, Awilo promised two hours of boom music and delivered beyond expectation. His live band reproduced each of the songs he performed to such perfection it was difficult to tell the recording from the live. One could have sworn he was playing off CD.

Awilo also had no added sebene in his performance. He simply delivered the songs as recorded, electrified with racy lacy queen dancers. You could feel his drums pulse in your heart and the lead guitars and backup vocalists came off like they had been doing the same thing all their lives.

Not all is lost

Kanda Bongo Man still got it in vocals. You cannot take that away from him. But wherever he assembled the band from, the gods of Congolese rumba must be weeping. The band did injustice to his performance. Age isn’t on his side so he wasn’t expected to dance like in the 90s, but with good dancers, all that wouldn’t matter.

However, there was simply no delivery in terms of replicating his music as they are or even the first verses before the sebene. In most of his concerts on YouTube, the music is on point and lengthy sebene is just his style. It is typical of old rumba.

But Kanda has not been in old rumba. His is Soukous that strives on hard guitar and nicely woven chord progression. Such a delivery would mean giving revellers at least 80 per cent of the original recording version replicated in live stage performance. Whatever then you give in sebene is just a bonus.

The opening of ‘Muchana’ was way off the hook. Trumpet, keyboard and guitar did not sound anywhere near what this hugely popular song is known for. The vocalists doing the Djena Mandako and Abby Surya verses were nowhere close to what the original serves.

To make matters worse, Kanda added the sebene to Muchana yet all that would have mattered would have been to have the lead guitarist try and feed revellers the way Nene Tchakou would have. This is a great zouk ballad that saw revellers up dancing in pairs before the sebene appeared to lose many when the chanteur line of “Eh mayebo, ya kopola, soki okomi bilinga linga, okopola” joins in.

In original tracks, only Iyonde and perhaps a few others have the chants, which is a popular caution line adopted by Congolese musicians in the wake of the HIV/Aids scourge in the 1980s. They used the mayebo (mushroom) allusion to warn young people against living reckless lifestyle by being lustful and flirtatious (bilinga linga) as they would rot (kopola) and die young.

Thursday morning, Kanda had the chant in almost every song he did and added with Pesa Posa (a chant encouraging a dance style of moving the waist from one side to the other and back). It is as well that it was hugely popular with many of the revellers who seemed to chant along whenever it came.

Yet from the look of it, the musician had alienated most of the younger revellers since they could hardly resonate with what was going on.

Photo By Michael Kakumirizi

Thousands started leaving even before half an hour into his performance and it was a little painful to note that Jose Chameleone’s ‘Mama Mia’ and ‘Kipepeo’ caused more excitement in revellers than Kanda’s ‘Monie’ beyond the first few seconds of opening with the drums and guitar as the song waned in the same way each of them seem to go. Finally Kanda announced his last track, ‘Yezu Kristu’. If there was ever suspicion that the band was not up to the task, there it was. There was very little resemblance to the original track. Even the vocals were much slower like they were being read from a notepad.

The guitar that Kanda thrived on was totally anonymous. When Awilo performed his last song in Serena, revellers insisted he did more. He relented and gave one for the road.

Kanda needs to get his guitar back as the real lead. His voice is still good and since he cannot dance, with a guitarist able to replicate the original works, his performance would give the feel.

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