Photo: Benoit Van Maele

In Praise of Homeboys: An Interview with the Kasai Allstars

A unique inter-tribal superband, the Kasai Allstars, provide the soundtrack for the Kinshasa based film Félicité, utilizing a hybrid style that adapts not only traditional instruments but cultural attitudes.
Kasai Allstars
Around Félicité
Crammed Discs

The area around central Africa, and more specifically the city of Kinshasa (and its sister city Brazzaville, just across the Congo River), has dominated African music since the 1950s. Not to say there are no other major musical centers in the whole of that gigantic continent, but the sound developed in that region continues to permeate many other African nations and urban centers. These Congolese styles have also been exported to France and Belgium, two European nations burdened with colonial legacies that nevertheless have seen Congolese musicians relocate and record in both locations.

This is most likely how The Kasai Allstars ended up on the Brussels-based label, Crammed Disc, who have released five albums of the band while attempting to promote their output to an international audience, for example by being teamed up with western indie rockers (“Congotronic vs. Rocker”) and now through a multifaceted approach to the band’s appearance in Alain Gomis’ movie Felicite.

The Kinshasa-based Kasai Allstars are a “superband” that utilizes members from various musical congregations all from the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The members are not only from different ensembles but also constitute a cross section of different ethnicities. That alone shows the complexity of marketing an “African” band to a western audience who might assume, that even within a specific locality, that the music or people are any one thing. The cultural traditions of Africa are deep, and if considered only in terms of contemporary recordings, Europe and America have hardly scratched the surface.

Given the nearly impossible task of catching up with this output and the complexities of the region’s cultures, the Kasai Allstars nevertheless aptly demonstrate where certain strands of western pop music originate. One immediately notes, in the Kasai sound, the almighty call-and-response and that all too necessary component of contemporary dance music — trance, a repetitive framework that sees none of the “breaks” of the typical western pop song while yet reaching moments of heightened involvement (to say the least).

PopMatters was able to ask Kasai Allstars’ provisional leader, Mputu Ebondo (aka Mi Amor), a few questions by email, and he explained: “Our music is part of what is called musique tradi-moderne. I think that we’re unique in the history of Congolese music: four tribes, four languages in the same band, playing music directly derived from tribal traditions. This has never happened in the Congo, and probably in Africa in general. We hope that it works as a positive example, and also that it helps to give some worldwide exposure to traditional Congolese music.”

That inter-tribal and international ambition should be kept well in mind, given the political turmoil that the region has suffered for decades. Just enter the terms “Kasai DRC” in a web search to quickly comprehend the carnage that continues to this day. And then also consider the genre’s descriptive: “traditional modern” (or, conversely, “modern traditional”). That kind of flexibility, or willingness to adapt, hopefully allows culture to supersede politics right down to the tribal level.

Unlike the outstanding Congolese musicians of the ’70s and ’80s, such as Franco Luambo Makiadi and Tabu Ley Rochereau, who utilized large brass sections along with multiple electric guitars, the Kasai Allstars revert to older traditions. The instrumental makeup includes likmbe of various sizes (also known as kalimba or “thumb piano”), the wooden xylophone, and multiple hand drums. Electric guitar is prominent but played in the likmbe’s rhythmic line. One occasionally hears bass guitar and trap drums, but the largest component by far is the band’s multiple vocalists. It should also be understood that dancing or dancers are incorporated in, rather than seen as an addendum to, the band’s makeup.

Considering those conditions, the emphasis on voice (word) and body (dance), the Kasai Allstars are a band to be involved with rather than simply listened to.

It would be misguided to rate their music under the same framework as one might critique the latest release of an American pop star. The optimum conditions for that kind of involvement would seem to be live, standing with the audience as well as the performers. Since that is not always possible, the film Felicite offers us a welcome glimpse of The Kasai Allstars in actions on their home turf.

This is, paradoxically, a privileged insight for the absent westerner, to witness the nightlife and contemporary musical culture that lands in the streets of Kinshasa. Mputu Ebondo explains: “Many scenes were shot in the bar in which we usually rehearse and perform, and many of the extras are actual customers of the bar. The band, the bar, the owner, and the customers are all real, nothing is overdone or contrived.” The bar scenes are grass roots, chaotic, portraying the gossip and wrangling of the customers, the world weary work-a-day people who are looking for some respite but who, aided by alcohol, nevertheless keep rubbing up against each other. The music plays on, and then suddenly, snap, the audience tunes into the relentless rhythm and accesses, if only for a few moments, transcendence.

Given my excitement at witnessing the music in that context, Mputu Ebondo provided further insight into the local versus international ambiance: “At home, we’re seen as a bit of an oddity, because we blend several traditions. In Kinshasa, our music is viewed as folk music, electrified traditional. We toured Kasai province once about ten years ago and we drew really big crowds but our music is far more appreciated in Europe and the USA … we started to use amplification purely for practical reasons, but we enjoyed the distortions generated by the amps. We integrated them in our music, and this resonated positively with western audiences.”

Seeing as the band blends tribal cultures and languages, one can surmise that the music is paramount in either location since the actual lyric may not be understood (a circumstance common enough to popular African recordings, but a continual bias in the English leaning west). But it is clear that the vocals are key, part of the element of trance brought on by repetition, lyrics that most likely convey a lesson, a parable. Even without fully absorbing the word I was able to deduce what Mputu Ebondo explicated: “Our vocalists are also musicians, they improvise some of the melodies and lyrics. The words can be adapted, sometimes by drawing from existing collections of stories, sayings and proverbs, and sometimes by referring to the people who are present in the audience. Thus, different performances of the same song, whether in concert or on record, can vary quite a bit.”

Crammed Disc, in addition to releasing the original Kasai Allstars’ soundtrack for Felicite, has also released a CD of remixes by Africaine 808 and Clap! Clap! (among many others). While this might help market the band to the contemporary listener, the remixes also clearly demonstrate the confluence of tradition to modern, the efficiency of musical loops and communal ritual as a way to bond the community through cultural (if loosely defined) pursuits.

Since I have defined these cultural pursuits as loose, given the great distances crossed by the Kasai Allstars and the relative comprehension of both their local and foreign audience, one is still able to assign a deeper meaning and impetus to the project through these final words by Mputu Ebondo: “As you probably know, some of this music, and the dances and the moments of trance that go with it, used to be banned by the colonizers, by the Christian priests, and more recently by Evangelical churches, because they were viewed as ‘pagan’, sometimes even ‘satanic’, so it’s great to give new life to these traditions.”