01. Zanzibar (5:00)
02. Hallelujah (5:13)
03. Boko Haram (4:23)
04. Papa Jo (5:34)
05. Suabala (4:02)
06. Château Rouge (4:13)
07. Boloko (4:13)
08. Syria (4:36)
09. Magnifique Maestro (4:35)
10. Yoka Chagrin (6:20)
11. Bakoko (4:58)
12. Sango (5:51)
A dark, thundering Kinshasa meets Paris soundworld. Ecstatic vocals, broken beats, subterranean bass and full-throttle energy. This four-piece group of sonic groundbreakers have delivered
a scintillating debut album. The fulfillment of their long-held dream
to create an African band with the weight and sensory attack of
knife-edged rock and hot-wired club beats.
You’re in a club in Paris – the ‘Djakarta’ maybe, or the ‘Mbuta Lombi’, or the ‘Lossi Ya Zaza’. Not just anywhere in Paris, but in that raucous, feverish little African village they call Chateau Rouge. 10th arrondissement. You could be back in Matongé, downtown Kinshasa, or in the Grand Marché, centre ville. You feel at home. But it’s freezing outside. You’re definitely in Europe. Cops with CS gas canisters hooked to their belts are roaming around harassing the illegal hawkers, the little shégué street-kids who hang around the entrance to the metro, touting for wig shops and nail salons or trying to sell you cheap phone cards so you can call home and tell your mama and papa you’re ok, still alive, ‘having a ball’. The cops are asking African youth for their papers. But you haven’t got any. Tough shit if your luck runs out. This life has no safety net.
The music’s pumping loud and dirty: hip hop, electro, soukous, ndombolo, funk, rock, grime, whatever. You’re a citizen of everywhere, balling life under the radar in this African Blade Runner where the whole world meets, soaking up every beat going, no excuses, no regrets, loving it, eating it, spitting it out.
Welcome to Bantou Mentale, a brand-new chapter in a very long story. The band was born in Chateau Rouge and born out of Matongé. Two worlds, one universe. Drummer, song-writer and all-round concept guy Cubain Kabeya – originally from the DRC, now resident in Paris – has been in or around every big thrill to come out of Kinshasa over the past decade: Staff Benda Bilili, Konono No.1, Jupiter & Okwess, Mbongwana Star, you name it. Guitarist Chicco Katembo was part of the Staff Benda Bilili story in the early days, before moving to Paris to live with his French mother. He and Cubain worked with Damon Albarn when he came to Kinshasa in 2010 to record his DRC Music: Kinshasa One Two album. Singer Apocalypse is an ace face on the Parisian Congo scene, an alumnus of the orchestra of Koffi Olomide, emperor of contemporary Congolese soukous. Liam Farrell, aka Doctor L, born Irish, raised Parisian, is a musician, composer and producer with an impressive score sheet that includes Assassin, FFF, Psycho on Da Bus, Tony Allen, Mbongwana Star, Babani Koné, Nneka, Les Amazones d’Afrique…
Bantou Mentale isn’t a ‘project’; it’s a band – three black guys, one white. Who cares. As the great Congolese prophet and anti-colonial leader Simon Kimbangu famously said, almost a century ago, “the black will become white and the white will become black.” That’s exactly what’s happening. Chateau Rouge is becoming black. Kinshasa is becoming white. It’s a fact and Bantou Mentale aren’t here to deny it, or deride it, but to make it sing, to celebrate it in music, video, live performance, photography, design, the whole sensory gamut. Liam is collaborating with his brother, the artist Malachi Farrell and artists from the Beaux Arts in Kinshasa on a series of videos. The band’s live show, when it comes, will be an African exploding plastic inevitable. That’s been a long-held dream, to give an African band the weight and sensory attack of the most visually challenging live rock.
The Bantou Mentale sound is neither traditional, nor slave to the all-encompassing tropes of Congolese rumba, nor slick and arty and self-consciously stylish. Neither haute culture nor haute couture. They’re bringing something modern, raw, open to the world, a sound that faithfully mirrors who they are: four baggage-free citizens of nowhere and everywhere on a mission to rewrite the washed-up codes of African music and realign it with the raw truths of this frazzled, screwed and beautiful world. They’re bringing a new punk rock, African style, but without the aggression because, according to Cubain, the Congo is “a country with a lot of spiritual tenderness.” Liam and Cubain have been distilling experimental mashes of electro African beats on and off for years, under names like Black Cowboys or Negro-P. They worked together on Mbongwana Star, the Congolese UFO that rose out of the ashes of Staff Benda Bilili. This is the next step, but it’s a giant one. “Bantou Mentale comprises all the experience I’ve accumulated,” says Cubain. “It’s not so much a new Kinshasa sound, as a new global sound.”
It’s all there in the music: a gleeful borderless up-cycling of all the urban styles that Paris, London, New York, Kinshasa have been doling out to the world these past two decades, combined into something new and purposeful. There are songs like ‘Zanzibar’ and ‘Sango’ that lament the clandestino stuck in the desert, penniless, screwed. All the contradictory forces of hope and history are alive in Apocalypse’s keening vocals. And songs like ‘Chateau Rouge’ that celebrate the wild uncertainty, the liberation, the fellowship of the migrant. And yes, the fun too. ‘Boko Haram’ bemoans the intellectual subservience and social servitude of many Africans, with music that’s underpinned by the pulse of the forest and propelled by roughneck riffs and phasing guitars. ‘Papa Jo’ pays homage to an old departed friend from Kinshasa who threw the best parties in his ramshackle house, with dynamite and crocodiles a go-go! The delicious grime of ‘Suabala’ hides a story of love, with levels of passion and guitars frolicking in the red. ‘Boloko’ is slower, more ethereal, with its subversion of the sound of those angelic choirs of ‘saved’ little African kids that were the pride of the missionaries. Spot on for a song exhorting Congolese youth to stay out of prison.
’Syria’ tells us that there’s no future in petrol wars, with music that’s strangled, painful, urgent, tragic, with plenty of glorious distortion and Apocalypse’s voice cutting through like the wail of a dervish.
Behind all this joy and pain, behind the angelic choirs, the layers of boom bip, the funky lowdown bass, scratching guitars and beautiful ingrained dirt, there’s another dimension, a deeply spiritual quest that lies at the heart of the Bantou Mentale project. “The Bantou Mentale outlook is that there’s a new world,” says Chicco, “a world in which everyone is at peace. Because the Bantou have done bad things, and when we do wrong to another we do it to ourselves too.” He’s talking about the relationship between the Bantou people and the genies of the forest, aka the Batswa (Batshua) people or (somewhat derisively) the pygmies, possibly the oldest branch of our human race still in existence.
Once, long ago, these forest people were respected, even feared, for their deep knowledge of nature and close friendship with the spirits of the forest. But in recent times, the Bantou have enslaved, colonized, tortured, oppressed and derided the Batswa and other forest tribes, dispossessed them of their land, felled their trees, ravaged their home. Some years ago, after a chance meeting with a Batswa called Wengy Loponya Bilongi, Cubain had the chance to travel deep into the bush and spend time with those genies of the forest. The remarkable story behind this journey is captured in the film Pygmy Blues by Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye. Cubain did voice overs for the film. His journey to the forest changed him. The music of the forest people percolated into the core of his being. “I couldn’t stop crying when I was listening to their songs at night,” he says. “They’re very emotional.” He vowed to do what he could to spread the message of their genius and their suffering, in film, in words, in music.
Hence the song ‘Sauter Sauter’, which appears on the special Bantou Mentale EP “No Romance” that was released in June and features guest appearances by the People of the Forest. For all the cultural explosiveness that Bantou Mentale expresses and celebrates, at its heart is a spiritual journey, a journey into silence, back to the forest and gave birth to all of us. “During that journey, I began to feel in touch with the pygmy ancestors,” says Cubain. “They would sing at night, and talk about things, and for me it created a direct connection with those spirits. They’ve enriched me. They protect me.” It was, for Cubain, nothing less than a journey into the heart of light.