Kanda Bongo Man: Music Room, Liverpool Philharmonic

By Paul Fitzgerald
Fri 13 October, 2017

Paul Fitzgerald enjoys two full hours of unremittingly joyous Congolese wonder at the Liverpool Philharmonic’s Music Room with Kanda Bongo Man. 

They came to dance and celebrate; to sing and smile, to be uplifted and cheered. And from the very first moments, as Kanda Bongo Man and his band took to the stage at the Philharmonic Music Room, this most devoted audience got exactly what they came for.

What that entailed was two full hours of unremittingly joyous Congolese wonder.

The veteran showman, striding out onto stage in a faux alligator skin suit and trademark wide brimmed Fedora hat, rightfully occupies the throne of The King Of Soukous, and judging by the reverential mood in the room, its a more than worthy title. His reinvention of the traditional form early in the 1980s, gained him widespread respect and admiration across the globe, propelling Kanda and his addictive, enchanting songs onto the world stage.

The intimacy of the Music Room naturally means less room for stage sets and elaborate back lines. In terms of lights, it demands nothing more than the very simplest show. Such simplicity of the set up brings inherent focus onto the music to shine. It really is the joy of this much loved and adaptable room. The purity it offers each performance, especially when the sound is as good as it was on this occasion, is a real strength.

From the moment the formidable drumming of Felix Ngindu kicked the proceedings off, dancing powerfully across the kit, with the snare off and ringing out, the whole room was entranced; held utterly transfixed in the possessing sound of this skilled set of musicians. Claude Bula’s bass held the whole night together, playing melodic circular grooves up at the top end of the neck. Solid, reliable and mesmerising.

Sweet dual guitar lines weaved insistently in and out of each other, such effortless grace in their playing ringing like hypnotic wind chimes through the songs, and taking turns for solos and intros.

Apart from Bula, who is the absolute epitome of bass player cool – never breaking his poise throughout, the whole band added rich, textural vocal harmonies across the octaves. As would be expected with such celebratory music, there wasn’t much in the way of dynamic. There are no lifts and falls, and very few stops. Its all about the lifts. The ‘up’ is everything. The music, as with the mood, was relentlessly and wonderfully upbeat. They came to dance, remember.

Throughout all this, as he and dancer Cleopatre moved together across the stage, Kanda Bongo Man held his voice high, with the clear and determined soul of a man who has being doing this for fifty years, carrying on his father’s legacy. The band have just come from the African Legends festival in Ghana, were Kanda took pride of place as one of the headliners.

Midway through the second half of the Music Room show, he stopped for a moment to tell us how proud and grateful he is to be seen as an African Legend, and how he loves to play big festival crowds, to get the party going and see the people dancing. Waves of joy again leapt through the crowd when he announced that we’ll be seeing them again very soon, in a Liverpool park next June (I didn’t tell you that, ok?).

They came to dance and celebrate. They delivered a set hewn from decades of Kanda Bongo Man’s proud and illustrious and industrious career. And this warm, charming performance of the finest African vibes didn’t disappoint. This band of innately skilled musicians, at once individual and together, engaged and entertained with a loose limbed, relaxed groove throughout the two hours, only poising mid way for a break and change to come into the crowd for selfies, handshakes and hugs.

It really did feel that in these dark and troubled times, this show was an undeniable assurance of the power of music to lift, to cheer and ultimately, to heal. They danced alright. They were still dancing down Hope Street after the gig finished.

Or was that just us?

Photo from artists Facebook Page