Kanda Bongo Man, Tunnels, Bristol, Saturday 12th January
I am ill. Indulging a slight tendency for the dramatic, I would even say I can hear a death rattle in my chest. The Bristol wind, keen with moisture, cuts right through me. My head throbs and my body shivers. I am in tatters. I need to be in bed. I need looking after. I envisage a cold compress being pressed to my forehead, an intravenous drip of Vitamin C and sympathy: constant, overwhelming sympathy.
Yet there is a spanner in the proverbial works. Something keeping me from my bed. And that is Kanda Bongo Man: Congolese superstar, soukous legend, and a performer not to be missed, under any circumstances, ever, no matter how sorry for yourself you feel. I know that music and dancing awaits ? some of the best music and some of the most inspired dancing ? but entering the Tunnels venue beneath Temple Meads train station, my thoughts are still on the comforts offered by a freshly plumped duvet and a vat of Lemsip.
But soon Kanda Bongo Man joins the musicians on stage and everything changes. I am on my feet. The band commence to lay down delicious DRC grooves, tighter than tight. Dizzying guitar lines effervesce amongst busy soukous rhythms, spiralling up around sixties surf guitar but going further. Kanda Bongo Man and his two singers trade vocals, swap buoyant melodies. Before too long, my fever heightens. I’m near delirious, lost in a no man’s land between funk and flu.
Sweating profusely, eyes blood-shot, head pounding, and in the grips of an intense fever, I now want nowhere but the dance floor. I’ve become a zombie, taken over by the music, back from death and dancing hard. I’m not alone: everyone is dancing, lost in the music, in their own worlds. A man with a full beard spins his partner around the room ballroom-style. World music veterans, greying men in their middle years that remember Kanda bursting onto the scene after his 1983 WOMAD show, allow their arms to punctuate wild sentences of movements, flailing, karate-chopping exclamations and snake hip brackets. Elsewhere, there is impressive booty-shaking, precise and actuated movements of various body parts, finding the beat and lost in the moment.
Grooves are built and extended, verses are sung, guitar solos layered, and then a dance will be performed: the Kwassa Kwassa invented by Kanda Bonga Man or some variation will send the music’s rhythms deeper. Then left in glorious hypnotic isolation, just at breaking point, Kanda offers a vocal flurry, a guttural skat or a staccato call that squeezes the last drop of funk out of the groove. The Kwassa Kwassa refrain of Sai is the essence of the Kanda Bongo Man experience: uplifting, life-affirming and impossible not to dance to.
When I eventually leave the Tunnels, I find myself buffeted by the weather and instantly plunged into new depths of man flu. Yet something has changed. Deep within my quaking virus-filled body, two new aches throb afresh. It is my calves from dancing hard and my face from smiling harder. And now, bed.
Words & Image: Tom Spooner