Event Review: Kanda Bongo Man @ Komedia (Brighton; Saturday 12th October 2019)

Within seconds of entering the room, the sense of anticipation was palpable. One felt sure that some exciting Congolese rhythms were certain to banish any rainy-day blues. The band made their way on to the stage, nonchalantly picked up their instruments and began to play their opening number, sung by backing singer Nickens Nkosi. Nkosi’s own group, Kasai Masai, form the core of the band, with guitarist Otis Lumumba driving the soukous sound with some effervescent riffs. Then came the relatively low-key introduction of Kanda Bongo Man, a legendary figure in Africa’s musical heritage, whose career extends well over 40 years.


Belying his physical fragility, Kanda’s stout figure stood resplendent in a traditional colourful long shirt and matching trousers. Engaging yet humble, he proceeded to lead us on a journey through some of his classic back catalogue. This tiny corner of Brighton, drenched by the autumnal rains, was now dripping in soukous, the strand of Congolese rumba music with which Kanda has been such a leading innovator and exponent. With Komedia’s small, highly-intimate studio barely half full, Kanda and his band played as the passionate musicians that they are, as if they were performing in a much larger arena. Their hearts are definitely still in it. This music would almost certainly feel a whole lot different if that were not the case.

As with many other forms of dance music, in the clubbing sense at least, soukous delivers an incessant groove; the melody loops around and around and sits itself on the bassline, and it stays there. It can really envelope you, like a never-ending musical snake, wrapping you up and insisting on your participation. For long periods of this gig, Kanda’s dancer stood centre stage, leading the dance with her highly expressive interpretation and a shimmering smile. Between her and the music itself, it was hard to keep still. The rhythm is different, but the guitar licks bear a striking resemblance to the surf sound of 1950s American rock and roll. Think sandy beaches, sunshine, colourful shirts and the intoxicating joy of the music, and soukous and surf are clearly – and bizarrely – similar beasts.


With one hand casually placed inside a pocket of his oversized technicolour shirt and with his brow shaded by his iconic wide-brimmed black hat, Kanda cut a figure akin to a Congolese tic-tac-toe man at the races. Here was his presentation; his top tip was to get the audience to do the dancing. His own shuffle was a gentle one, his 64-year-old body no longer able to bounce as it once did, but by the time he was delivering his closing encore, the majority of us in the room were doing all the swaying and kwassa kwassa we could.

While the rain lashed down out in the streets, Kanda and his band made absolutely certain that, for the people who had braved the elements and ventured out, the heat was on. It was a tropical fiesta and we were basking in the soukous shine.