Get ready for a new global sound via Kinshasa and Paris. Jo Frost speaks to the band
The noise pulsating from the stage sounds more akin to something you’d hear at Reading or Leeds festivals – a visceral wall of drum beats, scratchy guitars and electronics. It’s not your usual Sunday afternoon WOMAD fare, although the smallish but engaged crowd look intent and up for it.
Bantou Mentale are brand new – this is only their second gig, following one at Roskilde. But the four guys are old hands, all having worked on numerous bands and projects. Drummer and songwriter Cubain Kabeya has played with Staff Benda Bilili, Konono No 1, Jupiter & Okwess and Mbongwana Star; guitarist Chicco Katembo (who didn’t make the WOMAD gig because he didn’t get his visa) also worked with Staff Benda Bilili; Liam Farrell, aka Doctor L, was born in Ireland but grew up in France and has a sizeable CV that includes Mbongwana Star; and lead singer Apocalypse who earned his stripes singing with Koffi Olomide and other “biggies” on the Congolese music scene and has the attitude and looks of a veritable rock star. He is clearly relishing his moment in the spotlight: “This is just the start,” he says. “To do something well, you have to love doing what you do. Lokua Kanza, another ‘biggie,’ he told me, ‘mon petit, enjoy what you do, even if people think you’re mad, don’t give a damn, you have to enjoy it.’”
So what was the impetus behind creating this new outfit? “I wanted it to be more dangerous, more edgy,” replies Farrell. “We need edge – the world is falling apart, the Congo is falling apart, everything is falling apart.”
There’s definitely a raw intensity to their music that sets them apart from the other “Afro-touristic” bands on the circuit, wearing boubous and playing “easy-going and safe” music, according to Farrell. “We want to break the mould,” he continues. “People can like it or dislike it but we want to be more related to the [young] generation... we’re all related but we’re all pretending we’re not!”
Then there’s the subject matter of their songs: “This is more engaged, more conscientious, in comparison to Mbongwana,” says Farrell, naming songs about Boko Haram, the Syrian war and Château Rouge, the area in Paris where the guys live – “sometimes it’s more Kinshasa than Kinshasa!” he laughs.
Farrell and Kabeya met around ten years ago when Kabeya had been working with documentary filmmakers Renaud Barrett and Florent de la Tullaye (of Jupiter’s Dance fame). “Everything you heard from Kin, they were related to it,” says Farrell. Kabeya had done the voiceover for their film called Pygmée Blues about the forest people of the Congo, the Batwa. Kabeya’s journey into the forest and meeting with the Batwa had a profound effect on him and lies at the heart of the creation of Bantou Mentale. The Bantou are the people who live in Central Africa, descendants of the Pygmies. “It’s a bit of a contradiction,” explains Farrell. “In every country there’s always the oppressed and the oppressors so the English and Irish, Bantou and Pygmy… in a way it’s a mea culpa – in Kinshasa, the pygmies are the guys who do the shitty jobs, are oppressed, have no education, but in the forest, they are fucking genius!”
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Songlines. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!