Recent Fresh Faves Kongo Dia Ntotila have been on an unstoppable momentum since they stormed the BBC Introducing Stage at Latitude last summer. Helped by a live session on Tom Robinson’s Saturday Night Show on BBC 6 Music and enthusiastic support from BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction, their star continues to rise as a packed crowd at Hoxton’s Lion and Lamb bore testament.
The audience at a Kongo Dia Ntotila gig in London is a welcome reflection of what they are all about. Made up of a really good ethnic mix and an age range from early twenties to, well, quite a bit older (!), they are upbeat, considerate towards one another and unashamedly ecstatic to experience such a joyous and mouth-watering performance. Trump and Farage take note. This is what diversity looks like!
That same mindset is beautifully encapsulated by Bass Guitarist and bandleader Mulele Matondo. His energetic dance moves and sudden jumps are matched by his infectious smile. He wears his love of music-making on his sleeve and the audience cannot help but respond accordingly. Fellow founder John Kelly cuts a more laid back figure but there is nothing laid back about his guitar playing, clever double stopping figures, arpeggios and picked notes.
Kongo Dia Ntotila have created (or perhaps are continuing to create) a unique combination of flavours which certainly reflect their roots in Congolese and British Jazz music, bringing in a multitude of associated influences, reaching out across the world to other genres and cultures and infusing it with their incredible musicianship. At its heart though, the influence of Congolese music stretching back across a long history, is the primary inspiration. If that sounds like too many superlatives, go along and experience their live show and see if you still think that! These guys can switch from one gorgeous, syncopated and free-flowing groove to another at the drop of a hat. That applies to tempo, mood and texture too.
Before their third track Mulele informs us that they are ‘going to the West Indies now to get some reggae’ and the band duly kicks up a lilting version of Reggae with brass trills, guitars picking and the revelation that drummer Mbouta Kissangwa has a truly lovely singing voice. In fact their voices generally are an added strength, a fact underlined here and there by sweet harmonies.
The interplay between guitarists John Kelly and Diala Sakuba and how they sit atop the robust but fluid bass and drums of Mulele and Mbouta is one of the magic ingredients of their sound. Mulele has the perfect balance of keeping up a hypnotic bass groove and then, without warning, playing some sort of descending run or dexterous bass melody that draws a collectibve gasp from those observing his skills. Mbouta has a similar knack of knowing when to do something amazing on the drums. John and Diala provide an exceptional but brilliantly understated presence, contrasting each other’s playing, one playing single notes while the other provides chords and so on.
In saxophonist Will Scott and trumpeter Mike Soper they have a horn duo who are not only breathtaking in their seemingly effortless virtuosity but also make such a big and impressive sound I had to check my eyes several times to make sure there really were only two of them!
I have to also talk about the wonderful Birikiti Pegram, Kongo Dia Ntotila’s awesome manager. She will probably be embarassed by this but I am going to mention that she is also a highly talented musician so look out for her name in the near future too. It was great to meet her and Mulele in person after talking so frequently on line.
There were so many highlights, among them a stunning rendition of Kongo in which their ability to keep switching grooves, styles and tempi was amply demonstrated. There was a cracking version of 360º and the final track, which I now know was a tribute to the Nigerian Jazz legend Fela Kuti, was dreamy, soulful and carried the audience away into some alternative universe.
Talking of alternative universes, I remarked to a friend that there ought to be a parallel universe where Kongo Dia Ntotila sell millions of albums and Taylor Swift is playing the Lion and Lamb! How far it is possible for a band as good and distinct as KDN to go in terms of crossing over into the wider mainstream is hard to call but if any band has the potential to win substantial numbers of converts to their unique Jazz-infused vision, it is Kongo Dia Ntotila. Let’s hope they get that opportunity.
Photo by Paul John Roberts