Kekele's circular world beats
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 3, 2004) – As heard in its two vibrant sets on Sunday night at Club Helsinki, the circular patterns of Kekele’s music – circles of melody surrounding circles of rhythm – only underlined the inherent circularity symbolized by a Zairean group reclaiming music of the African diaspora and bringing it all back home.

One could easily have gotten tied up in mental knots over some chicken-or-the-egg philosophizing while the 10-member group was delivering its incessant grooves to a club packed with dancers and partygoers. Were the four-part, choral vocals an adaptation of a jazz horn section – in effect functioning as saxophones, trumpets and trombones? Or did those instruments pick up their function from this sort of call-and-response, harmony singing in the first place? Did reggae pick up its emphatic reliance on a bass note dropped on the first beat from the Congolese rumba by way of calypso? And for that matter, did blues and rock ‘n’ roll get its basic two- and three-chord harmonic patterns from the traditional music upon which Kekele based its lively, modern style?

Of course little of this probably mattered to those who were lured onto the dance floor – the club wisely cleared most of the room of chairs and tables in advance – during the second song, and stayed there throughout, doing variations on the rumba, cha-cha and other Cuban-influenced dance steps.

There was plenty for the non-dancers in the crowd to enjoy, too. There was the dynamic interplay among Nyboma Muan'dido, Wuta-Mayi, Bumba Massa and Loko Massengo, the four vocalists who shared lead and choral assignments. There was the lion’s share of the harmonic work provided by guitarists Rigo Star and Syran Mbenza, who echoed the singer’s melodies and wrapped them in circles of countermelodies. There was the powerful saxophone of Mwondo Mwele, whose horn alternately functioned as another singer in the front line and as a jazz or r&b soloist, heating up the music and giving it added punch. Vincent Hamamdjian’s bass punched out the measures and told the dancers when and how to move, while drummer Komba Mafwala and percussionist Sungu Kumbi supplied the repetitive grooves and patterns that gave the music its inner pulse.

With the singers’ interjections of “Ca va?” and “Merci beaucoups,” and the hint of Gypsy swing in some of the guitar work, the show had a French accent counterbalancing the Latin. Kekele’s music is smoother than the hyperkinetic soukous that evolved out of Congolese rumba, and slinkier than the more brassy Cuban jazz. With no keyboards, mostly acoustic instruments, and the voices handling the lion’s share of the melodic burden, Kekele – playing a rare, intimate club date on its current tour of theaters and cultural arts centers -- boasted a more organic feel than most Afro-Cuban orchestras, but at no sacrifice to its rhythmic punch.

During one instrumental break, when the percussion was percolating and the guitars were simmering and rhythms were crossing and leaping over one another, it was clear that this music was also a kind of proto-funk. It could have been a listener’s imagination, but it seemed like someone was calling from the bandstand, “James Brown, James Brown.” At the very least, it made perfect sense that one would.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 2, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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