Africasounds en direct de Montréal

avec J.B. M’Piana & Wenge Musica B.C.B.G.

 

By Ethan Bloomberg

Photos by AfricaSounds & Ethan Bloomberg

 

The legendary J.B. M'Piana of Wenge B.C.B.G. draped in the Canadian flag

 

[left to right] Genta, Rio, Biku, J.B. M'Piana, Mpela, Shai Ngenge, JDL & Calugi

 

In an effort to bring you expanded coverage of live African music events, the staff of Africasounds have gone on the road once again.  This time, the Africasounds crew included Charlie Fuller, and contributing writer Ethan Bloomberg, who report from Montreal, where they witnessed the opening event of the most recent North American tour by Congolese sensation J.B. M’Piana and Wenge Musica B.C.B.G.

 

 

 

Wenge B.C.B.G.

 
Africasounds had the pleasure of traveling to Montreal on October 20th, where Boutique Lacongolaise presented J.B. M’Piana and Wenge Musica B.C.B.G., live from Le Spectrum.
   

With its relatively large French-speaking African population, Montreal is perhaps unique among North American cities, not only for its ability to attract the best in African live music entertainment, but also for the ambiance and sophistication of its music audiences.

 
   

J.B. M’Piana and Wenge Musica B.C.B.G., twenty-one strong, arrived from Europe mid-afternoon on the day of the show.  The venue for the evening’s extravaganza, Le Spectrum, is a prestigious theater.  Located on lively Rue Ste. Catherine, Le Spectrum accommodates an audience of 900-1200, depending on the type of entertainment.  It boasts ample table seating, both on floor level and the balcony.  Its terraced seating arrangements, and large, sloped dance floor, enable open sight lines to the stage from all vantage points.

 
   

Wenge Musica B.C.B.G. (“Bon Chic, Bon Genre”) is a group at the center of African popular music.  One of the most celebrated bands in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the group’s reputation has swelled since its roots in 1981.  Several branches have sprouted from the original lineup.  These include, but are not limited to, the earliest offshoot, Wenge el (or aile) Paris, fronted by vocalist Marie Paul, and Wenge Musica Maison Mère, a group under the direction of singer Werrason.  Maison Mère separated from B.C.B.G. following the release of J.B. M’Piana’s megahit 1997 album, “Feux de l’Amour.”  In recent years, a spirited but intense rivalry has pitted B.C.B.G. against Maison Mère.  B.C.B.G. earned a notable feather in their cap when, on the 22nd of September, 2001, they performed at the 17,000-capacity Bercy arena in Paris.

J.B. M'Piana & Wenge B.C.B.G.'s Latest Release

 

Shai Ngenge

 

 

The musicians of B.C.B.G. range in age from early twenties to late thirties.  Seven have tenure of five or more years with the group, led by leader J.B. M’Piana and fifteen-year veteran Alain Mpela.

 
   

At the scheduled show time, 10:30 p.m., only a few dozen of the most eager fans occupied Le Spectrum.  The crowd filtered in slowly thereafter.  The slow-to-show nature of the audience, though not surprising for an African music event, was nevertheless a lethargic display for a venue that more closely resembles a theater than a club.  Quite likely, the last-minute arrival of the band, aside from limiting the opportunity for advance publicity, caused some fans to doubt the show would take place.

 

Richard Mukena

   

12:05 a.m., and time for music!  Wenge Musica B.C.B.G. took to the stage.  The guitar lineup featured eleven-year group veteran Maître Fi-Carre on lead, Alba on rhythm, and Sunda Bass on bass.  Also on the roster were a conga player, drummer Seguin, and keyboardists Théo Bidens and Eric.

 

   

The band warmed the audience with an instrumental, and then a song vocalized by the guitarists.  Next, the frontline singers came onstage.  Dressed comfortably but uniformly in blue jeans, running shoes, and long-sleeved Ecko “rhino” t-shirts, the nine backing singers treated the crowd for the next hour to spirited interpretations of the group’s hit songs.  Rich and intricate vocal arrangements have been the calling card of Wenge Musica B.C.B.G. since its inception.  The current lineup of backing singers, led by the much-respected Alain Mpela (Afande), showed a level of talent and sophistication that has rightfully earned them the respect of their peers, and a place among the top singing groups in the history of Congolese music.

 

Sunda Bass and Alba

   

Alongside Mpela were the impressive tenors Jules Kibens, Shai Ngenge and Rio.  The baritones, Richard Mukena, Biku le Brun and JDL, alternated between songs.  Adding that extra excitement and energy were the animateurs, Tutu Calugi and Genta.

 
 

Bird's eye view from the balcony

 

The animateur in Congolese music assumes the crucial task of leading the dance portion of the songs.  The best-known animateurs employ a series of trademark chants, shouts and toasts.  Tonight’s show found Calugi still at the top of his game.  Positioned at either end of the stage, Calugi and Genta complemented each other skillfully.  The mark of a special animateur is the ability to excite and energize, without resorting to unnecessary repetition, loudness or drowning out of the other singers.  Calugi and Genta answered the call.

Genta

Calugi

   

 

The vocal, songwriting and leadership skills of lead singer J.B. M’Piana are the sealed-in-wax marks of excellence of Wenge Musica B.C.B.G.  At 1:30 a.m. J.B. strode onstage.  Immediately Le Spectrum was abuzz, and the patrons began to assume their positions on the dance floor.  For the next one hundred minutes, J.B. and his group seduced Le Spectrum with a string of hits, including several from their new double CD, “Internet”.  Whenever J.B. reached deep inside and gushed forth one of his love songs, the crowd, dominated as it was by couples, livened the dance floor.  Appearing chic and stylish in a dark three-piece, M’Piana took the reins of the evening’s amorous coach ride.

 

J.B. M'Piana was decked to the nines

   

The crowd, dominated by couples, livened the dance floor at the Spectrum

 
   

Many contemporary African music groups, in an attempt to emulate Wenge Musica B.C.B.G., have loaded up with twenty-or-more performers.  Often, too many cooks have spoiled the broth.  Finding the right mix of singers, musicians and dancers—and combining those elements with a knack for timing, song composition and a unique imprint—has kept most of the competition on the heels of B.C.B.G.

 
   

This evening, Wenge Musica B.C.B.G. showed why they stand out.  It helped that they boasted a talented lineup of singers, most of them potential lead vocalists.  But more importantly, they exhibited mutual respect, sharing and unity that are often fleeting and elusive in such a large group.  Never did the singers overwhelm each other. The song lines were spaced, varied and appropriate for the mood, whether arranged as solos, chime-ins, or eight-strong exclamations.  Each singer and animateur seized the opportunity to display his personality and musical specialty.  The musicians were in harmony with the singers: potent yet subtle, and never distorted.

 

 

 

 Calugi raising the energy as the dancers respond

Nineteen on stage can be an eyeful.  But B.C.B.G., by moving the action frequently—and also  gently and naturally—from  singer to singer, from musician to musician, and from song to dance, gave the spectators something to cling to, something to move with.

 

J.B. M'Piana and one of the latest additions to the Wenge B.C.B.G. dance troupe

 

 

Speaking of something to move with, late in the evening the group’s quartet of young and robust female dancers boosted the excitement by more than a few notches.  Dressed in “Union Jack” printed leotards, tops and bandanas, each of the women left her mark.

 

Dancer straddling Rio with J.B. in backround

 

 

 
  The use of only four dancers seemed like a good number for the dance team

 

 

 Whereas some groups barrage audiences with seemingly-endless segments of animation and dance, J.B. M’Piana let his dancers do their thing with just the right balance of playfulness, tease and restraint.  Four seemed a good number for a dance team.  Many groups, Wenge Musica B.C.B.G. included, often tap teams of eight or more dancers.  But such displays run the risk of dilution, especially when the performers line up in two rows of four, and mimic the same movements.  Tonight, four was just right.

 

 

 

 
 

Three hours of music flew by.  At 3:10 a.m., it was closing time at Le Spectrum.  Following a memorable evening of entertainment, the crowd, perhaps seven hundred in number, exited. (Seven hundred is a rough estimate, but the crowd easily reached two-thirds of capacity).

 

 

[left to right] Ethan Bloomberg, J.B. M'Piana & Charles Fuller

 

 

Wenge Musica B.C.B.G.’s performance was more than worth the journeys that the Africasounds staff made from parts south (Boston and New York City, with a stopover in Vermont).  By no means was the show a pivotal event in the group’s history, especially in the wake of their banner appearance at Bercy in Paris.  Nevertheless, B.C.B.G. impressed with their spirit, professionalism and maturity.  The future remains bright for this musical torchbearer of African culture.

 
   

Montreal is a special city, and the concert was not the only highlight of Africasounds’ visit.  Earlier in the day we were delighted with our visit to Boutique Lacongolaise, situated on Rue Bleury near the corner of Sherbrooke, in downtown Montreal.  There we discovered an impressive selection of African music CDs and videos, as well as a variety of personal items, foodstuffs, African clothing and footwear.  Among the CDs were not only the latest releases from various countries, but also a rarely-seen selection of not-so-new titles from artists such as Franco, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Zaïko Langa Langa, Lita Bembo, Emeneya, Strervos Niarchos—you name it.  And if you desire your own shirt bearing the likeness of J.B. M’Piana or Werrason, Boutique Lacongolaise is your place.

 

AfricaSounds' "Top Model" sports one of the latest fashions from

Boutique Lacongolaise of Montreal

   

Though few in the United States would acknowledge it, Montreal could well be the dining capital of North America.  Montreal’s restaurants reflect la belle ville’s ethnic diversity.  And unlike places like New York or Boston, one does not have to empty the wallet just to find parking or taxi fare.  In Montreal, you can usually park close to the establishment.  And maybe even for free!

 
   

Our destination this evening was Jardin du Cari, on St. Viateur between Blvds. St. Laurent and St. Urbain.  The cuisine is Guyanese, which itself reflects a variety of ethnic influences.  A friendly family-run restaurant with eight tables, Jardin du Cari proved the perfect launching point for the evening’s activities.  A plate of curried goat (served with rice, fried banana, and pumpkin squash) and a plate of chicken chow mein hit the spot for the Africasounds team (along with a few Carib Lagers). 

 

Wenge B.C.B.G.'s dance moves thrill the audience at the Montreal Spectrum

 

 

"Wenge Musica B.C.B.G. will appear again in Montreal, Saturday November 3, at Musée Juste Pour Rire, 2111 Blvd. St. Laurent (corner of Sherbrooke)"