Kekele Live: Simple and Superb

I don’t get out to many concerts, so I’d rather not be disappointed by any I manage to fit in. My standards aren’t very high, either. If the music sounds good and makes me feel good, I’m happy.

There was certainly nothing fancy about the most recent concert I attended. It took place in the courtyard of a library in Southern California, on a makeshift stage in front of a bunch of folding chairs. The audience consisted of a couple hundred mostly nondescript people. And the evening’s performers specialized in a style of music that’s hardly cutting edge: Congolese rumba. Nonetheless, it was a heavenly thrill from start to finish.

Why? Because this was a concert by Kékélé, a group of veteran Congolese singers responsible for some of the most critically acclaimed African music of recent years.

heir three albums of old style rumba are musical magic, brimming with percolating rhythms, lush melodies and golden-age vocals. Onstage, their sound was more raw and less polished but glowing with the same vintage beauty as on disc. Until recently a vocal quartet (guitarist/arranger Syran Mbenza is also a key part of the group), Kékélé‘s voices numbered three this evening.

Despite the absence of Bumba Massa, singers Loko Massengo, Wuta Mayi and Nyboma Mwandido traded leads and harmonies that soothed the senses and made the cool evening air cooler still.

With backing provided by bass, drum kit, congas, saxophone, accordion and two acoustic guitars that sounded remarkably electric at times, the Cuban-leaning feel of Kékélé‘s latest CD Kinavana was very much in evidence along with the more distinctly Congolese sweetness that has put Kékélé at the forefront of the current rumba revival.

The sound was clean and not too loud, grassy areas on either side of the stage gave dancers a place to dance and the music brought about a pleasurable feeling so deep and wide that you just knew everyone else was feeling it too.

Whether you’re a frequent concert-goer or not, make it a point to catch Kékélé if and when they come your way. And if you live in Southern California, check out the fine summer concert series offered by the San Juan Capistrano Library.

The setting is intimate and many an impressive name in world music has performed there.

Author: Tom Orr

Tom Orr is a California-based writer whose talent and mental stability are of an equally questionable nature. His hobbies include ignoring trends, striking dramatic poses in front of his ever-tolerant wife and watching helplessly as his kids surpass him in all desirable traits.