Album Review : Vumbi Dekula – ‘Congo Guitar’ : The much loved Soukous musician’s honestly joyful first solo album.

The Breakdown

The album zings with spontaneity and joyful trust, uncluttered acoustic tunes so naturally dynamic that they need no amplification. This is the circuitry of vintage TP OK Jazz locomotion on show but thrilling and atmospheric in a new way.
Hive Mind Records 9.0

The feast of goodness that is the Hive Mind Records catalogue is deftly sprinkled with a fair share of the finest guitar-centric albums from Ricardo Tavares ambient leaning ‘Congo’ to Gustavo Yashimura’s rugged and rakish ‘Living Legend’ cassette. Now comes a new addition to the mix, ‘Congo Guitar’ the debut solo album from revered fret wizard Kahanga ‘Vumbi’ Dekula. It’s a collaborative release with Stockholm label Sing-A-Song Fighter whose contribution in bringing this significant collection to our turntables is woven into the Congolese maestro’s back story.

Dekula is the archetypal troubadour, a player who for over forty years has moved with his music and dedicated himself to sharing the joy of Soukous syncopation. From those Dr Nico/Franco influenced beginnings his guitar playing gained wider recognition in the 80’s when he joined Tanzanian muzik wa dansi giants Orchestra Maquis Original. Then in the 90’s after a move to Sweden and key stints in bands energising the African scene in Europe, he finally formed his own unit in 2008, the underrated Dekula Band. This signalled his return to the eternal grooves of Congolese rhumba as well as the beginning of the pathway that leads to this new ‘Congo Guitar’ release.

Alert to the Dekula Band’s electric performances as well as Vumbi’s musical provenance, fellow Stockholm resident, musician/producer Karl-Jonas Winqvist released their 2019 debut ‘Opika’ on his eclectic label Sing-A-Song Fighter. Having hooked up for that recording, a plan emerged to capture the guitarist’s distinctive melodic style in a more stripped back setting, as Winqvist explains ‘…just concentrating on all the amazing riffs and beautiful, uplifting melodies’. ‘Congo Guitar’ is the result, right here, right now and yes, so ridiculously right on the button.

Recorded in just two days, the album zings with spontaneity and joyful trust, uncluttered acoustic tunes so naturally dynamic that they need no amplification. To call ‘Congo Guitar’ simple music would be shallow. In pairing down Dekula’s soukous songs to the essentials, the complex inner workings of Congolese rhumba gets revealed. Take the opener Afro Blues which follows Vumbi’s first dazzlingly acrobatic run with tumbling guitar patterns that flip and twist with breathless speed. This is the circuitry of vintage TP OK Jazz locomotion on show but thrilling and atmospheric in a new way.

As a record ‘Congo Guitar’ reaches way beyond interest in instrumental stylings or virtuosity. Above all it’s a record that’s rooted in a sense of place, which sends you dreaming of far-off places or drifting closer to home. Congo Yetu takes an easy rambling melody and passer-by rhythm for a stroll away from the bustle of street chatter. The sound here is everyday contentment. Elsewhere the horizons that Dekula coaxes through his compositions open out beyond a single place and maybe reflect a deeper mood. The autobiographical Zanzibar, Kinshasa and Vallingby map out the journey he has taken so far in his lifetime, from Tanzania to Sweden, in a rippling soukous guitar raga. A mesmeric web of harmony and glissando, here the dancing layers of finger picked sequences are woven together so intricately that the tune shimmers as brightly as any Kora excursion.

Although Dekula’s guitar remains the focal point of this wonderful album’s story-telling, it’s clear that his partnership with Winqvist is fundamental to its success. The production and arrangements are so sensitive and supportive, the addition of rhythm box, keyboard or found sound is made as a contribution rather than distraction. In the breezy, rustling Maamajacy, Vumbi’s pure pop melody finds the unhurried percussive swish it was looking for in a folksy sing-a long charmer. Nothing more than an ‘ooh ooh’ is needed as a backing. More leftfield perhaps, Weekend sees the afro-cuban flourish of Dekula’s fret-work given a soft trad-folk tinge with the lo-fi purr of Winqvist’s bass melodica, all during five minutes of one-stop musical chemistry.

Subtlety is often a word that’s overused when music that doesn’t rely on shock and awe gets written about but ‘Congo Guitar’ shows that when delicacy is clearly understood the impact can be stunning. So on the skipping, playful Zuku the hissing pops of beat box locomotion and Emma Nordenstam’s twinkling piano chimes nudge the tune towards more good times. More distinctive maybe is the shading that Dekula and Winqvist apply to the album closer UN Forces (Get Out of the Democratic Republic of Congo). It’s a song where sentiment is necessarily more upfront but where the calm insistent delivery makes the message more powerful. Vumbi adds banjo for added urgency in a hot-stepping plea for his homeland, the vocals direct, part spoken, reasoning, persuasive and, as the song winds away to minor chord strumming, quietly brave.

It’s a fitting end to an album that’s never pushy but which achieves so much. As joyous as last year’s offering by the Madalisto Band and up there with the Ano Nobo Quartet in the guitarismo stakes, ‘Congo Guitar’ should be present on everyone’s record shelves for those moments when you most need it. An album that won’t let you down.

Get your copy of ‘Congo Guitar‘ by Vumbi Dekula from your local record store or direct from Hive Mind Records HERE

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