Orchestre Les Mangelepa ‘Last Band Standing’ CD/LP/DIG (Strut) 4/5

East African soukous, influenced by the Congolese rumba, was a regular feature of the 1970s African music scene and those of a certain age will fondly remember Orchestra Super Mazembe. By the mid-1980s, however, a combination of the demise of vinyl, the influx of cheap electronic instrumentation, and the sheer cost of recording as well as keeping a big band going for live performance, all resulted in larger ensembles disappearing.

In recent years, with the rediscovery of cult African bands by DJs and independent labels from Europe and North America, the classic sound of soukous has come back into vogue, and one happy by-product of this has been the re-emergence of Orchestre Les Mangelepa. In their specific case, it was Tom Kazungu who took the helm of the band’s management and a reformed group consequently took up residency in central Nairobi, at the Tents club and Simmers. These live performances in turn stimulated the band to go back into the studios and the scintillating sounds are before you.

With a ten piece band that has no less than three vocalists, a rhythm section comprising two guitarists and bass, plus two additional percussionists, and two horn players plus an extra keyboardist, this is music on a grand scale. Thankfully, in keeping with the original band sound, the production is not overly slick and keeping things simple and allowing the music itself to take care of business was the right policy. At seventy-five minutes for just eight numbers, the individual songs are lengthy with plenty of opportunity for the instrumentalists to take off on an extended rhythm guitar of horn solo and that makes for superb dance-oriented grooves that are seemingly never ending. The opening number, ‘Kanemo’, starts matters off on a busy and dramatic footing with beautiful vocal harmonies that continue throughout, and with a trumpet solo that enters proceedings six minutes in. Intimate guitar work and a gentle intro leads into some shuffling percussion work on ‘Suzanna’, with fine support from the horns. A delicious mid-tempo groove is created on, ‘Maindusa’, and this formation, which is in fact a group that split from the original band (a frequent occurrence in all forms of Congolese music), are now undertaking a world tour, having first travelled around Uganda and Malawi. Watch out for the UK leg of this tour which is due in spring 2018. Hopefully, some of the original albums will be re-issued at some later stage.

Tim Stenhouse