Bongo Maffin – From Bongo With Love
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Let’s take a moment to reflect on how it’s even possible that Bongo Maffin are still around.
The group was born in the mid-90s at the height of the “we’re free” moment – a time when a slew of groups staked their claim on the title of being the band that would define the sound of a generation that was not born free, but was born in time to be in their twenties when 1994 rolled around.
The eventual result for most was a variation of the same narrative arc – a band is haphazardly formed; makes one album or, at best, two; the lead band member goes solo and the centre cannot hold.
South African groups that gained fame in the 90s and cemented their status as iconic in the early 2000s have one thing in common – implosion.
The exception, of course, is Bongo Maffin. The band has had a few public spats and members went in different directions, but they didn’t actually split up.
Getting back together might not have been easy, especially as two of the band members, Stoan Seate and Thandiswa Mazwai, have a child together.
But Bongo Maffin are back together and on their own Afro-punk rock train.
From Bongo With Love is the title of the latest offering from the four-member band. Their music defines the intersection of South African reggae, kwaito, hip-hop, Afro-pop and R&B.
The band members have their fingers in many different kinds of music, and From Bongo With Love is a showcase of some of the best and worst that can result.
The title is a sort of double entendre. Implying that the record is a kind of love letter to the band’s fans, family and friends, From Bongo With Love can also be read to imply that Bongo is not just a sound or a group, but a place where different soundscapes can exist in a kind of nonchalant harmony because the foundation of it all is love.
But From Bongo With Love is anything but nonchalant. It is active and always holds your attention.
It is easily the band’s most political album, which is saying something.
The opening song, Better Must Come, kicks off with a homage to the radio stations of the resistance that were a fixture in many parts of the continent from the 60s.
It has an immediately infectious bass line that is an easy entry point into the upbeat groove of the album.
Jah Seed is the obvious standout on the album – he has never sounded so assured. His verses have a deceptive quality in that they are always structured to sound like a hook, which makes them catchy.
Thando Lwam is also a standout track, where Mazwai wails and reminisces about smoking weed and promising a lover marriage.
This is an eerie song that does not allow you to get over an impending sense of doom. Here, everything always feels elusive and it is punctuated by a horn section that is reminiscent of late nights spent gyrating to Afro beats in the club, only to go home alone, overwhelmed by the futility of going to loud places to find someone to take home and be quiet with.
What is immediately clear from the crisp production and vocal arrangements on From Bongo With Love is how much Bongo Maffin really missed Speedy.
Although they have made good albums despite the revolving door of his presence, From Bongo With Love benefits from having him around. On the record, he taps into some of his more understated skills as a cunning vocal arranger.
The cohesiveness of the album is a welcome reminder of what is possible when people actually get together in a studio to make music instead of trading verses over a Wi-Fi connection.
The transitions on From Bongo With Love are a throwback to the time when sequencing actually mattered and was treated as more than an afterthought.
This is an adult album – it will be banging at day parties across the country at a volume where people can still hear each other and not have to shout over the speakers.
What is not hard to appreciate about Bongo Maffin is how they were honest with one another. They did not chase a sound, although Seed on Intense makes a case for why he would be a very successful trap musician with a mumble rap slur.
For the most part, Bongo Maffin have been honest with their range, refusing to chase party records or soil their songs with rap features, the only function of which is to appeal to the youth.
They know their core people are in their thirties and forties looking for a connection that is more than transient.
Even though the band members themselves have not yet called time on their career as a group, I had started preparing myself mentally for a long goodbye – a final victory lap in what has been a legendary run – and I wasn’t sure that I was ready. But coming out on the other side of From Bongo With Love, I felt a kind of joy that can only be described as the euphoria of after a birth.
This was not the end and I have no doubt that Bongo Maffin will make another album. They are clearly having too good a time with one another to even think about stopping now.
Years ago, my friend Olwethu Bandezi insisted that I listen to New Construction after almost two years of avoiding it. I had liked the single Kura Uone, but the possibility of being disappointed was just not worth the risk.
He put on the album and, to my surprise, it was really, really good. So to him and anyone else who might not want to listen to this album, I return the favour.
You have nothing to worry about – Bongo Maffin have not tarnished their legacy, but have leaned into it instead. This record is Afro-optimism done right, and is a celebration of the places a good friendship can take you. On the other side of this album, I am reminded of Lucille Clifton’s words from her 1993 collection of poems, Book of Light: “Come celebrate with me that every day something has tried to kill me and has failed.”
Bongo Maffin are not waiting; they are celebrating one another, and this album gives us permission to do the same.