Zimbabwe's Bongo Love, out of Africa and into Boston

By Talia Whyte
Originally published in The Bay State Banner

Thanks to the instant, worldwide connections made possible by the new frontier of online social networking, more musicians than ever are finding audiences in far-flung places.

Case in point: the Zimbabwean quartet Bongo Love, who are now traveling the U.S. on a tour that has featured a number of Boston-area stops, including a date this coming Tuesday at the South End nightspot 28 Degrees. The tour is the result in part of a growing fanbase that used a combination of new technology and old-fashioned word of mouth to get them here.

After finishing high school in 2001, group members John Mambira, Themba Mawoko, Trymore Jombo and Mpho Mambira moved from the small Zimbabwean town of Bulawayo to capital city Harare. There, they began to perfect their style, a mix of African folk music and American R&B beats played on traditional African instruments that bandleader John Mambira said they taught themselves to use.

“We call our music ‘Afrocoustic,’” he told the Banner in a recent interview. “We are music-influenced. We based our music on listening to Africans like Salif Keita, Baaba Maal and Angélique Kidjo, but we also like Tracy Chapman, Bob Marley and Seal. Paul Simon, especially, has a African feel to his music.”

In 2005, the band entered and won a contest that allowed them to travel to Mozambique, Sweden and the Dominican Republic to perform and teach their music. The overseas audiences really took to Bongo Love’s sound and began heading online to tell their friends in America about it.

The electronic promotion opened the door for the band to launch its first U.S. tour last year, a trip that saw them not only play shows, but also offer private lessons to aspiring young musicians.

Needham resident Bette Hoffman first learned about Bongo Love when they were invited to teach at Plugged In, a nonprofit youth-oriented music program that her son, Aaron, participates in after school. After seeing them perform, Hoffman wrote a post about the band on her blog to promote their music to her friends.

“I just got hooked on their music immediately,” she said. “I think they are wonderful, and I want to help them be even more successful.”

Hoffman invited Bongo Love back a few months later to surprise Aaron at his bar mitzvah. As luck would have it, on the day that they performed at Aaron’s party, the band was invited to perform at another concert in Acton a couple of weeks later.

Chad Urmston, formerly of the popular folk act Dispatch, who disbanded in 2002, also performed at the Acton show. A social activist committed to improving the quality of life in Zimbabwe, Urmston was entranced by Bongo Love’s sound, and invited them to perform with his band’s reunion concert — at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Originally slated to be a one-night-only reunion to raise funds for charities benefitting Zimbabweans worldwide, an additional two nights were added after the “Dispatch: Zimbabwe” concert sold out during the first half-hour of an exclusive presale available only to fans on the band’s MySpace page.

Two extra nights meant thousands more listeners exposed to Bongo Love’s music, and the exposure has translated into a swell of fan support. Viewer reception to Bongo Love’s Madison Square Garden performances and their live videos available on YouTube helped increase the demand that led to their current return engagement in the States.

“People really get into our music,” said Mpho Mambira. “People are amazed because they have never heard African music like ours before. Everyone has a good time when we perform.”

Bette Hoffman knows Boston public relations specialist Colette Philips through a mutual friend, who introduced Philips to Bongo Love. Also entranced by the band’s sound, Philips invited them to perform at the next “Get Konnected” networking cocktail reception she is hosting for Boston’s professionals of color.

“They represent … bringing multicultural people together,” said Philips.

As their American fanbase expands and their profile continues to rise, the band’s members said they are enjoying the ride.

“Our American fans have been really good to us,” said Jombo. “I get to perform, and so I am happy.”

Bongo Love will perform at the Get Konnected reception on June 24 at 28 Degrees, 1 Appleton Street, Boston. The band is scheduled to play at at 6:30 p.m.

For more information, visit www.bongolovemusic.com, www.myspace.com/bongolovemusic, or www.28degrees-boston.com.

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