KONGOS find success with South African-American groove

KONGOS should feel at home in the Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room, a bowling alley in the 1940s.

Listen to the opening accordion riff on “Come With Me Now” and you’ll realize you’ve heard the band KONGOS. That song rose to No. 1 on the alternative-rock charts, pushing KONGOS into the mainstream.

KONGOS starts a 16-date, 12-state, two country tour on Saturday, May 6, at the Beale Street Music Festival. The alt-rock band of brothers with roots in London, Johannesburg (and Phoenix), will appear at the Crystal Bay Casino on Thursday, May 18, its debut performance in the Crown Room. Tickets are $18.35 plus fees. The opening band is Mother Mother, a five-piece indie group from Vancouver, B.C.

Brothers Johnny, Jesse, Dylan and Danny Kongos comprise the all-in-the-family band. Now hailing from Arizona, they are the sons of John Kongos, a South African singer and songwriter popular in the early 1970s (“He’s Gonna Step On You Again” and “Tokoloshe Man”).

The musicians all are multi-instrumentalists and they share singing and songwriting duties. Johnny plays accordion and keyboards, Danny handles guitar, Jesse is the drummer/percussionist and Dylan plays bass and lap slide guitar.

Dylan Kongos spoke with Tahoe Onstage just before hitting the road.

Question: Although initially a hit in South Africa and elsewhere, “Come with Me Now” (released in 2011) took several years to strike a chord with listeners in the United States. Were you surprised?

Answer: No, because it even took a few years to get going in South Africa. Like anything that we’ve done over the past 14 years, things just seem to take time. It was a matter of just continuously plugging away and trying to get the song or songs into the hands of the right people or get the right DJs to listen to it.

Billboard described “Come with Me Now” as an “according-tinged” rock song. Band members have said the song is influenced by kwaito music, blending South African jazz and pop with American house music. What is kwaito and how has it influenced your music?

It’s a music that was quite popular in the ‘90s in the townships of Johannesburg. In the early ’90s, house music was huge all over the world and especially in South Africa. Musicians in Johannesburg started slowing that groove down. And so it’s a slowed-down, tempo-house groove that they rap over. They are using very simple Casio synths over this groove and then they’re rapping in either Xhosa or Zulu or Sotho. We kind of discovered that music really late because we’d already moved to the states. I think someone sent us a link — it was already old news in South Africa when we found out about it. But we  just love the groove and that’s where the ‘Come With Me Now’ groove comes from. The rest of the song comes from a whole bunch of different things with Maskandi-style accordion playing, which is a South African kind of style of music, and then also Cajun blues and Delta blues. So that’s really just a groove that was influenced by that kwaito rhythm in South Africa.

Every band dreams of their first hit song. The music video “Come with Me Now” has had more than 65 million YouTube views. Do you ever get tired of playing the song?

Yeah. We get tired of playing just about every song on occasion. We played 250 shows in 2015 and maybe more than that in 2014. So some days you’re tired, but it’s one of the best jobs in the world and everything’s relative. But the thing that makes you realize why you need to keep playing hit songs is the energy and the excitement and enthusiasm that comes from a crowd that you know either recognizes it or it touched them in some way or they love that song. When you see that it kind of snaps you out of whatever laziness or boredom or feeling you might be having that night.

What’s your favorite KONGOS song?

“Two in the Morning” from “Egomaniac” is definitely one of my favorite songs at the moment.

Bassist Dylan Kongos is one of the four brothers in KONGOS.
Photo by Cindy Palacio

Kenny Neal and the Family Band from Baton Rouge is another group of brothers. Kenny said that in his band you can’t get fired and you can’t quit. It that the same with you guys?

Yeah, I would say that’s a pretty accurate statement. When we were much younger ,we always had threats from one brother or another, like “I’m going to quit. I don’t want to do this anymore.” But those were just empty threats and no one’s ever been threatened to be fired, either. But, yeah, when you’re family and you’re in this, it’s your life.

Growing up, you and your brothers had your feet in three continents, Africa, Europe and North America. How has that played out for both your music and your fan base?

Not directly. I think it helped in South Africa because we had some roots there in that we grew up there. Initially when (“Come With Me Now”) started taking off in South Africa and the DJs started playing it, they didn’t know that we were originally from South Africa. They just started playing the song and started to react with their listeners and then after a few weeks when the stories are being told they kind of realized that we had these strong roots in South Africa and our dad was who our dad was. And then the story started spreading and I think that really helped solidify a fan base in South Africa because we weren’t just another American band with a song on the radio. It was like hometown guys that started to make it across across the pond. So I think that helped us a lot. I think we’re still struggling to gather fan bases in Europe and England, although it’s happening slowly. In the states, nothing helps you get a fan base other than work and a hit song.

Your dad (John Kongos) hit the Top 10 in the UK in 1971 with “He’s Going To Step On You Again.” How did your dad’s success as a musician affect you and your brothers? He must be proud — does he have a hand in KONGOS projects now?

He doesn’t have a hand in it but he definitely lends his ears any time we’re working on a song or working on a record. He comes down to the studio every once in a while and takes a listen and gives his advice. And then if we have any big decisions or big questions with regard to the business or career in any way we would definitely talk to and consult him. I think his experience from being a teenage star in South Africa to then having success in Europe and then moving on to more behind-the-scenes studio and engineering work has helped in all aspects of our careers with his advice and wisdom.

The band had a do-it-yourself ethic in the early days, self-promoting and even shooting and producing music videos. Is that still happening?

Yeah, especially on the creative side, videos, artwork and all the rest of that stuff, we’re very either fully involved or at arm’s length with all those decisions and all those projects. It’s not necessarily how we’re always going to be, but for right now it’s working out. We’d like to relieve ourselves of a few of the duties of marketing and promoting.

Your U.S. tour kicks off this week at the venerable Beale Street Music Festival. You must be psyched about that?

Yeah, it’s actually our first time playing in Memphis. Even though we’ve been touring pretty solid since 2013, we for some reason always skipped over Memphis because we’d been playing Nashville or we just played Johnson City … too close to Memphis to play (there) in addition to all the other cities that we played surrounding it. So this is pretty exciting for us especially with a lineup like that — we are excited to be on the bill.

You’ve attained commercial success in the United States and across the globe. Are you having any fun yet?

Yeah. Everything so far. When you reflect, it has been fun and if it hasn’t been fun it’s been interesting and I think that’s been the greatest part about it. We got lucky. A lot of this is luck when you get a song that hits and strikes, it’s a combination of a few things, a few good elements — that maybe you put some effort and work into and craft into, but a huge portion of it is just luck that it happened to be in the atmosphere that it just clicked with people. So it threw us into a world and a life that we are really, really enjoying.

    Opener: Mother Mother
    When: 8 p.m. Thursday, May 18
    Where: Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room
    Tickets: $18.35

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.


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