Airwaves 2017

Airwaves Sunday: President Bongo – The Groove Never Ends

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Photos by President Bongo
Airwaves Sunday: President Bongo – The Groove Never Ends

When I got to Kex Hostel last night, I had little idea what to expect. By that I mean I’m aware President Bongo creates what kids these days are calling “EDM,” but to look at the band area, you’d have a difficult time guessing what kind of music was about to be played. Ancient drum machines, miscellaneous percussion, guitar and bass, an organ, and an open laptop hooked up with all kinds of unidentifiable gadgets — this looked more like a forgotten corner of some mad producer’s home studio than a live music set-up.

Soon musicians began to file into the area. At once I noticed Sigtryggur Baldursson, well known to people outside of Iceland as the drummer for the Sugarcubes, but who has been continuously doing percussion work in new and innovative ways for decades. Having Sigtryggur in your band pretty much guarantees the beat is going to be damn solid, yet free enough to give plenty of room for the music to move.

The song for the night was Serengeti, a sort of EDM magnus opus that utilises beats both electronic and manual to create something altogether different that resists attempts to be pigeonholed.

President Bongo is no amateur. He’s surgically skilled at being able to bring the mood up gradually – not too fast to be jarring, and not too slow to be boring. And the other members of the band – whether working eerie effects from an old electric guitar, slapping away on various and sundry percussion, or tweaking knobs on a beat-up keyboard – acted in harmony, more like members of a symphony orchestra than just another electronic band.

I was a little suspicious when Samúel Jón Samúelsson showed up with half a dozen horn players in tow. I am not a huge fan of brass, and I thought the inclusion of trumpets and trombones to this ethereal mix was going to sound forced and shoehorned in. Fortunately, though, the arrangement of the horns was more Tom Waits than Glenn Miller – moody, minimalist and understated. Samúel and President Bongo coordinated this participation seamlessly, as brief as it was.

As President Bongo brought the mood back up, in steps of elevation like climbing a Himalayan mountain that reveals a more spectacular view with every pull of the rope, the crowd was pressed as close as the performance partition would allow. A great many people were dancing without any self-consciousness, as if they weren’t being pressed in all sides by hostel guests and festivalgoers alike. The execution was flawless, and the mood elevated so slowly it was almost unbearable. You wanted to be taken higher, faster, but President Bongo was in charge, and he was going to take us there at his own pace.

Over half an hour later, the song arrived at the peak, planted its flag, and the crowd was in a frenzy with gratitude. It was hard to believe we had only listened to a single song, considering some 40 minutes had passed. Still, no one was satisfied, and we demanded more. Which the band delivered in an encore that was more low-key and simple, but nonetheless grooved like a sonuvabitch.

Hours later, in bed and trying to sleep, the beat of Serengeti was still haunting me. This was by far the best EDM performance I’ve seen in recent memory. And I can hardly think of a better way to ring out the end of Iceland Airwaves 2015.

Posted November 9, 2015