It’s rare, but every now and then you hear music so far outside your experience that it feels like it just dropped out of the sky fully formed. In fact there are few things that can prepare you for the music of Konono No1. To Western ears it’s just so alien, a peculiar high energy throbbing buzz and whir of tribal electronic music that seems to reference everything from punk to European trance music and Krautrock, yet exist totally in a world of its own. That world is the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the band The Orchestre Tout Puissant LikembÃ© Konono NÂ°1 formed in 1966, playing parties, weddings and funerals. They weren’ heard outside the Congo until 1978 when they were recorded by French radio. One person who heard that original broadcast was a Belgian former punk turned producer, Vincent Kenis who unable to shake the memory travelled to the Congo in the late 80′ and mid 90′ chasing whispered rumours and half truths in search of the music. Eventually in 2000 he located leader Mingeidi who was working as a truck driver at the time, who reformed the band. The recordings that Kenis made at the time in his hotel room form the basis of Konono No1′ first proper recording: Congotronics.
What’s so distinctive about Konono No1 even in the Congo is their use of handmade instrumentation, pots, pans and car parts for percussion alongside likembe’ (thumb pianos) equipped with handmade microphones built from magnets scavenged from old car parts, and plugged into amplifiers and sent through megaphones. Whilst they’re playing traditional bazombo style tunes the sound has mutated through the electrification and comes across strange and distorted, weirdly enough referencing western electronic music that of course the band had never heard.
These days Mingeidi is in his early 80s and whilst still the heart and soul of the band, as the first man to electrify the likembe, he no longer feels the need to prove anything.
“He doesn’t come on tour anymore,” offers his son and bandleader Augustin Makuntima Mawangu, â€œbut at home he’s still the leader of the band, he’s the founder. He gives us advice. And he’s the one who builds new likembes.â€
It’s taken three attempts to speak with Mawangu, all three thwarted by the unpredictable power grid and telephone system in Kinshasa. In the end we elected to cut our losses and speak via email.
“There are power cuts almost every day,” offers Mawangu. “It does create problems for us. We try to rehearse in a place which has a power generator, but that doesn’t always work either. But it’s fine, we manage.”
Given their particular reliance upon amplification you’d think that these issues would be a considerable source of frustration, however it’s this practical make do attitude that characterizes Konono No1 as much as anything else. There aren’ too many arty aesthetic decisions in play here. In the main it’s about utilizing what you can, from their salvaging the material that was around them to create their instruments down to the genesis of their unusual sound.
“The unamplified likembe is a very quiet instrument,” Mawangu explains, “and the streets of Kinshasa’ are very noisy: a lot of traffic, many people etc. So, in order to play at parties, funeral wakes etc, my father looked for a way to make himself heard better. That’s how he invented this special amplification we use.”
Joining the band around the time of the Congotronics album in 2003, Mawangu is very much the leader of the touring outfit, taking over lead likembe from his father. Though these days Konono No1 is very much a family affair. Mingeidi remembers the ancient bazombo trance music from his grandparents, though currently it’s played by three generations of the family.
“We’ve known each other forever, as we’re all related,” offers Mawangu.”My son Makonda plays rhythm likembe, and the other members are all cousins of some sort: Pauline (vocals and bells), Menga (vocals & bass likembe), Visi (snare drum and hi-hat) and Mbiya (hand drums).”
Curiously though most of the band have other jobs beside music, Mawangu still works as a carpenter whilst his cousin Menga works as a baker. It’s because Konono No1 play rarely in the Congo. Initially they were ridiculed for their distorted sounds, and though international success has increased their profile and assisted them to gain acceptance, there are still many barriers to performing in the Congo.
“We still play very rarely over here, and when we play, it’s for the people from our region of origin,” explains Mawangu. “International success means that our name is known in the Congo, people are interested in us and our music. But it’s not easy to play shows here, there’s no structure, not many clubs for our kind of music.”
Mawangu was drawn to the likembe from an early age, its tuned metal strips and buzzing resonators speaking to him in a way no other instrument had. Of course it didn’ hurt that it was also the instrument of his father.
“I’ve seen him play ever since I was a child,” he reflects. “He started the band back in the Sixties, when I was a small child. I would touch his likembe when he was away, and try to play on my own. When he found out, he decided to teach me properly. I simply love the likembe, it’s my instrument and that of my father.”
When Congotronics was released in 2004 the effect was unprecedented. No one knew what hit them. Mingeidi won a BBC award for best newcomer some forty odd years after Konono No1 formed. He told the audience that they were the newcomers; he’d been playing for years. The band became a touring outfit, traveling to Amsterdam and Brussels (where the Live at Couleur CafÃ© was recorded) and subsequently around the world. Whilst the man who originally located them Vincent Kenis would mourn something akin to a loss of innocence once they were exposed to the western world, their follow up to Congotronics, 2010″s Assume Crash Position seemed to reflect a subtle change for the band, bringing in more western instrumentation such as bass and electric guitar.
“We got used to playing on stages, on bigger and bigger stages, with bigger amplification, in front of European, American, Asian (and soon Australian) audiences,” offers Mawangu. “So that did change our way of performing. It’s not quite the same to perform a show for an audience of 5,000 at a festival or to perform at a funeral wake for 100 people in Kinshasa. We adapted our way of playing to larger amplification, and have adopted some effect pedals etc. But our music remains essentially the same. The bass and guitars you’re hearing on the album were there as an experiment, an added flavour. But, so far, we haven’t used guitars or bass guitars in Konono shows. This may change one day, who knows?”
With the unexpected success of their music the opportunities began to flow, one of the strangest positions the band found themselves in was sharing the studio with Icelandic songstress and pop experimentalist Bjork for her Earth Intruders single from her 2007 Volta album. Of the experience of working with her Mawangu appears a little nonplussed.
“It was nice but short,” he offers. “She came and asked us to play all kinds of things, she recorded us, and then used some bits in her song. She was very kind, but we couldn’t communicate a lot as she doesn’t speak French (or lingala) and we don’t speak English. It was good, but not comparable to the Congotronics vs Rockers collaboration!”
He’ referring to one of the most inspired albums in recent years, an attempt to link both the sounds of Konono No1 and fellow Congo performers Kasai Allstars with the indie electronic set. It’s a remix album of sorts with Konono’ label Crammed Discs farming out their sounds to the likes of Animal Collective, Juana Molina, Burnt Friedman, and Shackleton. Tradi Mods Vs Rockers is a double CD set and there is not a single step wrong across the whole album. Eye from Japanese art punks the Boredoms take on Konono Wa Wa Wa is possibly one of the greatest pairings in musical history, where he transforms the likembe into squelchy 303 bass line.
“Tradi-Mods vs Rockers was our record label’s initiative,” Mawangu explains. “Our music was praised by so many European, American and Japanese rock and electronic musicians that they thought it would be good to ask some of these to do tracks inspired by our music. We didn’t take part in the choice, as we don’t know those scenes, we trusted Crammed Discs’ choice. I didn’t necessarily like or understand all the mixes, but was delighted when this album turned into a live project, and we wrote music, rehearsed and toured with Deerhoof, Juana Molina, Skeletons, Wildbirds & Peacedrums, Vincent Kenis, and Kasai Allstars (they’re also Congolese, we’ve known them for awhile, but had never played with them because their music is completely different from ours). This was an exceptional experience: 20 musicians together on stage… we all learned a lot, we toured in 10 countries, spent almost three months together. Very exciting and very successful. We hope that the project will continue.”
Ultimately though Konono No1 are a live band, their trance inducing performances are near legendary for their noise, relentless groove and strange time signatures. Whilst at home they would commonly play for hours upon end, they have become increasingly adept at synthesizing their music down into more western friendly set sizes.
“This is our music, it comes from our tradition,” offers Mawangu proudly. “This is what we play, and we’re happy to share it with audiences around the world. Expect something powerful, loud and fun!”
Bob Baker Fish