Kasai Allstars are the strangest band. That’s it. Full stop. For western ears they perfectly fulfil the quota of exoticism, hailing from the Democratic Republic of Congo, with strange self made instrumentation. But I’d hazard a guess that even within the DRC they’d be looked on peculiarly. This is because they’re a collective, fifteen musicians coming from five different bands, and five different ethnic groups. Five different sets of influences. It’s also because though they bring elements of traditional Congolese music, which isn’ all that popular particularly in the city centres these days, and then they further alienate themselves with the presence of the electrified likembe’ (like their label mates Konono No1) that send things in a whole new and quite different direction.
In their hands music has been dragged out onto the ledge, shaken up, and then put back together in a totally different manner, with a logic far outside our understanding, so you can barely tell if it’s genius or random rhythms that just happen to be colliding in the same place at the same time. And this confusion is exciting. We’re looking for coalescence and sometimes we get it, but that’s not where Kasai Allstars power lies. Their power comes from falling into the music and letting go of any notions of the way the music should or shouldn’ be constructed or how music should or shouldn’ behave.
It rattles, hums, buzzes and scrapes along, often accompanied by a sole electric guitar and multiple part vocals from multiple parties. There’ the plonk of the wooden balafon xylophones and the ever-present alien buzz of their buzz drums and electric likembe thumb piano. They’ve even got a giant bass likembe. The elements weave in and out of each other, often building into a disjointedly funky cacophonic throb.
Song titles are often a mouthful, like As They Walked Into The Forest On A Sunday They Encountered Apes Dressed As Humans, a plea to stay home on Sundays less you encounter the spirits in human form. It’s much more stripped down than the rest of the album, removing the guitar but retaining some of the more primal traditional percussive elements, and of course the steady buzz of the electrified likembe. It’s powerful, trance inducing though very very strange.
The remainder of this music is chaotic, elements are flying everywhere, representative of Kinshasa, the urban centre of the Congo where the collective dwell, where diesel generators power everything, the streets are loud and you need to raise your volume to be heard above the din. Yet this is also its charm. It’s not subtle, but in time the ramshackle cacophony really does really begin to make sense in itself.
The final piece is taken from their live European tour where as an adjunct to the incredible 2010 remix album Tradi-Mods Vs Rockers, they toured with Juana Molina, Deerhoof, Matt Mehlan, Wildbirds & Peacedrums and members of fellow Congo likembe electricians Konono No1.The piece which apparently features all of the above is possibly the most chaotic here, though held together with a repetitive riff over which the likembe’ solo mercilessly. It’s nothing short of ecstatic chaotic transcendence.
This is the collective’ second album, a double cd set with over 100 minutes of genuinely peculiar sounds, all underpinned with a deep throbbing groove. It was recorded and mixed by Vincent Kenis (Konono No1/Staff Benda Bilili), who manages to really capture the spirit and energy of the band, as well as their many unique textures and timbres. It’s eclectic music with influences coming from everywhere but coalescing into a beautiful ramshackle hybrid that couldn’ have come from anyone or anywhere else.