Once in a while an album comes along which is so insanely wonderful thatjazz or notit needs to be brought to the attention of this community. Such an album is Congotronics by Kinshasa trance band Konono No.1.
Unless you live in Kinshasa, or were at Amsterdam's Paradiso club last year for the recording of track five, you are unlikely to have heard anything remotely like this throbbing slab of mutant roots meet lo-tech/hi-decibel electronica heaven ever before in your life. And trust me, if you've got open ears, you probably will want to get it in your life.
Konono No.1 was founded 25 years ago by Mawangu Mingiedi, a virtuoso of the likembe (aka sanza or thumb piano), who had recently arrived in Kinshasa from the Bazombo area on the Congolese/Angolan border, and who wanted to keep Bazombo trance music alivefor his tribal ancestors, for himself, and for the many thousands of other Bazombo emigrants who were arriving in the metropolis. The dirt poor suburbs of Kinshasa have been the band's patch ever since, the forum for block parties which rock and pound through the night, and they have led to some unique mutations in the music which, by accident, connect it with the aesthetics of Western avant-rock and electronic dance music....
Finding it necessary to amplify his likembes in order to make them heard over the noise of the city streets, but lacking any cash with which to buy imported equipment, Mingiedi was obliged to improvise: he built pickups from magnets salvaged from old car parts and plugged them into banks of homemade amplifiers powered by car batteries (mains electricity not being available in Kinshasa's suburbs); augmented traditional percussion with found scrap metal constructions; andlacking microphoneshad his vocalists shout their lyrics through reclaimed colonial-era megaphones known as "lance-voix" or voice-throwers.
The makeshift electronics worked, in the sense that they made the music audible in the noisiest street environment (and then some), but they also produced a host of sonic distortions. Finding he couldn't eliminate the distortions, Mingiediin a stroke of geniusrolled with the punch and began proactively to incorporate them into the band's sound, where they remain a feature today.
They don't call this trance music for nothing. Played loud, like it's meant to be, it will take you to another sphere. Heavily amplified bass, tenor, and treble likembes throb and weave in and out of each other; traditional and found drums and percussion deliver irresistible visceral grooves; and the amplification's sonic distortions frequently give the music the character of cutting edge Western electronica. This is dance/trance music you can with equal pleasure move to or sit down and get caned by. Truly fantastic stuff, in a Mad Max/The Matrix Reloaded futuristic stylee.
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Chris May is a senior editor of All About Jazz and editor of the style magazine Jocks & Nerds; he was previously the editor of Black Music & Jazz Review magazine; he is Afrobeat consultant for Partisan Records and Google Arts & Culture.