February 2, 2006

Out of Africa

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Oh, how boring indie rock can be! All of those vintage jackets and unwashed manes and Smiths referencing and Pixies posturing and monosyllabic band names ending in “s” can get a little redundant. How much further can this really go? Do you really think that you can access the profounder depths of humanity through handclaps and cowbells and yelling “Yeah!” with a twee inflection? While everyone spent 2005 attending block parties with parading wolves and folk singers who actually have the balls to name themselves “Panda Bear” without a shred of irony, the best release of the year crawled conspicuously and silently ashore.

If you’ve never heard of Konono No. 1, then that would not really be surprising. After all, street bands from Kinshasa, Zaire don’t exactly make the cover of NME or Spin. But for a band with a paucity of resources that relies on magnets from used cars and wooden microphones for amplification, Konono No. 1 manages to produce the most furious, resonant, propulsive and essential album in a long time. For those who are looking for something that approaches with ferocious energy what it means to be alive, Congotronics might be a good place to start.

Imagine if Aphex Twin got down with Fela Kuti and you might begin to gather an impression of the immense and hypnotic sound that pours from every corner of Congotronics. But that comparison hardly does anything to give an accurate picture of the kind of sound that this group has fashioned – this truly is music so unique and remarkable that it has to be experienced to be understood.

Formed over 25 years ago, the group employs musicians, singers and dancers as part of their act. As much indebted to indigenous tribal music as it to ragga and experimental punk a la The Boredoms, Konono’s sound is a dense and highly percussive collage of bongos, snare drums, whistles and the group’s signature instrument, the likembe, or thumb piano. Due to their homemade amplifiers, Konono’s music predictably came out heavily distorted, an unintended effect that they eventually embraced. Congotronics (the first in an intended series of compendiums of urban Zaire artists) represents a compilation of six studio-recorded songs and one live performance.

What’s remarkable is that, despite the studio pedigree, the album does not compromise the raw, gritty edge essential to the music. All of the distortion that has become intractable from the music’s aesthetic effect is retained.

This is trance music par excellance, and if the sheer force of it does not subsume you the relentless rhythm surely will. What at first appears to be a chaotic mashing of elements reveals itself to be highly calculated and practiced movements in time, and by building itself into such deep rhythmic structures, the music lends itself numerous dimensions of feeling, whether they be celebratory, rebellious or spiritual. The band members consistently play off the energy of their counterparts, enveloping themselves in orgiastic crescendos only to tear them down and begin again. This is music that is essentially and undeniably human, dripping in the sweat and saliva of corporeal toil, and comes closer to approximating the energy of moving, breathing bodies than any Thom Yorke lyric ever will.

Archived article by Zach Jones
Sun Associate Editor