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On September 11 Crammed Discs is releasing Live at Couleur Café by the Congolese band Konono No. 1, a burning concert recorded in Brussels. It follows on the heels of the digital-only Live in Tokyo EP—in fact, the artwork for both releases is practically identical. The band is in good form, its deeply hypnotic likembe patterns sounding cleaner than on the group’s celebrated Congotronics album, where the thumb piano licks were crusted with nasty distortion. The fierce rhythms and chanted vocals present nothing new, but remain highly effective. If there’s been any kind of complaint about the group’s music it’s that their songs all sound the same, and there’s certainly a kernel of truth to that; each piece begins with a practically identical intro figure, and while there is clearly some improvisation happening in the lead likembe, the circling riffs don’t vary much from tune to tune. Konono are not sophisticated artists; rocking the party is their only real concern, which suggests than unless they severely tweak their formula, additional recordings aren’t going to heighten their appeal. They’re a live act, plain and simple.
When I first listened to Introducing Kenge Kenge, the recent debut by Kenya's Kenge Kenge, I cynically assumed that non-Congolese Africans were already biting Konono’s sound—there have long been other groups in and around Kinshasa that use the same general approach (and as Congotronics 2 proved, there still are). Although Kenge Kenge don’t use likembes, their style on the one-string fiddle called the orutu is similarly minimal. But closer listening reveals that Introducing is a different can of worms entirely. The band plays the dominant form of Kenyan dance music called benga—a guitar-driven sound derived partly from Congolese rumba and partly from traditional Luo music. It was popularized by D.O. Misiani and heard more recently on these shores in Extra Golden, the transcontinental group featuring members of D.C. indie rockers Golden. The twist here is that Kenge Kenge eschews most modern instrumentation and uses ancient axes like orutu, the asili (flute), oporo (horn), and nyangile (gong). The presence of bass is the sole concession to modernity.
Although benga uses melody and harmony and features loads of exquisite guitar solos, it’s another form aimed primarily at the dance floor. That's partly why it’s never really taken off in the West: it lacks the folkloric element Europeans and Americans go for. The hypnotic grooves banged out by Kenge Kenge’s five percussionists certainly recall Konono’s trance-inducing beats, but despite the limitations of a single-stringed fiddle, the licks here run circles around the Congolese group in terms of melody, as do the call-and-response vocals. Kenge Kenge emerged from the state-sponsored Catering Levy Trust Choir in the mid-90s, breaking away from religious and patriotic songs in favor of original material with the benga groove. It's sort of analogous to the way VHS or Beta once played French house music on old-fashioned instruments like guitar and drums—except Kenge Kenge don’t suck.
Bobby Hutcherson, The Kicker (Blue Note)
Geraldo Vandre, Canto Geral (Odeon)
Aki Onda, Ancient & Modern (Phonomena)
El Camaron de Isla, Con La Colaboracion Especial de Paco De Lucia (Mercury, Spain)
Joseph Suchy, Calabi Yau (Staubgold)