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Three Likembes and a Wooden Microphone

With a few thumb pianos, junkyard percussion, and a homemade PA, the Congolese band Konono No. 1 is gaining a worldwide rep.

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For better or worse, most of what's sold to the West as world music is chosen by the white man. A lot of excellent albums get through that filter, both from traditional artists and acts that freely incorporate new technology and nonnative influences, though the filter itself has prompted an ongoing debate about authenticity. People on one side argue that the omnipresent West destroys ancient traditions, while others point out that nobody lives in a vacuum and that it's natural for music to mutate. It's an old and thoroughly exhausted squabble, though, and it neglects a knottier corollary: what shows up in world music bins here doesn't reflect what's actually playing on the streets of non-Western countries.

Take, for example, the superb music released under the Buena Vista Social Club banner. By and large, it's not what most Cubans listen to--homegrown hip-hop and timba, a slick dance music, are the preferred forms of pop on the island. Two great African acts that have performed here, the Senegalese group Orchestra Baobab and the Congolese rumba group Kekele, are considered old-fashioned back home; kids in Africa are more interested in the locally produced hip-hop that's exploded there and the more polished Congolese rumba produced by singer Koffi Olomide. It's virtually impossible to find music on African labels in the U.S. outside of small African video stores and groceries.

Non-Western music that both immediately appeals to Western ears and accurately reflects what overseas listeners are passionate about is hard to come by. You get both in the Congolese band Konono No. 1. The members of the group have played off and on together in the impoverished suburbs of Kinshasa since the late 70s, and while they're not superstars there, they command a fervent and loyal following. Their roots are in matanga, a kind of funeral music played by the Zombo, a tribe living along the Western-drawn border of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Matanga is as "authentic" as anything an ethnomusicologist could hope for, but the group--whose full name is Orchestre Tout Puissant Likembe Konono No. 1--long ago tweaked the sound with jerry-rigged amplification to produce something rhythmically mesmerizing and entirely its own.

Until recently, their music has been almost entirely unavailable in the West. One 27-minute track, recorded in 1978, appeared on Zaire: musiques urbaines a Kinshasa, released in 1985 on the excellent French ethnographic label Ocora and now out of print. But European labels have released two CDs showcasing their energizing mixture of primitive and modern: Congotronics, on the Belgian label Crammed Discs, and Lubuaku, a live set on Terp, a Dutch label run by Terrie, a guitarist for the Ex. (Turn, the Ex's most recent album, includes a track called "Theme From Konono," which is based on a Konono No. 1 riff.) The hip British label Fat Cat will release a split 12-inch single with Konono No. 1 and New Zealand noise rockers the Dead C in the U.S. next month, and in May the group will open for Tortoise on a short European tour.

The person responsible for the introduction of Konono No. 1 to the West is Belgian producer Vincent Kenis. In a letter published on the music blog The Suburbs Are Killing Us, he explains that he first heard them in 1979 on Radio France. Ten years later he went to Kinshasa to track them down, without success, and on another trip in 1996 he was told they'd scattered across Congo and Angola. But a few years after that the president of their fan club told him they were back together, and in 2002 he recorded Congotronics live, outdoors in Kinshasa, on a laptop.

The primary element in Konono No. 1's sound is the likembe, a thumb piano similar to the mbira. They use three likembes, each with a different range: Mawangu Mingiedi plays lead, Mawangu Makuntima plays rhythm, and Dodika Kungu plays bass. The last instrument, when fed through a beat-up distortion pedal, sounds like the bass timbre of a Jamaican sound system melted down into the liquid low end of techno. Kenis brought an amp with him, and Mingiedi wanted to use it to get a "clean sound," but that was the last thing Kenis wanted. He writes, "I feared a tragic cultural misunderstanding. I accepted his choice though obviously I'd rather have him use the equipment he was familiar with. We recorded one song but the music wasn't really happening. Before the second take, I surreptitiously inserted a guitar distortion pedal on Mingiedi's likembe. When he started playing I saw a big smile on his face . . . and from then on the music took off."

Distortion is crucial to the group's sound: as the poorly translated liner notes of the Ocora release explained, "the main concern of the band being to blast out the sound as loud as possible." And harmonic buzz is an integral element of music played on instruments like the likembe. In Zimbabwe mbiras are usually outfitted with bottle caps to create rattles, and traditional likembes have various objects attached to their resonators; using electronics to distort them heightens the effect. The sound has a precedent: in the 50s the electric guitar was the key instrument in Congolese urban dance music, and likembe player Antoine Mundanda produced guitarlike riffs.

The relentless beats behind the likembes are played on a mix of African hand percussion and makeshift drums, including a hi-hat composed of a broken cymbal and an old hubcap. The chanted call-and-response vocals are also distorted; the group uses a homemade wooden microphone that incorporates magnets taken from old car parts. The music is then blasted through old conical speakers that the group calls "lance-voix"--voice throwers. Instruments drop in and out of the songs, but the deep, killer grooves churn on. It's party music with the rise-and-fall of club tracks and the DIY appeal of punk rock.

Kenis is planning to release more music of this ilk: a compilation of more Kinshasa bands, Buzz and Rumble From the Urban Jungle, is slated for later this spring. Konono No. 1 will play shows in Brazil before its European dates with Tortoise, and I can't help worrying that travel will taint its distinctiveness--better gear could modernize the group's sound to its detriment. But it's retained the same sound for more than 25 years, so there's probably nothing to fear. Now if we could only hear what's happening on the streets of Addis Ababa.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Vincent Kenis.

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