he first volume of this series, solely devoted to the group Konono No1, found a much bigger audience than anyone could have expected. Since its release late last year, Konono have toured the US and been nominated for a best newcomer award in the BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music. Not bad for a band that’s been going for 25 years. It will be interesting to see if the second volume of Congotronics, this time a six group compilation, keeps up the momentum. It deserves to, as it’s even better than the first.
It was easy to hear why Konono No1 crossed over to an audience that wouldn’t normally listen to African music. The homejob pickups and amplification used on the group’s likembe (thumb pianos) and vocals created an overdriven, distorted sound that emphasised the same overtones as rock music whilst drowning out a lot of the signifiers that make some associate African music with right-on coffee shops and dull dinner parties. The Konono sound could be linked, almost embarrassingly easily, to a whole load of Western music, from the music box melodies of the Aphex Twin, to the slow harmonic changes of systems and minimal music, to the forward drive of Can and Neu!, or even to the faux-tribal unity of latterday Boredoms. Sometimes it even sounds like Mike Oldfield but let’s stop there, eh. From a certain viewpoint Konono music seems like the living embodiment of the “vision of a psychedelic Africa” that Bush of Ghosts era Eno prophesized.
Congotronics 2 sticks closely to the sonics of the first volume, possibly because the bands do actually sound similar, or possibly because the bands have been recorded in similar fashion—outdoors and straight to the hard-disc of a Powerbook G4. As with Konono, there’s plenty of turbulent likembe arpeggios, twisting like ornate iron railings covered in rust and peeling paint or gnarled moss covered tree branches, but there’s also the Kasai Allstars collective dropping down to two hypnotically looped notes with sparkling percussion underneath or, on another of their three songs, mixing melodic percussion with prominent undistorted vocals that flow by without the expected density. And there’s Bolia We Ndenge’s “Bosamba Ndeke” with its joyous, fractured spirals of shuffling, staccato percussion and accordion. Basokin even remove thumb pianos from the equation entirely, instead featuring three singers, three percussionists and two guitarists, who entwine single note static blasts with fuzzy but single-minded cat’s cradle plucking. At the end of it all, of course, is Konono No1 bringing more noise and heft than most of the bands featured and, in a way, making us realise the diversity of what we have heard.
Also included is a DVD with live footage of the bands. This includes the footage that, downloaded from the internet, served to introduce many to Konono. Watching it as it came from the video camera, rather than as a motion-blurred compressed Quicktime file, is a slightly spooky experience. The video footage on offer brings home the differences in the line-ups and technology levels of the bands, and just as importantly the differences in manner of presentation, dress and movement. It also serves to remind that behind all the cheap amps and distortion this isn’t some Congo equivalent of, say, Black Dice but social music, music to dance to instead of what it is to me, thousands of miles away—head(phone) music. That’s to say, there’s some ass-shaking in these vids that’s as fun, joyful and life affirming as the music itself.