Konono No.1 Congotronics

[Crammed Disc; 2005]

Styles: dance music, African rhythm, post-apocalyptic tribal freak-out
Others: Fela Kuti, Ethiopiques, Luaka Bop

Good lord do I hate the term "world music." Like the much-maligned "indie rock," the label is so vague as to be insulting, bringing to mind exactly the kind of intellectual laziness that gives so much music journalism a bad name. So, how then to discuss Konono No.1, the group of African thumb piano players first picked up by avant-punk band The Ex, and then feted by a bunch of audio nerds infatuated with their (admittedly) incredible sound? Probably we should start with the fact of their homemade amplifiers, part audio ingenuity and part used car stereo electric fuzz magic. Then I could casually mention the fact that their microphones are actually carved from wood and that there are twelve members, three singers, three dancers, and a wall of amplified sound to back them up. But that would be the most boring part of the story, actually. The real news here is the music, which somehow manages to sound like six or seven James Browns going crazy at the same time while standing in front of a background of shambling drums, heavy distortion, and marching band whistles.

Densely polyrhythmic, Congotronics expertly weaves its infectious and complex music from the groundwork of the repeating likembe thumb pianos, whose rattling and insistent tones sound throughout the album. The result is a meter and rhythm that resembles nothing so much as the distinctive repeating elements of electronic dance music. My advice is to jump right in: listened to in its entirety, Congotronics emerges as a complex organic whole whose superficial similarities slowly give way to a densely layered slow-burn groove that just keeps getting better. The songs pack plenty of surprises: "Paradiso" begins by sounding like a cast away Guided By Voices number only to move into a shifting wall of drum sound, while "Mama Liza" walks through ten minutes of fleeting whistles, scraped drums, and call and response. Wisely, production has been left minimal; the entire album has the raw feel of a live document or field recording produced on the spot.

It's been pointed out before, but the various discoveries of the "world music" industry continue to be fueled by a white middle class's desperate need to authenticate itself through the idealization of the countries it's screwed over in the past. Divided into neat labels and sections, the extraordinary variety and complexity of foreign music can be easily reduced to a flavor of the month, or worse, a form of one-upmanship in which musical novelty becomes all-important. Could you really compare Tuvan throat singing with Fela Kuti? Would you want to? The line between the introduction and presentation of new sounds and the pimping of them is a mighty fine one. When compared to its sterilized and overproduced doppelgangers, Konono No. 1's mixture of resourceful DIY and respect for tradition becomes positively punk rock. I simply cannot imagine what it would be like to see these guys live, but follow up that New Order at your next dance party with some Congotronics and people will be bouncing off the walls.

1. Lufuala Ndonga
2. Masikulu
3. Kule Kule
4. Ungudi Wele Wele
5. Paradiso
6. Kule Kule Reprise
7. Mama Liza

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