Konono No.1, Congotronics

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

"The street has its own uses for technology," Neuromancer author William Gibson famously declared. And Konono No. 1's electrified likembé "thumb pianos" — bass, tenor and soprano — would fit comfortably alongside Gibson's fictitious Rastafarian rocketeers and database-residing voodoo deities. Formed in the late '70s by an electrician called simply Mingiedi, Konono take the traditional music of the Bazombe, a tribe living on the Angola-Congo border, combine it with modern Congolese dance music and give it an afro-punk twist. The group's sound is amplified well past the point of distortion with microphones fashioned from magnets found in abandoned cars. and the likembé are accompanied by percussion consisting of cooking pots, tin cans and more car parts. The resulting music resembles a cross between a New Orleans marching band, a village wedding combo and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Our dream band: Jimi Hendrix meets Talking Heads in the heart of the Congo.

With its abrasive yet strangely compelling sound (which first appeared on a 1985 anthology of urban Zairean music), Konono No. 1 aren't necessarily trying to win friends outside their community. Their homemade PA system, designed to elevate the band above their neighborhood street sounds, is loud and distorted enough to wake the ancestors. The closest the group comes to a hook is the subtle likembé figure at the beginning of "Paradiso," the album's strongest track, above a thumping, quasi-disco beat. Congotronics demands surrender, and the longer cuts give you plenty of time to ramble around the group's thick, buzzing polyrhythms, untranslated chants and unexpected changes. The group displays a mellower side in "Kule Kule," which of course makes everything else sound all the more wild, incessant and wonderfully unlikely.