Konono No.1, Live In Tokyo EP

Michael Azerrad

By Michael Azerrad

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

As the CIA's web page about the Democratic Republic of the Congo notes, the populous Central African nation is "one of Africa's biggest producers of cannabis, but mostly for domestic consumption." So basically, what they're saying is, the Congolese are a nation of stoners. Which might explain why, despite the lack of wah-wah or echo on the recordings of the Congo's astonishing Konono No. 1, this is some of the more psychoactive music you're likely to hear.

In a nation of stoners, these Congolese trancemasters craft some of the most psychoactive music you’re likely to hear.

Konono stacks dense layers of polyrhythmic junkyard percussion, thrumming three-note bass lines, topped with call-and-response vocals and their signature sound: highly amplified, distorted likembes (or thumb pianos) throwing out molten globs of repetitive melody, white-hot rivets of sound. It's exotic as hell, of course, and yet a lot of westerners 'ears have already been primed for it by everything from the dense electric music Miles Davis made in the '70s to Remain in Light-era Talking Heads; fans of electro house will immediately grasp the way the grooves rise, crest and subside.

But a puff on the ol 'diambi is strictly optional — Konono's polyrhythms are intoxicating all by themselves, even if the pentatonic scale compresses everything harmonically, and that is the point: this music is like a drug, a delivery system for ritual trance states, not a catchy pop bauble. Give yourself up to the ecstatic repetitions of the 12-minute "Nsimba & Nzuzi"; it's an escape hatch from frantic urban life — like the life the band endures in their teeming home base of Kinshasa, pop. 9,000,000 — a portal into our respective jungles, teeming with ancient spirits.

The band cooks on this live, three-track EP recorded in Tokyo — at 8,300 miles away, about as far from Kinshasa as you can get. "Kule Kule," the mellowest track by far on Congotronics, gets a much more percussive treatment here, with a chattering hubcap line, clip-clop conga-like drum, kinetic back-and-forth chants and the occasional salsa whistle — so Konono interprets their own stuff, revealing where the basic tune leaves off and where they begin playing to the moment.

Explicitly intended to summon ancestral spirits, Konono's electric folk music is a spiritual link to ways of life that are rapidly being lost in 21st-century urban environments. So it's hardly surprising that Konono founder Mawangu Mingiedi began playing this music at funerals. "During a funeral, we play a lot of songs that are love-related, because the departed one needs to be consoled," he said. "So to get him or her, or the family, away from sorrows, we bring love to the person." And love, my friends, is the drug.