Konono No. 1: “Bazombo Trance” Stars Reflect Congolese Roots

Konono No. 1: “Mama Na Bana”
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Vincent Kenis is attempting to light his cigarette with a lamp. His voice is marbled with a thick accent and long pauses as he constructs words to describe his field recordings in Africa. A Belgian musician/producer now well known for his knowledge of Congolese music, he is relaying the story of Konono No. 1, a group from Kinshasa that had all but disappeared until the sudden exposure of Congotronics 1 (Crammed Discs) in 2005 brought global recognition.

“He came to Kinshasa when he was very young,” Kenis says of Konono’s founder, Mawangu Mingiedi, who started the band in the 1970s. “I think he came when his father died. He was born in the village, and his father was…the leader of the king’s orchestra. You know they had local kings in the Congo region. He learned the likembe (a Central African instrument also known as a thumb piano) from his father, and carrying the likembe into town was maybe for him a way to continue to evoke the sounds he heard when he was a kid. It’s like a portable village.”

Mingiedi’s history is tangled up in the history of his country: nebulous kingdoms upended by Belgian colonization, remade into arbitrary regions like incongruous patches on a quilt; a nationalist movement for independence and then the brutality of dictators like Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, who, as the Western and Eastern Blocs played tug-of-war for the globe, renamed the country the Republic of Zaire; and emergence from bloody conflict as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Our music is the heritage that was passed on to us by our parents,” the group says in an E-mail exchange, while en route to the UK, through its translator Aharon Matondo. “Because of the total lack of means, we had to look for elements in garbage dumps — for instance, car alternators, from which we took wires to construct microphones and amplify the likembes. And the cymbals were made from old kitchen pot lids. After we started touring in Europe and America, we improved the amplification, but we always kept those original elements. It became part of our music.”

Its eclectic array of instruments, heard again this summer with Assume Crash Position, centers on the likembe, a small wooden box with metal tines that are plucked with the musician’s thumbs in order to mimic the region’s traditional horn polyphony.

Konono uses several in its lineup — each one handmade by Mingiedi — that weave back and forth across each other like ripples from divergent waves, helping transition call-and-response choruses into electronic jams and filling out the band’s style of Bazombo trance music that garnered it a spot on Bjork’s Volta and Herbie Hancock’s recent The Imagine Project. (Also known as Zombo, the Bazombo are an ethnic group with roots near the Angola border.)

Konono’s odd blend of instrumentation was not borne out of the vacuum of novelization, but rather its physical context. In 1971, Mobutu launched his Authenticity Program — a mandated, nationwide purge of European culture. The impact on local music was enormous. Radio stations only played Congolese music, and bands of relative obscurity were suddenly seen as spokespeople at the very least, saviors at most.

“Mobutu…realized the political strength of the music in Congo,” Kenis says. “Independence is considered by Congolese as a victory brought to them by musicians, as well as politicians.”

The government could only corral musical experience so long. Traditional groups like Konono fell out of favor after only five years, paralleling the prosperity of the nation. The band’s music was again confined to the local public.

It was during this time that Kenis, who was first drawn to Congolese music as a kid — a result of the dense diaspora around Brussels — heard Konono’s music. He made a cassette of it, and while on tour in the late 1970s, this music that was “so radically different than the rumba and the soukous” became like a muse for him.

He had traveled to Congo in ’71, just as the Authenticity Program was beginning, and returned in 1989 and 1996, making recordings of groups like Kasai Allstars and a number of others. Twenty years passed and he had still not found Konono, which remained shrouded by rumors; some reported that Mingiedi had died.

Kenis finally discovered a pocket of Bazombo in Kinshasa. He found the members scattered, eking out livings; Mingiedi was driving a taxi. They met and talked, and two years later, Kenis returned once more to Kinshasa to record the group — a haphazard process that eventually became Congotronics 1.

Even as it gained global acclaim, Konono’s repetitive, almost toy-ish electronic sound was not instantly accessible to the broader audience, especially with track lengths that range between 2 and 12 minutes. When audiences hear Konono, there often is a lull, a lag before they appreciate it.

“After 10 minutes, there’s a kind of uneasiness,” Kenis says. “And then the uneasiness usually goes after 20 minutes, because they catch the thing, the swing. The Konono music…cannot be divided by two infinitum. It’s not in 4/4—it’s like 5/4 or 3/4. It’s very specific. You have to come to terms with the sound — which is evolving constantly and minimalistically over time, but basically staying the same — and [you have to] realize that the shifts in that sameness is the whole game. As soon as people get into it with their bodies — without knowing it, just intuitively — they get it.”

The music of Africa is like this — foreign but deeply understood, with primal roots that unearth hesitation. And yet there is a sense of lacking. Musically, it is rich — both soothing and invigorating, like the view from the continental divide. But there’s a disconnect, a rift between what a Westerner will hear and what the band’s Bakongo brothers and sisters will hear.

“We like playing in the Congo and abroad,” the group says, “[but] in the Congo, what prevails in our concerts is the festive atmosphere, a feeling of joy, and a feeling of coming together with our people and our tradition. These are moments when the spirits of the ancestors are working a lot, and we can feel that. In the rest of the world, it’s [just] the joy and the festive atmosphere.”

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