Music » Music Lead

Under Their Thumb

Konono No. 1 tickles indie rockers and rides the world-music wave.

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Konono No. 1 likes to shake the house and show us what they're working with.
  • Konono No. 1 likes to shake the house and show us what they're working with.

Skirted dancers pivot and lunge in unison as hard-wired sounds ricochet from a large ensemble of musicians clad in nylon jackets and shirts splashed with primary colors. The club's sound system groans under the strain.

Konono No. 1 is led by a squat, dark-skinned man clad in a shocking-pink shirt and black suspenders. He holds a wooden box from which he appears to be sparking a fire, producing squelching waves of fuzz. Since the group's introduction to the West, leader Mawangu Mingiedi's appearance and their unusual sound have been been a revelation for the dancing throngs at their shows.

Now past 70, "Papa" Mingiedi, as friends call him, is considered a master of his instrument. His wide notoriety came only after outsiders recognized how his band was fusing its pulsing rhythms with an overloaded electric system, causing the sound to seep into every surface like a Blue Cheer song shot through Marshall stacks. Here was African music at rock volume, with a quivering undercurrent of analog electronics. The raw sound vibrates like a passing train engine, with percussion led by twanging thumb pianos, simple drum patterns, and singers chanting and blowing whistles.

The group's much-noted crude equipment -- inlcuding the likembe thumb pianos powered by car batteries, scrap-metal percussion sections, and a megaphone PA system -- distinguishes it from the slicker pop rumba and Congolese soukous styles. Other strains of African music sashay through in celebratory bursts of drum work and nimble beats. Konono's gradually blossoming undulations offer a progressive if subtle effect, building through repetition like the best dance music. Yet hardly anyone outside the Kinshasa Republic of Congo and African music enthusiasts had heard it until a few years ago.

Konono No. 1 (it's one not for superiority, but because Mingiedi's son formed a second band) can't yet be called influential, though it has been around for 30 years. The buzz started through name-dropping by other musicians and critics -- references to Kraftwerk and Konono's DIY approach, à la "African punk music." However, Konono assembled its homemade sound system not from punk pretense but to compete with the city's industrial sounds. It has never been influenced by other groups, and overuse of such comparisons could make it appear to be a mish-mash of African electro Kraut-rock punk, which it's not.

African-music historian Vincent Luttman is responsible for many reissues of Congolese music and cohosts "Nostalgie ya Mboka," the British Resonance radio show on Congolese musicians. Of the members of Konono, he says, "They are unique within the world-music bracket, as they [also] cross over to a non-world-music audience . . . an electronica-scene kind of audience. [This scene] can enjoy the intensity of Konono."

Luttman championed the band and brought it to London for a show last year. As Western audiences flocked to Konono, he says, the local Congolese population in Great Britain was left out of the loop. "Even the Konono CD is not available in Congolese shops here. Virgin and Sterns? Yes. The small African supermarket where most Africans buy their CDs? No! Sad, but true."

Konono's free-spirited style led the Ex -- a group of Dutch anarchist punks who regularly embrace indigenous music -- to play with it in Kinshasa, releasing a live recording and taking the group on the road. Video footage of a Konono show also circulated on the website of Belgian label Crammed Discs. Freshly minted fans salivated in anticipation of Congotronics, the group's proper debut, which was finally released last year; it was followed earlier this year by a second volume devoted to Konono's Congolese contemporaries.

It is no small accident that enthusiasm for African music has blossomed among young Western audiences. The deluge of reissues by Afrobeat figures like Fela Kuti, as well as Baile funk rhythms and the further embrace of dancehall in hip-hop, has given rise to legions of new world-music fans. Led by a group of funk obsessives in New York known as the Daptone collective, tribute bands formed, producing earnest stabs at the genre by such acts as the Daktaris, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, and the Budos Band. Field recordings by Sun City Girls member Alan Bishop and friends flooded the market with their Sublime Frequencies label. Billed as the underbelly of cultures that National Geographic wouldn't touch, they are a running success. Konono's frequent appearance on the net, at sites ranging from blogs to the indie-barometer Pitchfork, didn't hurt either.

The do-it-themselves crowd in the States (specifically those fresh faces dotting what's referred to as "new weird America") bends circuits and lines up effects pedals or mics as though they were secret devices allowing anyone to turn a band into a conceptual-art piece. More often than not, these efforts are unfocused and forced, failing to push out from a puddle of gauzy broken guitar fuzz and wet noodle beats.

Do these developments mean that homemade likembes and wooden microphones might appear in the hands of young American bands next year? Konono's strange success could prompt some fledgling musicians to bite from its sound. Where Afrobeat appealed to the James Brown-worship of American funk freaks, Luttman correctly nails the appeal as being part of the roots of African trance music, which cuts across genres like psychedelic music and minimalism.

But if we put down the trucker hats and blog-think for a moment, it's easy to see that Konono really draws on a basic tenet of independent music: autonomy and wild creativity. Its story of self-creation -- stringing together some wires until the instruments were more distressed and louder -- is as astounding in its context as Keith Richards striking a first note of feedback or the Ex squatting in industrial spaces. Konono too lives to push boundaries.

Konono works with what it has, keeping a family business alive in its home country. In the process, it creates homemade sounds similar in spirit to those aspired to by budding groups weaned on garage bands and self-made heroes, from those three-chord poets the Ramones to oscillator-mangling noodlers the Silver Apples. For many of Konono's fans -- which include big names like Wilco and Beck -- the otherworldly buzz coming from the primitive amplification takes them to another level, where folk music meets the avant garde.

"Papa" Mingiedi increased his progeny tenfold when he first plugged his likembe into those rusty battery poles and went electric, just as Dylan did. Maybe Konono's ascendance will be as revolutionary as Dylan's performance at the Newport Folk Festival.

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