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Great Albums You May Have Missed: Konono No.1's Congotronics (2004)
Konono No.1's sound is shockingly infectious and amazingly unique. The revolving-member group spent the last few decades playing traditional Bazombo trance music in the capitol city of the Congo: Kinshasa. Equal parts tradition, innovation, and accident, their sound centers on three Likembe (better known as the Mbira, or thumb organ) players, a rhythm section, three singers, and three dancers. Oh, but that is so not all of the story!...
A need to compete with the growing cacophony of the busy streets, coupled with a significant level of poverty, led to an innovation. They began to build do-it-yourself amplification systems out of parts they salvaged from junkyards: various scraps of metal, pots, and pans that function as percussion; megaphones; magnets taken from car alternators; an abandoned PA horn or two; and other re-purposed items that gave their sound the boost in volume it needed to be heard.
Installing homemade microphones built out of salvaged car parts into hand-held acoustic instruments consisting of metal slats that float above wooden resonators sounds like a sound engineer's worst nightmare. However, as they were forced to incorporate the incidental hums and distortions that come from such a DIY sound system, the change that occurred, though unplanned and unforeseen, was nothing short of phenomenal! It even seems to indicate a still limitless ground that exists in the exploration of new sounds, new combinations. It is an electric, even electrONic, lo-fi, experimental sound, maxed out and in the red, that is still firmly grounded in traditional African trance music.
The group (as well as others forging the sound that has become known as "Congotronics") has come to the attention of European and American DJs, and they have since worked collaboratively with many established fringe-pop artists (eg, Tortoise, Björk, Herbie Hancock) and toured extensively outside of Africa. Among many venues who have welcomed them are New York's own Joe's Pub and S.O.B.'s.
The producer credited with "re-discovering" Konono No. 1 and bringing it to a world audience, Vincent Kenis, observes ''Konono is not trying to mimic Western music. They've had virtually no contact with it; the similarities are purely fortuitous. One thing I like about the electronic music world is that people don't care if the music comes from Africa or the planet Mars. If it sounds good, it's good" -NYT.
Mawangu Mingiedi, the mastermind of the group now in his late 70s, recalls, ''I thought that amplification would promote my group in the neighboring streets when playing in public, I never thought it would carry my sound all the way to Europe and the U.S.A.'' -NYT.
I can't think of a better way to convey the effect of this album than to quote Joe Tangari, reviewing Congotronics upon its release for Pitchfork Magazine:
"It is entirely possible that an amplified, slightly distorted likembe creates the most awesome sound on earth."
IN THE NYPL CATALOG:
To Preview some great tracks from Congotronics, click the links below:
Please Note: online audio tracks are an excellent source for previewing, but are compressed and do not match CD quality audio.