issue 12 :: July 2007

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REVIEW: Congotronics

various artists, "Congotronics 2: Buzz'n'Rumble from the Urb'n'Jungle" CD + DVD [Crammed Discs/Rykodisc]
reviewed by Josh Ronsen
I was shocked to hear the music of Konono No. 1 on NPR radio: the metallic, buzzing beats of African dance rhythms with strange, distorted instruments. These were thumb pianos captured by homemade contact mics and run through homemade loudspeakers run off of car batteries. This was noise music. The thumb pianos sound like electric pianos and guitars, and at times Caribbean steel drums, especially Basokin’s track “Mulume.” Homemade percussion abounds; keys, hubcaps, bottles, items in jars. Western instruments are heard here and there, electric guitars and an accordion. The fuzzed out electric guitar on “Kiwembo” by the band Sobanza Mimanisa is unbelievably funky: here is a guitar sounding like a thumb piano playing a repetitive and powerful melody. Basokin also employ a similar sound. The groups use vocals in different ways, and sound like the traditional African music I have heard, but filtered through megaphones or speakers.
The Congotronics 1 record was all Konono No. 1. Congotronics 2 presents that band and nine others in similar styles from the same area of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a very large and very diverse Central African nation that has been devestated by a multi-country war in the past decade. But the music here is joyous dance music played at street festivals. The DRC is home to hundreds of tribes and ethnic groups, each, I assume, with their own musical customs, rhythms and songs, and all nine of the bands here mine those traditions and eschew American influences. This makes me happy. As more and more of Africa (and the rest of the world) becomes more and more Westernized/ Americanized, and as more people convert to Christianity (the DRC is already three quarters Christian), the local musical traditions will die out, or become stale tourist offerings. Here is a scene which is instead transforming their heritage(s) as they themselves are transformed.
There are recordings to listen to on the label website, so you can hear this amazing music. The CD comes with a booklet with photos and a bit of history of each band. The DVD has live footage of six groups playing in street festivals, nicely shot with the cameras immersed within the action. Some groups wear traditional garb and face/body paint, others wear their daily street clothes. Every track features dancing, dancing that features much literal butt shaking. there is some historical theater in the Bolia We Ndenge, where they tell how the accordion was brought to the country when is was a slave labor camp run by Belgium. In the skit, a man in military uniform gives the band dressed traditionally the accordion which is used for the performance.
This is a necessary listen of music lovers.
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Josh Ronsen
joshronsen (ate) yahoo (dote) com
2001 Brentwood
Austin, Texas 78757 USA