Review: Congotronics Vinyl Boxed Set (Crammed Discs, 2010)
Being that I am the whitest dude you have ever met, born in perhaps the whitest place on the planet, Congolese musicians Konono Nº1, or as they’re known by their full name, L’orchestre folklorique T.P. Konono Nº1 de Mingiedi, present something new and different and exciting to me. I rarely have the opportunity to be immersed in African music: there is one notable band that plays pan-African-influenced music in Newfoundland (Mopaya), but beyond this, we see very little African influence in the culture around us here, and that’s sad… musicians like Konono Nº1 are sorely lacking in my home town. The first few likembé notes of Congotronics capture me.
Konono Nº1 represents the root of a genre of Congolese music: there are Konono bands playing in Kinshasa nightly, and Konono Nº1 are the first of the Konono bands (Nº1 being the first or primary Konono). Started by Mawangu Mingiedi at some indeterminate time in the late 60’s or early 70’s, making use of the likembé (a piano-like stringed instrument) and playing traditional Bazombo music; Mingiedi made adjustments to the traditional instrumentation and musical arrangement to come up with Konono Nº1, a fuzzed-out update of the Bazombo musical tradition. The band consists of multiple likembés played through DIY amplification, lending them a uniquely fuzzy sound. The lead vocals are sang/shouted through megaphones, adding another layer of fuzz. All played over the trancelike beats created using improvised percussion, this music is both traditional and groundbreaking: rooted in Bazombo tradition (Crammed uses the term electro-traditional), but at the same time uniquely Mingiedi. Other related electro-traditional groups have similar sounds with their own distinctive flavours.
Today I’m reviewing an item that reminds me why I buy vinyl. Crammed Discs out of Belgium (home of other notables Megafaun and Balkan Beat Box) releases music from acts based all over the world, but don’t call them a world music label. They’ve got over 500 releases from artists the world over. This particular set focuses on one of their most successful endeavors: bringing Congolese music to the (European/Asian/western) masses. This beautiful 7-album set (all 180-g vinyl) consists of two Konono Nº1 LPs (the set’s namesake, Congotronics, as well as their 2010 followup, Assume Crash Position), the rest of the Congotronics series (a set of albums from Konono Nº1 and other notable Congolese musicians), and a Kasai Allstars 7″ which features a collaboration with Akron/Family. In addition to all of this tasty vinyl, the box includes a photography book featuring scenery from Kinshasa, and a thumbdrive containing 9 videos by the included groups and mp3s of all tracks aside from the Kasai Allstars album and the Congotronics 2 album. The album art is different than the original releases for each, changed to the theme for the box, brown cardboard with smaller versions of the original album art on both the front and the back of each. The vinyls themselves are sleeved in alternately colored versions of the box art, each album containing a different colored sleeve.
I started with Staff Benda Bilili upon breaking open the set. Check out the Crammed page about the band for a full description, but suffice to say, these guys are inspirational. The older members of the band, physically handicapped by polio earlier in their lives, care for the younger members who make up the rhythm section; street kids from around the Kinshasa Zoo. Their sound is rooted in the same mix of traditional and modern Congolese music as Konono Nº1, but with a stronger influence from some western genres, ie. blues and reggae. One truly distinctive feature of their sound is the electric lute: a homemade, one-stringed instrument, constructed from a can, heard playing the piercing leads that cut through the melodies on most tracks throughout the album. They cover a lot of ground on Très Très Fort, their debut album, and it’s an amazing trip. Moto Moindo, the opening track, is based around a rumba rhythm, Polio has an almost reggae feel, Je T’aime mixes a bluesy guitar line with a distinctly African rhythm, and so the album continues. A fascinating listen.
Next for me was Kasai Allstars – In the 7th Moon, the Chief Turned Into a Swimming Fish and Ate the Head of His Enemy by Magic (whew!), their debut album. Again, check out the Crammed page for a more complete background. Kasai Allstars are a supergroup of sorts, consisting of members from a variety of groups, each of whom claim a different cultural background. This unique mix of Kasai culture produces a more traditional sounding electro-traditional than we see in the case of Staff Benda Bilili or Konono Nº1, a softer, smoother, and yet just as danceable sound, despite the softer rhythmic approach. Intro Quick As White sets the tone with twinkling guitar and undistorted likembé, and with female vocals, factors that differ significantly from other Congotronics perfomances. Standout Drowning Goat (Mbuji-Mayi) closes the album, the rhythm building with intensity, the male and female vocals weaving together, leading to a crescendo that ends the album in fine Congolese style.
I proceeded to check out Congotronics 2 – Buzz N’ Rumble From the Urban Jungle, a compilation of tracks from a variety of Congolese musicians. The Crammed page for the album gives a bit of background. The album’s musicians open our eyes to a wider variety of Congolese/Kinshasan sounds, this time, some particularly intense ones: from opening collaboration Wa Muluendu between Masanka Sankayi and Kasai Allstars (Masanka Sankayi is actually one of the groups which lends members to Kasai Allstars), a likembé-filled electro-traditional tune in the Kasai Allstars style; to bass-driven Le Labourer from a solo Masanka Sankayi, almost bordering into rock and roll territory; to Mulume, from artists Basokin, the song trancelike, with a driving rhythm and a battling swarm of guitar and likembé. Side B takes it down a notch with a laid-back opener from Kasai Allstars, but we’re right back to the driving, distorted rhythmic trance of Kinshasa for the final tracks from Sobanza Mimanisa and from Bolia We Ndenge, the latter making use of an accordion-like instrument to drive the song. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to hear these different takes on Congolese music.
Which takes us to the jewels in the crown that is the Congotronics set: the original Congotronics from Konono Nº1, and their incredible followup effort, Assume Crash Position. Beyond what I’ve already said about the band, more can be learned from their Crammed page. I can’t praise them highly enough. Both of these albums are entrancing, mindblowing works of art. Congotronics sets the Konono standard, a brilliant album of driving rhythms and piercing, fuzzed-out melodies created on improvised and homemade instruments, of harmonies, of call (on a megaphone) and response performed by the entire band, and of a kind of proto-rumba, making obvious the African at the root of much western music. Intro track Lufuala Ndonga is vintage Konono, all likembé and megaphones and pounded rhythms, and much of the album continues in this vein, with exceptions Paradiso (a live instrumental exploration of the Konono sound), and Kule Kule Reprise, which is a softer return to the original tune. Closer Mama Liza is a standout. Like Congotronics, Assume Crash Position opens with a blast of likembé, setting the intense pace that doesn’t let up for two discs with opener Wumbanzanga. Everything they do is magic: the chorus of male and female voices becoming one in every song, the driving rhythms, the shouts and distorted likembé, the basslines weaving in around all of the rest: the world needs to hear this taste of Congo.
The set’s little additions round out the collection nicely. A recent addition to the Congotronics line is a collection of tracks by “western” artists collaborating with, remixing, and paying tribute to Congolese artists, including those represented in this set. An example of this collaboration, between Akron/Family and Kasai Allstars, is included in 7″ format in the box, with a b-side by Kasai Allstars (the only issue with my set was that the sleeve for this album had come unglued before I received it). The addition of Akron/Family’s indie rock sensibilities to Kasai Allstars’ electro-traditional sound makes for an interesting listen. Also found in the box, the thumbdrive includes video of some amazing live performances, a standout of which is Staff Benda Bilili’s performance on Later… with Jools Holland.
Look, this is without a doubt the coolest thing in my collection. It’s the biggest set, it’s got the most stuff in it, but these things are non-factors: the material contained in this gigantic set is head and shoulders above most of the rest of my collection. This is incredible music, created by incredible musicians, and would be a fine addition to any collection. You’ll need to act quickly, though: as you can see, I have #848 of 1000 boxes that were pressed. I’m optimistic for the sake of music fans out there that they aren’t sending them out in order and that there are more than 152 of these things left to be had, but in case, don’t delay if you plan on getting your own. Getting one might be a bit of an undertaking in North America, however; they’re only available from Crammed discs out of Belgium (the set actually ships from UK). Canadian buyers: I got dinged for an additional $40 of customs on top of the cost of the box and the shipping. Because of these crazy costs, it’s hard to justify buying from Crammed (that said, I don’t regret this purchase one bit, despite my grumbling about the customs charge), even though they have a variety of things I’d like to check out. Here’s hoping they find a North American distributor!
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