Amplified thumb pianos, a giant wooden xylophone, a plastic whistle, and many rocking guitars were among the marvels on stage at the Congotronics vs. Rockers show last Saturday at Café de la Danse. Not at all a battle of the bands or a mash-up effort, the concert was more like a 3-hour jam session fusing rhythmic, traditional Congolese music with psychedelic indie-rock. The twenty-some musicians came from Congolese (DRC) groups Konono n°1 and Kasai Allstars as well as Deerhoof, Wildbirds & Peacedrums, Skeletons, and the singer Juana Molina.
Sounds like a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but the sound was amazing. Lush and highly danceable. Had the orchestra-played a fourth encore, my sweaty, spasming person may just have made its way onto the stage to join the party, which was at fingers-length.
An official video posted by the label Crammed Discs. Much better quality sound than my own!
I've been keeping track of African concerts in Paris, as much for the music as for the possibility of seeing sapeurs dressed to their finest. Many famous Congolese musicians (Werrason, Papa Wemba, Koffi Olomide) are self-proclaimed sapeurs, giving shout-outs to brands and well-dressed friends in their songs and videos.
This show was not that. Any on-stage glamour was unassuming, coming organically from the music and energy (the most sape-worthy outfit was Ed Rodriguez of Deerhoof's gold suit). As it turns out, Konono n°1 and Kasai Allstars are from a different genre of Congoese music than the self-affirmed sapeurs, one that is traditional rather than commercial. For most of its existence, Konono n°1 was barely known in its own country. Afropop Worldwide published a great interview with Mawangu Mingiedi, the leader of Konono n°1, as well as and Vincent Kenis, the Belgian musician and producer who went to Kinshasa in 2000 to track him down. Here's an except from it that talks about pre-global Konono:
Kenis: When I went [to the DRC] in '89, I did find these Kasaian groups. But still no Konono. Only in 2000, I found a Konono fan club. I left a note. Somebody told me that they were in Angola, or that they had stopped working altogether. I heard that [the band's leader] Mingiedi was working as a taxi driver, and that some people had gone back to the village, because when times are rough, at least artists in the village can eat. In the cities, it is much harder. . .They are musicians who come from outside of Kinshasa, or just were born in Kinshasa from parents who had no contact with the sophisticated, real Kinois, who live in the suburbs, and how they speak the real Kinois language, live among the old community—and suddenly they come out with a sound that everybody likes, regardless of origin or tribe or what ever. These groups are the ones who regenerate the music and Congo, and I think that's one of the reason why music and Congo, I mean the commercial, modern music and Congo nowadays is so static. Static, well—you can argue about that. . .
As the Konono n°1 story shows, what is traditional to some is avant-garde to others. In 2007 the band played on Bjork's album and toured with her; since, their songs have been covered by Animal Collective and Wilco. I find it interesting that some of the least commercial music from the Congo has had the most success on the global indie music scene. Meanwhile, today's Congolese pop has more affinity with American or European hip-hop. For example, here is a Fally Ipupa video that features Brooklynite Olivia Longott, who you may remember from the 50 Cent song "Candy Shop."
Unlike Konono n°1, Fally Ipupa comes from a long line of famous musicians. Before going solo, Fally Ipupa played with Quartier Latin, the orchestra headed by Koffi Olomidé, a huge star of Congolese Rumba and Ndombolo. Before he went solo, Koffi collaborated with Papa Wemba, perhaps the most famous Congolese musician, also known as the “king” of la Sape. According to Afropop Worldwide, it was Papa Wemba and his followers that helped spread la Sape to the DRC (then Zaire).
When comparing different strands of Congolese music, it is perhaps significant that la Sape, in its incipience, was anti-DIY. It was about “ready to wear” clothes that could be bought in a store, rather than those made by a tailor. On the other hand, Konono n°1 is all about hand-made. Even today many of their instruments are irreproducible, made from tinkered-with found materials such as car parts. The project's blog has a photo of one musician tuning his giant wooden xylophone with a saw. In the same Afropop interview, Mingiedi, the group's leader, talks about how he came up with the idea of electrifying his likembe (thumb-piano).
[Masikilu] is a style of music. It used to be played with drums and a trumpet made out of an elephant's task. I took that sound and modified it by using the likembe, the thumb piano, likembe. It was made out of bamboo back then. But I also used to play a lot with electronics, radios and whatnot. Then one day I just hit me. I decided to convert the bamboo to metal so I could make a better sound from the likembe. We still play for our ancestors and everyone who has departed. They are here all the time. Although I have changed from the bamboo to the metal and the electronics, I'm still communicating with my ancestors all the time, even here in America.
To be clear, I don't mean to suggest a dichotomy between commercial and traditional styles of music (or commercial/traditional clothing). Within both areas of culture there are multiple traditions that influence each other. I want to point out some of these lines of influence and (mostly) recommend some great music. Enjoy!