Thumb Kind of Wonderful

Washington City Paper | March 17, 2006
It would have taken a convention full of science-fiction authors to dream up a more record-nerd-friendly band than the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Konono No.1. Formed by a group of Kinshasa street musicians seeking to play traditional music that could be heard over the high volume of city life, Konono No. 1 hooked its electric thumb pianos to car-scrap pickups, plugged into homemade amplifiers, and basically let ’er rip. The result, released as part of Crammed Discs’ Congotronics series last year, was a wall of polyrhythm and distortion that buzzed the band into the Western spotlight. But when the group had to deal with a broken PA system during the first few dates of a U.S. tour, a few geeks walked away from the shows disgruntled, complaining that all they’d been presented with was “traditional African music.” Congotronics 2: Buzz’n’Rumble From the Urb’n’Jungle, the second installment in the Crammed series, will probably only reinforce such feelings. A compilation featuring several bands from the same urban-electric scene that gave us Konono, Congotronics 2 is undeniably “traditional African music”—albeit traditional music adapted for life in the Kinshasan suburbs, where various regional styles intersect, overlap, and get significantly amped up. A few of the groups included here, such as the accordion-toting Bolia We Ndenge, don’t even feature the much-talked-about electric likembes. Still, Congotronics 2 sounds refreshingly raw and unique. On “Mulume,” Songye group Basokin—here “reduced” to three vocalists, three percussionists, and two guitarists—locks into a groove that manages to evolve over every one of its eight-and-a-half minutes. On “Kiwembo,” Sobanza Mimanisa plays for a mere 6:47 but possibly with even more inventiveness—certainly with more unusual instruments, which include a spray can and a “plastic beer case” in addition to the fuzzed-out guitar that weaves through the various pings and thumps. On the Konono album, the emphasis on repetition could lead to monotony. Here, even the likembe-led groups all sound different. The Kasai Allstars turn in several rhythmically acrobatic pieces that show off the delicacy the instrument can achieve, whereas Masanka Sabkyani delivers the kind of dirty, bass-heavy grooves the hipsters want to hear. But Konono No. 1, which contributes the compilation’s final song, is still the dominant presence. Faster and louder than anything else on Congotronics 2, “T.P. Couleur Café” reminds us why the band got that first installment all to itself.

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