You Gotta ‘Believe’


The Autotuner—the digital pitch-corrector most easily recognized as the creator of Cher’s “Believe” vocal effect—is fast becoming the wah-wah pedal of our era, dolloped on everything in earshot, sure to sound hopelessly dated in five years and like a lost continent of sound in 20. And speaking of continents, the device has now landed in Africa with a glistening bounce. Listening to soukous singer Yondo Sister’s Autotuner-heavy Agenda is like attending a Tshala Muana concert and having a Daft Punk show break out. It might sound like electronic mud to Afropop purists, but considering Congolese music’s decades-long refining of the same basic rumba patterns, it’s heartening to hear some modernism other than Yamaha-derived horn parts.

It’s also totally weird. Most of Agenda sounds like normal soukous: pleasant scene-setting while the guitars make like sunbeams bouncing off holographic foil, then a male vocalist—usually Koffi Olomide, though Congolese legend Sam Mangwana appears on “Arina”—rousing us till the fade. Except that when Olomide starts soaring he has this habit of transforming mid-syllable into the Silver Surfer. The mostly mumbling Sister herself has little presence: She barely appears on the first couple of songs (now that’s diva), and most of her best moments are digitally derived. “Zala Cool” puts her singing into a glitchy fun-house mirror; at one point, a word is shuddered till it resembles a revolving door flipping around at 150 mph. In “Agenda,” the electro-treatment is subtler, making her moans and exhalations at the end of words twist in on themselves, complicating the performance’s internal logic. If that sounds familiar, it should. This isn’t a mash-up bootleg, but it could be, and right now there’s no better compliment.

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