For Konono No. 1 and neighbors, groove is in the likembe


In November, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Konono No. 1—who have diligently played in the same groove for around 25 years—made their New York debut at Joe’s Pub. Though they fought a good fight against the venue’s prevailing atmosphere of “let’s enjoy expensive brisket and not dance,” you could cut the awkwardness with a machete (I managed to sneak one past the door). The amplified likembe (thumb piano) and car-part percussion resonated coincidentally with the junk science of DIY noise; the rhythmic assault was more wash than wave, a trance-without-climax that suggested Krautrock to ears in search of rough-hewn avant-garde. In all, a you-simply-must-check-them-out!-type affair. Of course, the translation was a little lost because it was hard not to see them as anomalous—worlds away from the bubbly soukous of Papa Wemba or the r&b stew of earlier township jazz (the DRC’s better known exports). The music’s closest cousin came from distant Lagos: Fela Kuti’s Africa 70 with makeshift amps instead of horns.

Vincent Kenis, who recorded the Konono album, captured and compiled live recordings of several other bands from the suburbs of Kinshasa—the DRC’s capitol—for Belgian label Crammed Disc’s second edition in the series. Konono rode like a bull with a tack in its ass: sudden, ferocious, undaunted. Groove is still in the heart of Congotronics 2, but the variety of bands and arrangements gives the set a hydra’s pulse rather than a Cyclops’s blink. We still get dollops of milk-crate banging and the likembe’s fuzzed-out glory, but we also hear electric guitar and some accordion, which King Leopold left during Belgium’s occupation. The pace isn’t all breakneck; vocal approaches range from blanket chanting to raucous call-and-response, and some stretches are plain—gasp—pretty. Crucial to the package is a DVD including video footage of many of the recordings. It gives context: Performances are relaxed, spontaneous, and social; dancers shuffle across dirt floors outside abandoned shopping malls, disjointed hips casually grinding on our gobsmacked, puritanical minds. Somewhere (probably somewhere really clean), saucy Brian Eno exhales in delight at something close to his 25-year-old “vision of a psychedelic Africa.”