Assume Crash Position
US: 8 Jun 2010
UK: 17 May 2010
It may be a sign that Konono No. 1 have made their mark on the international musical consciousness that no introduction or attempt to explain the group and what they do are provided on the liner to their new CD. Instead, the booklet presents us with some great photographs of second-hand car parts artistically piled in the Ndjili market. Ndjili is a municipality of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo where Konono No. 1 perform and now record their spectacular brand of “congotronics”. The connection, as the brief liner notes make clear, is that it is from the used-parts market that Konono get the materials for the instruments they build. This latest installment in the “Congotronics” series takes us a few more steps into the world of Konono No. 1, treating us as returning guests familiar with “Papa” Mingiedi Mawangu, his raucous electric likembés, and the incredible extended trance music to which they contribute.
The story of how Mingiedi and his crew created their unique sound has now been told in numerous places in print and online, including a feature on Afropop.org and an excellent recent article in The Wire. To recap briefly, Konono No. 1 are a group formed by Mingiedi more than three decades ago and who specialize in playing a form of bazombo trance music originating from the borders of Angola and the DRC. What makes their sound so distinctive is the use of variously pitched likembés (thumb pianos), traditionally made from attaching resonating strips of metal to gourds but which have been modified and updated by Mingiedi via the removal of the gourd and the addition of electronic pick-ups. The likembés are played alongside a variety of percussion made from salvaged materials and amplified through a makeshift speaker system that lends the music some seriously heavy distortion.
The Orchestre Tout Puissant Likembé Konono N°1 were recorded in 1978 by Bernard Treton for a French radio broadcast, the recording later coming out on an album entitled Musiques Urbaines a Kinshasa on the Ocora label. Belgian Vincent Kenis, having been deeply affected by the original broadcast, eventually tracked down the contemporary version of Konono No. 1 in 2000 and released an album in 2005. At the same time, Terry Ex of Dutch band the Ex released a live recording of the group made during a tour of the Netherlands (Lubuaku). The Crammed Discs album Congotronics, which also featured a track recorded in the Netherlands, was rapturously received by both the world music press and by other journalists keen to point out the group’s similarity to punk and electronic music and to assert how different Konono were from ‘mere world music’. And, while these writers never say they what they mean by ‘world music’, it couldn’t be denied that Konono sounded like no other act on the market.
That is still the case and Assume Crash Position is another vital chapter in the story. Anyone who is familiar with the earlier albums and is wondering whether or not they need another Konono album should check out “Konono Wa Wa Wa”, an update of an early hit by the band. The track was so popular that, as related in the Afropop feature, it was versioned by other groups with slight variations to the title. “Zaiko Wawawa” was a hit for DRC group Zaiko Langa Langa, geared more towards guitar pop than Mingiedi’s outfit. Zaiko’s version was catchy and sported some enjoyable guitar lines, but the treatment the song gets here is something else again. The memorable refrain (heard briefly on Lubuaku) is initially chanted over a storm of percussion, with the likembés only kicking in after a minute or two. At around three minutes in everything goes weird as the likembés and guitars are treated to some seriously trippy effects. Once the warping fades away, the percussion comes to the fore again and the “konono wa wa wa” chant returns. You’ll be humming this line to yourself for weeks once you’ve heard this track two or three times.
Before this 11-minute tour-de-force, however, there’s plenty more to get involved with. The album opens with another epic, the 12-minute “Wumbanzanga”, which very quickly sets the groove while also introducing another major change to the Konono sound in the form of additional electric guitars. “Thin Legs” is short and sweet and puts the emphasis on the percussive, non-likembé part of the band’s repertoire. “Mama Na Bana” is a beautifully recorded version of a track previously heard on the Live at Couleur Café album on Crammed Discs. “Makembe” is a song of praise to Mingiedi and to the playing of likembés which features electric guitar contributions from Kenis and from Felix Manuaku, aka Pepe Felly, formerly of Zaiko Langa Langa.
This bringing together of traditional music (associated with Mingiedi) and modern pop styles (associated with Manuaku’s soukous music) is suggestive, as is the involvement of other young guitarists who have been inspired by Konono No. 1. In the DRC, Konono have often been portrayed as old-fashioned, at odds with the modernizing sounds of the soukous, pop, and hip hop sounds popular with young (and even middle-aged) Kinshasans. This has led Mingiedi to claim that the group have a more promising future in Europe than they do at home. At the same time, he continues to nurture young talent from his base near the Ndjili market and is clearly open to the kind of collaborations exemplified by this new album and by his group’s appearance on the recent album by DRC rapper Baloji.
Whether the slightly more varied sounds on Assume Crash Position will find a place in the hearts of Congolese audiences remains to be seen. It is hard to see how the album could fail to impress foreign listeners, however. It is everything Konono have given us before and more. It is one of the most vital and alive albums released so far this year and it gets better with every listen, working equally brilliantly through speakers at high volume and through earphones for an immersive experience like no other. Whether it is the trance-summoning bleeps, whistles, and samba-esque drumming of “Fula Fula” or the intimate invitation of Mingiedi’s solo closing number, the music of Konono No. 1 continues to demand involvement on the part of the listener. This is glorious noise.