There’s a big difference between hypnosis and being put to sleep. That’s pretty much the same difference between Konono No.1’s debut album Congotronics and their new live album Live at Couleur Café.
Before I get into the album though, here’s a little summary on Konono No.1. The group was formed in Kinshasa, Congo by Mawangu Mingiedi who plays one of Konono’s three distorted likembés (thumb-pianos). The band plays on anything that will make a sound, from hubcaps turned into cymbals to old radios transformed into amplifiers. Amazingly, they’ve been together for 30 years but they are just starting to come into the light of popular music. Their growing repertoire includes playing at Coachella and accompanying Bjork on the song “Earth Intruders”, which is on her most recent album, Volta.
Konono No.1 have come a long way; their originality and pride in their combination of contemporary African and electronic trance music can’t be denied, but their latest live album release just doesn’t do them justice. Live at Couleur Café is a recorded version of Konono No.1’s set at the Couleur Café in Brussels and contains some songs that you’ve heard and a lot that haven’t been released.
The album opener, “Intro”, is an upbeat track, and the opening notes are the best part. I was instantly transported back to their previous album and as the song progresses the beats keep coming and the heart of the music doesn’t stop. Rather than changing beats and times, Konono No.1 change the shape of the song, slightly, here and there and then return to the main beat. For the first song, this approach is enjoyable. One credit I must give to the album is that the flow of the music never ends and the excitement of the musicians seems to come through strongly on record.
Still, after the nostalgic first track, the album really descends into a monotony that isn’t that pleasant. For starters, every song begins to sound the same. The hypnotic atmosphere that Konono No.1 is known for is totally lost and each song becomes more redundant than the one before it. Of course, one must keep in mind that it is a live album and the musicians are just having fun, but there was only so much I could take.
If you pay really close attention, you can identify two songs from Congotronics, “Kule Kule” and “Mama Liza”. This part of the album is worth listening to and finally adds a change of pace and is quite refreshing to the ears after about 30 minutes of the same beats and shouts. The likembés, which were so prominent and so repetitive on the previous tracks, now take a subtle backseat to the vocals and drums.
Although Live at the Couleur Café was an overall downer, don’t let this album influence your thoughts on Konono No.1 too greatly. The greatest detriment to the album was that each song sounded the same, as if the whole set was one long song. That’s not always a bad thing. Some bands can pull off the disorganization and repetition very well, but Konono No.1 seems very lackluster on this disc.
That being said, it has always been a challenge for artists and bands to try and capture the energy and atmosphere of their live performances on a disc. The problem is, 50% of Konono No.1 is energy and atmosphere, oh and those glorious distorted likembés. The other 50% of Konono No.1 comes from being in the same room with them as they’re playing.