On top of the guitar amplifer in my 1980s suburban US teenage bedroom, I used to keep an African thumb piano. Inaccurately calling it a marimba, I had purchased the wooden box resonator with metal tabs attached to it in a craft shop selling third-world goods. Alongside Guatemalan tapestries and Tibetan prayer bowls, African thumb pianos were then just coming into fashion in the United States. Cue the Graceland soundtrack in the background as Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo sing about diamonds on the soles of their shoes. When I turned my guitar up loud, that thumb piano used to start vibrating. Sometimes it would fall right off the amp.
Little did I know that half a world away, the group Konono No. 1 was experimenting with this meeting of metal, wood, and electricity in a more purposeful way. Wiring up thumb pianos, which they call likembé, the members of this Congolese troupe put their fingers on what Bob Dylan once called “the ghosts of ‘lectricity”. Founded by the likembé virtuouso Mingiedi in the 1970s, Konono No. 1’s members hail mostly from the border of Angola and the Congo. To make their bazombo trance music heard over the din of traffic in the concrete streets of Kinshasa, they electrify their instruments through hand-held microphones refashioned from the magnets of old car parts.
The musicians perform before a wall of conical P.A. speaker cones, megaphones, and old amps that blast out propulsive grooves. Thumb pianos are held out before the musicians like computer keyboards while percussion instruments mingle the thump of traditional African drums with the metallic clinks and clanks of refashioned junkyard scraps. Whistles howl and tweet while voices chant in call and response. Funneled out of the makeshift microphones and speakers, the sound of this traditional music, ritually performed for centuries, takes on a crunched, distorted timbre, reveling in the limitations of amplification as well as its cavernous resonances.
Congotronics, the first album in a series released by the Brussels label Crammed Discs, presents Konono No. 1 in full force. The band plugs into the power grid, and their hypnotic music announces a vernacular culture of resilience, survival, and celebration. The seven songs on Congotronics, all recorded in Kinshasa with the exception of one track recorded live in concert in Amsterdam, sound at once ancient and modern, deeply religious yet also getting the street party going.
This is a music—and a lifeworld—something like what Paul Gilroy, borrowing from a Brazilian concept to describe Jimi Hendrix, calls “Afrocyberdelia”. When one of Konono No. 1’s likembé players plucks out an introduction to the song “Paradiso”, it sounds like Hendrix scraping the start of “Voodoo Chile” out of his guitar strings, wah-wah pedal squishing and squeezing the notes out of his amplifier wall of Marshall stacks. That is, you hear fingers against metal rods or steel strings, but you also hear something else. You hear the spectral sonorities of electricity rising up all around acts of human expression.
Konono No. 1 plays with electricity’s invisible phantom spirits just as much as they do thumb pianos, whistles, drums, and debris. Their music accepts the distortion, overtones, and surprising sonorities of contemporary life, but re-imagines instrumental power from the trash heap of modernity. From the cast-off technologies of the West’s rusted automobiles and African ex-dictator’s public address system speaker cones, everyday people come roaring back with unexpected ingenuity, inventiveness, and durability.
Intriguingly, hip groups in the United States such as Tortoise have embraced Konono No. 1. Why has Konono No. 1 struck a chord with indie-rockers rather than world music mavens? Part of the reason is a very purposeful marketing campaign. But there’s something else going on, too. Konono’s sound is not polished and hyper-synthesized. This is not your typical watered-down international musical diplomacy. Instead, Konono offers a more rickety, homemade, do-it-yourself integration of the body and the broadcast. Where fingertips can make vibrations across the electronic pathways of the World Wide Web and amplified megaphones can growl to the ancestors, you get a space where the old and the new can be rearranged in provocative, invigorating, and potentially revolutionary ways.
As Konono No. 1 leaves human fingerprints all over their electrical amplifications, the question becomes: Is this the place where iPods and thumb pianos can cohabitate in harmony, or is it just a new shantytown on the outskirts of the Buena Vista Social Club? In other words, is this just another example of Western musical colonization, echoing the problems Paul Simon, David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, and others faced in the 1980s and 1990s? Or are Western hipsters no longer playing Sun City, no longer exoticizing, fetishizing, and exploiting non-Western musicians? Maybe the answers do not only lurk in the clanging of metal bars in front of a refashioned cigar box resonator; maybe they can also be plucked from an atmosphere thick with distorted electronic frequencies.