[15 February 2006]
Basokin’s “Mulume” is the sound of the distortion zombies coming down the road to kill us all. It’s relentless. It’s smothering. The rhythm goes around and around and the singer chants on and on and even as you think that they can’t possibly keep it going, that they really have to stop sooner or later, you realise that it’s getting louder. These instruments were souped up and taped together to project their noise over the sound of Congolese city traffic but if you were on the same street as “Mulume” your ears would be woollen and your brain would be numbed into zen by the volume. There are some songs, rock songs, that beg you to turn them up because they’ll sound better loud, but this song sounds loud just as it is. You could play it quietly and it would still sound loud. You can feel the city heat and the growl of traffic through the blasting fog of noise. Bless you Vincent Kenis, the way you’ve recorded it is wonderful.
Kenis, who is European, heard this kind of street music for the first time on a French Culture Broadcast in 1979. Those recordings were formally released years later in 1985 on the Ocora label under the title Musiques Urbaines a Kinshasa. Musiques Urbaines is now unfortunately out of print, although one track from the album was included on a seven-CD box set called Le Mode De Musiques Traditionelles which came out in 2004. Check your second-hand shops for the first or raid your wallets for the second.
It was 2002 before Kenis got a chance to record one of the bands himself. For this he used a laptop computer, which meant that he could carry out the first rough remix in his hotel room with the musicians in attendance giving instructions, and advice. The album that came out of those recordings, Congotronics, got wonderful reviews which you’ve no doubt already read so I’m not going to reiterate anything; the upshot is that Crammed has put out another one, and Congotronics 2: Buzz ‘N’ Rumble From the Urb ‘N’ Jungle is it.
Being a sequel, it tries to stay true to an established formula and expand on it at the same time. Instead of one band it features eight. They all use the same technique—improvised and patched-up instruments playing a shuffling traditional dance beat through old amplifiers—but the accompaniment changes from band to band, and so does the mood.
Sobanza Mimanisa’s “Kiwembo” uses a guitar for its bass line (its “‘power chord’ style is very unusual in Kinshasa,” reports the notes, and certainly it’s not like anything you’ll hear in any of the other songs), setting it off against a metallic bell, a whistle, and a singer whose voice has the electric bleed of a headmaster addressing his school through an ancient PA system. The Kasai Allstars, named after the Kasai province that occupies the centre of the country, don’t use power chords but they have a wonderful way with xylophones and their lead singer is shadowed by a responsive masculine chorus. For a little while on “Kabuangoyi” the Allstars sound like a reincarnation of the Super Rail Band (in fact, anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with Golden Age bands and their imitators is going to feel that they know this music already) but then the song loosens and the xylophone adopts a monotonous and exciting sound of its own, the blunt jangle of a faraway ice cream truck.
Bolia We Ndenge introduce an accordion, a musical relic of the Belgian occupation, accompanied here by a noise like a washboard and a cardboard-box thump. For all its activity the song has a collapsing sound, as if the music is trying to struggle home through heavy snow. Konono No. 1, the band from Congotronics, appear last, with a live track recorded in Brussels while they were touring Europe in 2005. The song is energetic but it comes across as light relief after the aggressive explosion of Basokin. The album ends with the Brussels crowd cheering.
This is exciting music, and Congotronics 2, with its good new bands, extrapolates fruitfully on Congotronics. I never had the feeling that Crammed was simply cashing in on Konono No. 1’s success. My preview copy came with music only, but the version for sale in the shops is going to include handheld footage of the groups and their dancers. Crammed has put some on their website. Check it out, even if you don’t plan on buying the albums. It’s worth it.