“Karindula” ain’t a place, and it definitely ain’t a studio — it’s a “giant banjo made out of an oil barrel, a goat skin, four strings, and an empty bag of powdered milk”. It sounds like an electric bass with ultra-loose strings, or an acoustic bass with a SuperBall glued under the bridge. Stay with me.
Played and filmed during a three-day festival in Lubumbashi, the capital of the southeastern Katanga province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, The Karindula Sessions collects performances from four groups who center their music around the instrument — centered to such a degree, in fact, that the word now applies to the music itself, a vaguely-defined “genre” of sorts. Actually, it’s often a conventional banjo that drives the music forward: the swiftness of the strumming — very static, very sharply controlled, and near constant — allows the singers to gradually shift and syncopate over the rhythms, flowing their chants over long running times (15 minutes is average) toward careful arpeggios that could tender the worried nerves in any of us. Listen to the siren-like call-up in BBK’s “Tshikuna” as the karindula snaps back the root beat, or the sudden space left during Bana Simba’s DVD performance of “Beggars’ Banquet”, wherein three chords are left to stand with just handclaps and declamatory vocals.
Mood-wise, the vibe is so celebratory that it’s almost hymnal. There’s a fragility here — which tends to happen with any such spartan music, not to mention music that’s often performed at funerals (as this is) — but there’s also cheery touches of reggae that inform the music, among other convenient touchstones for the newly initiated. Syncopation is common even when there doesn’t seem to be a consistent beat, which on the one hand lets the music tread water for longer than your attention might care for (Bana Simba’s thumpier sound starts to wear thin over the audio disc’s “Beggars’ Banquet”), but on the other hand allows for sneak-right-up-on-you moments, like the beautiful call-and-response in the final minute of BBK’s “Muriagombe”. For rock crowds, Bena Ngoma might be the most easily approachable group: they’re cockier and look younger, and they’re more hip to tempo swells during simpler chord progressions as in “Banani Batawina Bena Ngoma”. And as for the words…well, if we’re to judge by the descriptions, they’re almost elliptical; the straight-through-the-sunshine dance of Bana Lupemba’s “Wa Nkolomona Lelo Kinde Lelo Shikinda” has words translated in the liner notes as, “You defied me / Today you’ll see that I’m not joking.” (The same group’s “Kiyongo”, on the DVD, might be the highlight of the package.)
But if you come for the music, you’ll stay for the visuals. The documentary experience definitely improves this package, and also confirms the joyous flavor of the sounds themselves (should you choose to listen to the audio first, as I did). It’s an improvement not only because you get to see the aesthetic in action, but because of the astounding physical gymnastics of the dancers and entertainers who perform in front of the groups. During BBK’s first performance, a young boy balances a bicycle tire on his head and then spins it around on a 25-degree angle, like a slow orbit. Later, a man clasps his limbs around another’s torso and hangs horizontally from the back, locked in place like a board of wood. But it’s all more than just the “weird” thrill that sheltered Westerners get when they see a barely recognized culture in action: it’s matched inevitably to the bounces and leaps of the music itself, which might’ve been, for all we know, lost to time if not for this kind of package. It’s both entertaining and educational, and though this music will most assuredly not be exciting to the average playlister (and is not recommended as a good starting point for anyone just getting into African music), attention should be paid. During the DVD performance of “Beggars’ Banquet”, a woman faces us and says something to the cameraman, laughing, and her laugh seems timed so perfectly that the strum swells over it just as she turns back to the music. No translation is given. “Lost Continent” indeed.