Baloji Confronts the Cell Phone Zombies on 'Kaniama: The Yellow Version'

Congolese-Belgian musician and filmmaker Baloji revisits his kaleidoscopic 137 Avenue Kaniama album as a mixtape and short film.

Kaniama: The Yellow Version

Bella Union

3 May 2019

Men are getting haircuts at a local barbershop. Clubgoers fall into trances as they dance together, but mostly alone. A woman escapes the club to return to her neighborhood, changing her clothes as she walks the streets. Women are having their hair cut and styled at a local salon. A shady politician parades through the streets, campaigning and ultimately coming to an unfortunate end. Giant robots roam the streets, directing traffic. And everybody is addicted to their cell phones.

These are just some of the scenes in Zombies, a new and eye-popping short film directed by Baloji, an immensely-talented Congolese-Belgian musician, producer, movie director, and hair stylist. Zombies, filmed in the megacity of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is, among other things, a lively 15-minute meditation on the seductive powers of social media and cell phone technology.

Most of all, Zombies serves as an introduction to the wide-ranging and hypnotic music of Baloji, who began his career as a member of Belgian hip-hop band Starflam when he was 15 years old. Going solo in 2004, Baloji has continued his music career with a series of solo albums.

"Glossine (Zombie)" and "Spotlight", the two main songs highlighted in the film, are among the highlights of Baloji's audacious thrill ride of his 2018 album, 137 Avenue Kaniama. An expansive album, 137 Avenue Kaniama features an intoxicating blend of influences that span the globe from the Congo to Belgium to the streets of New York City and beyond. Drawing on 1970s Afrobeat, as well as American soul and rap as inspiration, the album has a sense of purpose and ambition on the scale of Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life.

Now, in conjunction with the Zombies film, Baloji has re-released 137 Avenue Kaniama as Kaniama: The Yellow Version. Essentially this reissue is the entire original album, but sequenced as a one-track mixtape, which was Baloji's original intent.

Baloji isn't the first artist who has insisted on making one of his albums a listen-straight-through experience. Original CD copies of Prince's 1988 album, Lovesexy, contained the album as a single track, reflecting Prince's desire that listeners take in the entire piece each time they listen. Baloji shares that desire. Fortunately, like Prince, Baloji has the talent to keep the ride entertaining from beginning to end.

Musically ranging from gentle balladry to spoken-word pieces to dancefloor workouts and beyond, Kaniama: The Yellow Version touches on political and social concerns of the Congo. Flashes of autobiography run through the album as well, with the title of the original 2018 edition coming from a street address in the Katuba neighborhood of Lubumbashi, where Baloji found his mother, from whom he'd been estranged for 25 years. Even if you don't understand the language, the combination of the political and personal adds an obvious intensity to Baloji's work.

No matter how you choose to experience Zombies/137 Avenue Kaniama/Kaniama: The Yellow Version, it is well worth your time.

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