As Congotronics approaches the end of its second decade, its curators at Crammed Discs refuse to let it stagnate, and the results have been spectacular. Last year’s Kasai Allstars release was one of the year’s best, the tradi-moderne styles that are the series’ hallmark getting a jaunty experimental treatment on the level of production and refreshing the Congotronics brand. Now, Congotronics International—a supergroup of sorts that brings members of Konono Nº1 and Kasai Allstars together with Juana Molina, Deerhoof, Wildbirds & Peacedrums, and Skeletons’ Matt Mehlan—makes its recorded debut with Where’s the One?, a gloriously hectic and absolutely unstoppable album made up of tracks pieced together from live and studio recordings made over the last decade since the group’s world tour.
As the extensive liner notes explain, the title Where’s the One? was a frequent question in early rehearsals in which the musicians struggled to find so much as a shared starting point, and it’s easy to understand how such confusion could take place. Each of these artists makes distinct and unabashed textures in their work, and trying to bring them all together could have been disastrous. Instead, they dazzle. Though these pieces have been painstakingly assembled and prodded for years, each feels like a magical moment of organic participation.
Often, it’s easy to pick out specific members’ contributions. “Resila”, a cool, guitar-centered track in 7/4 time, is a quintessential Juana Molina jam, albeit made new with the addition of the twangs of the Allstars’ and Konono’s DIY amplified instruments. The electric likembé notes opening “Tita Tita” are classic Konono Nº1. When the elements come together well, it’s immensely satisfying. “Super Duper Rescue Allstars” is equal parts Deerhoof (those spiky, catchy guitar lines and powerful drum kit hits) and Kasai Allstars (the buzzing harmonies), and comes together as a bombastic crowd-pleaser.
“Many Tongues in Our Band” takes a more minimalist approach, with the Allstars’ Muambuyi out front, singing freely over a relatively sparse mix of percussion from her bandmate Tshimanga Muamba and Wildbirds & Peacedrums’ Andreas Werliin, Deerhoof’s John Dieterich on unpredictable guitar, and Kabongo Tshisense matching him on electric likembé. It’s an outlier among the many quicker, denser songs that make up the bulk of Where’s the One? There’s no shortage of variety here, though, from mesmerizing, Konono-driven “Kule Kule Redux” to punchy indie-rock march “Doubt/Hope” to “Bombo and Sifflets”, which starts as a forest of xylophone, aerophones, and deep drumming and ends in a metallic blur of hard rock.
On one of the last tracks, “Mulume/Change”, Molina, Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki, Wildbirds & Peacedrums’ Mariam Wallentin, and vocalists Muambuyi, Tshisense, Muamba, and Tandjolo Yatshi of Kasai Allstars come together to lead alternating verses and choruses over tight, bright, rumba-tinged grooves. Among these layers is one particularly striking lyrical refrain: “If we just stay the same / What will become of us then?”
Congotronics International is a project in which everyone and everything is swept up in transformation. It’s clear from start to finish that these stylistically disparate but equally talented musicians have impacted one another. Their sounds interweave and morph from beginning to end of Where’s the One? Echoing this is how the scattered production team has spent the last ten years sending sounds back and forth around the planet to sculpt into a spirited final product. They captured and amplified the intensity and energy of the so-called Congotronics vs. Rockers project as best as possible for our benefit.
Where’s the One? is an archive of sound and spirit. It ensures that the complex logistics of assembling this ensemble will be remembered, and the creative brilliance generated will remain available to everyone, an extraordinary event honored through not just preservation but careful production. This is the Congotronics series at its most invigorating and collaborative, and it’s just plain phenomenal.