Seventeen years have passed since the start of Crammed Discs’ eclectic Congotronics series, a set of albums primarily by Congolese artists (with notable exceptions on 2010’s collaborative Tradi-Mods vs. Rockers including Animal Collective, Deerhoof, Juana Molina, and others) united under the loose and self-explanatory local category of tradi-moderne. For the most part, series director and Aksak Maboul member Vincent Kenis has taken on production duties for Congotronics albums by Kinshasa-based supergroup Kasai Allstars, packing them full of long, buzzing tracks of trance music that tend toward the tradi. On the new album, Black Ants Always Fly Together, One Bangle Makes No Sound, the situation is very different as guitarist and songwriter Mopero Mupemba takes the production helm, a creative decision that makes this the group’s most moderne album to date.
An emphasis on DIY electronics has always been at the heart of Congotronics. On Black Ants, that ethos permeates the entire album as the collective creates buoyant melodies through sharp beats, cyclical guitars, plugged-in mbira, and a crew of powerful vocalists. Building as usual on foundations of folkloric performance traditions of five distinct Kasai region ethnic groups, the 25-member strong Kasai Allstars nevertheless make music with more contemporary pop sensibilities than on any of their past albums. The polyrhythms hit as tightly as ever, but often with a bounce that gives them new color and life. Rather than routinely rolling hypnotically past the ten-minute mark, each piece is a manageable but still substantial five or so minutes, structured less for listeners seeking an imagined otherworldly transcendence and more for an audience looking to get down and dance.
The album begins with its two singles, “Kasai Munene” and “Olooh, a War Dance for Peace”. Both begin with quick percussion lines and thin electronics. “Kasai Munene” quickly opens up into a jubilant vocal chorus and an array of electronic and acoustic sounds that move together in a vibrant, intricate mesh. “Olooh” sways more slowly, new singer Bijou joining longtime leads Muambuyi, Kabongo, Mi Amor, and Tandjolo in the spotlight alongside a prominent guitar line supported by beats and backing vocals that keep the piece steady.
Faster pieces like “Musungu Elongo Paints His Face White to Scare Small Children”, “The Large Bird, the Woman and the Baby”, and “Baba Bende” tend toward the breezy but still stay grounded in hefty moments of rhythmic unison. “Like a Dry Leaf on a Tree” and “The Ecstasy of Singing” are sweeter midtempo moments, the latter dense with especially mellifluous twangs that make it an understated gem of soft serenity among the album’s spikier soundscape. The final track, “The Goat’s Voice”, is a ceaseless call-and-response that ends the album with a burst of energy.
Congotronics’ aim of showing real musical innovation in the Democratic Republic, while largely successful, has always tended to focus on specific drones and buzzes in creating what has become the series’ emblematic sonic palette. Mupemba’s enhanced creative control on Black Ants makes for a vastly different listening experience: exciting, angular, and brilliantly inventive. This album sees the Kasai Allstars tap into a new dimension of vitality and points to refreshing new possibilities for the Congotronics series.