Legend places the start of the Congolese “tradi-modern” scene with the exodus of rural musicians to Kinshasa, the bustling capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. To be heard above the urban roar, the story goes, bands had to create homemade amplification systems for their drums and “likembé” thumb pianos. They made microphones from old car parts, new electric guitars from cast-offs, and junk percussion from whatever they could find to keep the beat—hubcaps, tin cans, glass bottles.
Last year, Konono No.1—a tradi-modern Congolese group—brought the makeshift sounds to a world audience when they released their “Congotronics” album. It quickly became required listening for every DJ and music collector on the block.
The resulting songs were built on the foundation of African polyrhythms, but have new sounds from the city streets: jagged guitar lines, ambient fuzz, and distorted vocals. This homemade Kinshasa sound stands at an acoustic crossroads between folk, noise, and electronica, and its records are attracting fans from all genres.
In “Congotronics 2,” a compilation featuring seven Kinshasa-area bands, the music gains a wider scope, which promises to expand the scene’s growing crossover appeal.
Konono No.1 continues to sound the most familiar to western ears; the band’s beats and riffs are dense and quick-paced, introducing dissonance into supple vocals and generally submerging traditional melodies in a wash of sound that would be at home in any scenester dance club.
Other bands on this album reflect varying degrees of similar fusion. On Masanka Sankayi’s track, electronic effects add a sheen of crackle to the singer’s voice, but it is ultimately the beat of skin-against-wood that carries the song. Then there’s Sobanza Mimanisa, who root their song “Kiwembo” in a distorted, angular guitar riff; in a decidedly non-Western move, melody seems to support rhythm, rather than the other way around.
Some of the tracks downplay the innovation of electric/acoustic fusion in favor of emphasizing the blended cultural milieu of the music and Kinshasa. Masanka Sankayi sing one of their songs in French. Bolia We Ndenge introduce an accordion into their music and shout that it “comes from Belgium,” the country’s old colonial master.
But the sound of the colonists’ instrument hardly seems imposed; it fits flawlessly into the trance-grooves of the band. The songs unfurl from the musicians’ hands and voices with an irrepressible jubilation. In an essential way, this music is a call for celebration, which is part of what makes it so danceable.
“Congotronics 2” also comes with an accompanying DVD, and though it would seem like a luxury for most records, here it proves a necessity.
The fuzzy, homemade performance films are all set outdoors, tucked against the corner of buildings, with small crowds of attentive listeners. The amps are perched on the tops of narrow cement walls; some of the musicians cradle an electric guitar, others tap against glass bottles with butter knives. The electric likembé, made famous by Konono No.1, is ubiquitous.
The film is a glimpse into a place that Congotronics has just begun to introduce to the rest of the world—as the bands here continue to play and record to a growing audience, this scene can only come into sharper focus.