Konono No. 1
nvariably, we’re going to have some problems. Despite even the best of efforts, Konono No. 1’s inclusion here is going to seem incredulous and condescending in the same way as anthropology—revealing but somehow inappropriate, a botched articulation of love resultant from the built in methodological roadblocks of irreducible difference. There are two things about the commodification of music that need to be evaluated before the details, though: one, the music itself, and two, how it got here. The latter is relatively easy (as it should be) for most Stylus readers to ignore in their daily life: there are musicians, they’re on labels, or have some distribution channel, and they make a record. What makes this first installment of Belgium label Crammed’s Congotronics series so interesting is that despite existing basically in total irrelevance to that process for the last 25 years in their home on the border between Congo and Angola, Konono No. 1’s music has, as the liner notes so gracefully explain, “accidentally connected them with the aesthetics of the most experimental forms of rock and electronic music,” both alleviating my post-colonial self-criticisms, and lending the album an empowering contextual fluidity to augment the strengths of the music itself.
Instrumentally, the band is led by the fairly distinct sounds of a bass, middle, and treble likemebe (thumb pianos outfitted with homemade electric pickups and amps), which sound roughly like the cheapest-ass guitars played through trashed speakers with shredded cones, percussive tonal bursts buzzing against and resonating with each other, the bass producing a repetitive, rumbling two note syncopation supporting the treble’s breaks into wild, glorious arpeggios, with the middle darting between beats and augmenting the web of aural strobes. Underneath, a discarded auto-parts tam tam stutters an infectious, looping rattle, a toy train endlessly careening around a bend, folding each bar into the next. Supported by two popping hand drums, the three form a swirling, rhizomatic flurry of beats, an aural perpetual motion machine that goes from zero to heaven in breathtaking gradations, coaxing the music into a realm of trancelike intensity beyond aggression, the instruments knotting together blindingly, a cyclic hypnosis on the verge of collapse, punctuated by shouts and whistles, only to stop on a dime without ceremony—no release, the tensions simply exhausted, hanging in the air.
This tapestry of homemade instruments gives the mythology of Konono a potent, raw edge, and the ferocity with which they play them only further substantiates the feeling that the music has been pushed into a raw, indelibly pure zone (note: this record should be listened to very, very loud). It feels a little backhanded to praise a music that so well fits many non-African peoples’ stereotypes of what “African music” might be (basically, “primitive”)—as, just like there is no singly “American” or “European” music, there is no “African” music—furthermore, Konono No. 1’s first produced document (having offered a live set in 2004 entitled Lubuaku on Terp Records, imprint of the Ex, the fabled Holland anarcho-punk troupe who brought them on tour and into a wider musical context) measures highly by familiar aesthetic yardsticks, easily outdoing the id-jockeying aspirations of Wolf Eyes and out-sweating the hoodied neo-cosmopolitan tribalism of bands like Black Dice, going further and deeper, sweating out its own contextual limitations and challenging our own, creating something utterly great and refreshing.