I will be the first to admit that I'm not always abreast of the latest, hottest music. Part of the reason I started accepting and posting reader's lists on my site was because I figured that I'd be able to add even more titles to my list of things that I should hear. After looking through lists for 2005, Congotronics is one of those albums that showed up several times and a couple weeks ago it finally filtered up to the top of my purchases pile.
Damn, I should have done this sooner. Konono N°1 is a group of musicians founded almost 25 years ago and now situated in the Peoples Republic of Congo. The primary instrument of the group is a somewhat rudimentary thumb piano called the likembe, but they also play percussive instruments made out of old car parts through hand-made microphones and megaphones. Their music is raw and pounding and hypnotic as heck. Basically, it landed in my CD player and has been spun many, many times since first hitting the deck.
The disc wastes no time in getting going, as "Lufuala Ndonga" rumbles out of the gate with a three-pronged (octaved) likembe attack leading the way over ramshackle percussion, overlapping, almost chanted vocals, shouts, and whistles. The track doesn't have a huge amount of variety or any major shifts, but it works in a trancelike way, as elements come in and out of the mix and tumble over one another, always pushing the track onward and upward. "Masikulu" changes things up slightly by keeping everything in the higher registers for portions of the track then dropping the bottom out with rumbling fills from a bass likembe.
The two-part "Kule Kule" feels a bit more traditional as it peels back the heavier layers a bit to reveal a slightly more melodic side of the instrument as the players lock in with one another and deliver both subdued moments and bursts of intricate melody. The most musically-developed piece on the album is easily "Paradiso," which the group recorded while playing a show in Europe. As the likembe melodies bounce all over the place a steady beat and rhythm keeps a thumping time as wicked snare bursts rip through the track in several places. It runs seven minutes long, but wiggles into your head and once it stops playing you wish it had gone on for twenty. Just to leave you gasping, the group blows out the end of the album with the relentless, almost twelve-minute "Mama Liza," I've listened to a lot of what would probably be considered traditional African music, and I've never heard anything like this before. It's something that could appeal to everyone from fans of Can to Fela to Kompakt. This is inspiring stuff.