Konono No. 1
by James M. Manheim
The African musicians who have become well known in the West are mostly those working modern popular traditions: Miriam Makeba and all who followed her in South Africa, the kinetic juju bands of Nigeria, Angelique Kidjo from Benin, the Swahili rumba bands of Nairobi, the soukous (from the French secouer, "to shake") ensembles of Kinshasa (Congo), and the political fusion music of Thomas Mapfumo, the Lion of Zimbabwe. But Konono No. 1 in full, L'Orchestre Tout Puissant Likembe Konono No. 1, or the All-Powerful Likembe Orchestra Konono No. 1 is something else again. This group comes from Kinshasa, but its roots are in the lands of the Zombo tribe near the Congo-Angola border. Konono's music is traditional, with one big exception.
The likembe is the little instrument known elsewhere in central Africa as a sanza or mbira and sometimes in the West as a thumb piano. It consists of a series of tuned metal tines attached to a soundboard backed with a resonating box, traditionally a gourd. At the center of Konono No. 1 are three of them, small, medium, and large. A term attached in Kinshasa to Konono No. 1's music, which has apparently been around since the 1960s without having fundamentally changed, is "tradi-moderne." The "moderne" aspect is that the three likembes are amplified with a homemade microphone-and-megaphone system, originally using parts salvaged from the radios of abandoned cars. The rest of the group consists of percussion instruments, both traditional and those found in an urban environment, like pots and pans. When things really get cooking, someone will bring out a whistle. There are singers and, in performance, several dancers.
The result of this handmade electronic gear is a sound with a good deal of distortion, something prized in general in many African traditions. But here it's taken to a new level. The amplified likembes sound something like electric guitars, something like xylophones, something like car horns. They're woven into a dense
web of traditional percussion rhythms that both overwhelms hearers and draws them deeper into its intricacies. The tradition on which Konono No. 1 draws was originally intended as trance music, and I'd expect its music in person (this is its first visit to the United States) to be very loud, intense, and capable of taking over one's consciousness for a while.
The roots-electronics aspect of Konono No. 1's music has created a certain amount of buzz among young people who spend nights filled with progressive electronic dance music. But really this is not the "Congotronics" that the title of Konono No. 1's Belgian-released album proclaims. Instead, what's happening at the Ark on Monday, November 14, is a rare chance to hear some music with roots in a rural African setting, adapted for urban uses in a jerry-rigged but tradition-sensible way.
[Review published November 2005]