‘they have surely given us one of the music experiences of the year‘ – Siobhán Kane on Konono No 1‘s gig in Whelan’s. The place where Konono No 1 hail from is a small suburb of Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a place that has influenced so much of the group’s work. Formed in the 1960’s by Mingiedi, a likembé virtuoso, the group was influenced by François Luambo Luanzo Makiadi, popularly known as “Franco”, a founder of the group OK Jazz, and a seminal influence in the development of Congolese music.
What Konono No 1 does, however, is slightly different, borrowing from Bazombo afro trance music, and using a variety of home-made instruments such as the electric likembés (small electric thumb pianos which are amplified by a huge horn), microphones built from magnets, and percussion which ranges from car parts to pots, they navigate around the natural distortions present in their makeshift sound system, which adds a loose feel to their elemental music.
Tonight in Whelans, the room is full of expectation among a diverse set of people, from older teenagers, to elderly people – which speaks to the power of the creativity on display. Konono No 1 are a group that effortlessly weave around afro trance music, low hymnals, and electronica- without necessarily meaning to, because though the beauty in the rhythms draw across many genres, it is not necessarily beholden to them.
As such it makes sense that they have collaborated with artists such as The Ex to Deerhoof, and Herbie Hancock to Björk, connected by the DIY ethos. Their template was perhaps the 26-minute-long exploding firework “Mungua-Muanga” which featured on the 1978 compilation, Zaire: Musiques Urbaines a Kinshasa, which was officially released in 1985.
Throughout this period Konono were performing in Congo, and might never have made it to Whelans tonight were it not for Vincent Kenis of Belgium’s Crammed Discs, who had heard the group on French radio in 1979. Ten years later, he went to Kinshasa to seek out the band, which he found elusive, but years later, his dream of recording them came true, and they began to release on the label, and touring Europe, as well as collaborating with various musicians. Crammed Discs’ excellent Congotronics series has been hugely important in providing a framework for Konono’s ascent in Europe and further afield, featuring as it does work by Kasaii Allstars, and Sobanza Mimanisa, among others, showcasing modern Congolese music. And it has released all of Konono’s work, such as Congotronics (2004), Live at Couleur Café (2007), and Assume Crash Position (2010), as well as various collaborative projects.
And collaboration is the key word with Konono No 1; their live performance tonight is immersive, richly rewarding, and a dialogue between audience and performers. We hear songs like the urgent, thrilling “Paradiso”, the call-response of “Kule Kule”, the beautiful, alive “Wumbanzanga”, and the elevating “Konono Wa Wa Wa”. Although they are separate songs, they are stitched to the same cloth, distilled somehow by the musicians complementary dancing – rhythmic, sensual, and present.
The line-up often contracts and expands, but tonight five musicians bring an epic sound to a small stage, the subtle changes of rhythm revealing a deep musicality which links into a kind of spiritual culture, with searching, insistent percussion married to chanting vocals that echo traditional trance songs. This is experimental music that connects; interesting ideas that mean something, and more than that, Konono’s music genuinely moves, not only the feet, but the heart, and they have surely given us one of the music experiences of the year.