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It’s 1965, and you have relocated from the rural Bazombo region near the border of Angola to Leopoldville, soon to be renamed Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). You are a master of the likembe, a thumb piano closely related to the kalimba (subsequently made famous by Earth, Wind and Fire). The problem is how to make your little likembe heard over the traffic and other urban noises.
Mawangu Mingiedi’s solution was to pull an alternator out of a broken-down car. He smashed the magnet with a hammer and twisted copper wire around the pieces to create pickups similar to those of an electric guitar. He placed the magnets under the spring-steel lamellas (keys or tongues) of three likembes: one each for treble, mid-range and bass. Then he ran the wires through a car-battery-powered amplifier to a couple of giant megaphone-like speakers, or lance-voix, left over from the colonional occupation. And that was the birth of what the Belgian producer/musician Vincent Kenis (Zap Mama, Hector Zazou) has dubbed “Congotronics.”
AN enterprising man, Mingiedi enlisted singers, dancers and percussionlists-who beat on car parts like mufflers and hubcaps as well as traditional instruments-and named his ensemble “L’Orchestre Folklorique Tout Puissant Likembe Konono Numero Un” (aka Konono No. 1). According to Kenis, Mingiedi uses multiple likembes in order to “recreate the polyphony of the horns which are parts of the traditional orchestra in the region.”
While many African kalimba players will attach items like bottle caps or shells to their soundboards to create buzzing effects, Konono’s amplified likembes are on a whole different level. The low-fidelity sound system and the fact that metal lamellas are far more rigid than guitar strings combine to create a hypnotic ultra-distortion that takes traditional Bazombo trance music to an extreme. Konono’s riveting recordings, which can be heard on Congotronics (Crammed Discs), have been compared to everything from Lee “Scratch” Perry (The New York Times) to Einsturzende Neubauten (The Village Voice).
Vincent Kenis remembers first hearing the group about 25 years ago. “There was a broadcast [of Congolese music] on French state-sponsored radio. I made a tape and listened to it again and again. And one of the bands was Konono No. 1.” Their music stands out even when it is side-by-side with similar Congolese artists. The second volume of Kenis’ Congotronics series, subtitled Buzz’N’Rumble From The Urb’N’Jungle (referring to the Ali-Foreman fight that took place when the country was named Zaire), features a half-dozen acts from around the country.
On Konono’s lone track, Mingiedi’s son Makuntima takes over (as he often does now for his 70-year-old father), and his likembe style is immediately distinguishable. “Couleur Café” is an absolutely gripping, eight-minute jam on which Makuntima lets loose with a series of wailing runs of distorted notes like a virtuosic guitar shredder. He is, inarguably, the Jimi Hendrix of the likembe. Unfortunately, the father and son do not get along very well. About their frequent arguments, Kenis says, “It’s like an Oedipean tragedy every day.”
The process of recording in the DRC is no picnic either. Kenis usually sets up in a local bar or, perhaps, an abandoned shopping mall and records 16 tracks (two per instrument or antique speaker) onto his laptop. He then mixes the 30-minute-plus songs down into more easily digestible arrangements, sometimes showcasing a single instrument like the extremely fuzzy likembe at the beginning of Sobanza Mimanisa’s “Kiwembo.”
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