Assume Crash Position

Originally published by ALARM Press. Photo by Steve Gong.

1. “The leader of the king’s orchestra”

Vincent Kenis is attempting to light his cigarette with a lamp. His voice is marbled with a thick accent and long pauses as he constructs words to describe his field recordings in Africa. A Belgian musician/producer now well known for his knowledge of Congolese music, he is relaying the story of Konono No. 1, a group from Kinshasa that had all but disappeared until the sudden exposure of Congotronics 1 (Crammed Discs) in 2005 brought global recognition.

“He came to Kinshasa when he was very young,” Kenis says of Konono’s founder, Mawangu Mingiedi, who started the band in the 1970s. “I think he came when his father died. He was born in the village, and his father was…the leader of the king’s orchestra. You know they had local kings in the Congo region. He learned the likembe (a Central African instrument also known as a thumb piano) from his father, and carrying the likembe into town was maybe for him a way to continue to evoke the sounds he heard when he was a kid. It’s like a portable village.”

Mingiedi’s history is tangled up in the history of his country: nebulous kingdoms upended by Belgian colonization, remade into arbitrary regions like incongruous patches on a quilt; a nationalist movement for independence and then the brutality of dictators like Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, who, as the Western and Eastern Blocs played tug-of-war for the globe, renamed the country the Republic of Zaire; and emergence from bloody conflict as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Our music is the heritage that was passed on to us by our parents,” the group says in an E-mail exchange, while en route to the UK, through its translator Aharon Matondo. “Because of the total lack of means, we had to look for elements in garbage dumps — for instance, car alternators, from which we took wires to construct microphones and amplify the likembes. And the cymbals were made from old kitchen pot lids. After we started touring in Europe and America, we improved the amplification, but we always kept those original elements. It became part of our music.”

Its eclectic array of instruments, heard again this summer with Assume Crash Position, centers on the likembe, a small wooden box with metal tines that are plucked with the musician’s thumbs in order to mimic the region’s traditional horn polyphony.

Konono uses several in its lineup — each one handmade by Mingiedi — that weave back and forth across each other like ripples from divergent waves, helping transition call-and-response choruses into electronic jams and filling out the band’s style of Bazombo trance music that garnered it a spot on Bjork’s Volta and Herbie Hancock’s recent The Imagine Project. (Also known as Zombo, the Bazombo are an ethnic group with roots near the Angola border.)

2. “The strength of the music in Congo”

Konono’s odd blend of instrumentation was not borne out of the vacuum of novelization, but rather its physical context. In 1971, Mobutu launched his Authenticity Program — a mandated, nationwide purge of European culture. The impact on local music was enormous. Radio stations only played Congolese music, and bands of relative obscurity were suddenly seen as spokespeople at the very least, saviors at most.

“Mobutu…realized the political strength of the music in Congo,” Kenis says. “Independence is considered by Congolese as a victory brought to them by musicians, as well as politicians.”

The government could only corral musical experience so long. Traditional groups like Konono fell out of favor after only five years, paralleling the prosperity of the nation. The band’s music was again confined to the local public.

It was during this time that Kenis, who was first drawn to Congolese music as a kid — a result of the dense diaspora around Brussels — heard Konono’s music. He made a cassette of it, and while on tour in the late 1970s, this music that was “so radically different than the rumba and the soukous” became like a muse for him.

He had traveled to Congo in ’71, just as the Authenticity Program was beginning, and returned in 1989 and 1996, making recordings of groups like Kasai Allstars and a number of others. Twenty years passed and he had still not found Konono, which remained shrouded by rumors; some reported that Mingiedi had died.

Kenis finally discovered a pocket of Bazombo in Kinshasa. He found the members scattered, eking out livings; Mingiedi was driving a taxi. They met and talked, and two years later, Kenis returned once more to Kinshasa to record the group — a haphazard process that eventually became Congotronics 1.

3. “Divided by two ad infinitum”

Even as it gained global acclaim, Konono’s repetitive, almost toyish electronic sound was not instantly accessible to the broader audience, especially with track lengths that range between 2 and 12 minutes. When audiences hear Konono, there often is a lull, a lag before they appreciate it.

“After 10 minutes, there’s a kind of uneasiness,” Kenis says. “And then the uneasiness usually goes after 20 minutes, because they catch the thing, the swing. Konono’s music…cannot be divided by two ad infinitum. It’s not in 4/4—it’s like 5/4 or 3/4. It’s very specific. You have to come to terms with the sound — which is evolving constantly and minimalistically over time, but basically staying the same — and [you have to] realize that the shifts in that sameness is the whole game. As soon as people get into it with their bodies — without knowing it, just intuitively — they get it.”

The music of Africa is like this — foreign but deeply understood, with primal roots that unearth hesitation. And yet there is a sense of lacking. Musically, it is rich — both soothing and invigorating, like the view from the continental divide. But there’s a disconnect, a rift between what a Westerner will hear and what the band’s Bakongo brothers and sisters will hear.

“We like playing in the Congo and abroad,” the group says, “[but] in the Congo, what prevails in our concerts is the festive atmosphere, a feeling of joy, and a feeling of coming together with our people and our tradition. These are moments when the spirits of the ancestors are working a lot, and we can feel that. In the rest of the world, it’s [just] the joy and the festive atmosphere.”

4. “You just have to find the right method”

Though international audiences may not fully grasp the weight of Konono’s music, there are numerous layers to explore — aural, historical, and spiritual. They are like layers of earth — gravelly guitar rifts and the deep, clay-like warmth of skin drums under the fertile topsoil of shouts, drums, and bass guitar. Kenis sought to preserve these layers by recording in Kinshasa.

“I’ve noticed that what works in the dense sense eventually works everywhere — you just have to find the right method,” he says, noting that in this case, the right method involves thinking like the band and utilizing even a corrugated iron roof if it suits its purposes. “I always put two microphones pointed toward that ceiling, and it gives that really industrial reverb.”

Despite challenges like finding reliable electricity, the environment in Kinshasa lends itself to recording because limitations often drive creativity. Like Crammed Discs label mate Staff Benda Bilili, a group of paraplegic musicians also from Kinshasa, Konono is fortunate, in one sense, to have had its formative years outside the spotlight.

“You can see it really clearly in guitar players from Congo coming to Europe,” Kenis says. “As soon as they come here, they…start imitating music from Europe. Because they’ve been isolated from it for so long, they don’t have the tools to understand it. They miss the whole point of what’s really interesting. They lose the specificity, which is bad. But of course, staying isolated is bad also. The thing is to get the tools to understand what’s going on around you.”

5. “Tour the world for 200 years”

Konono’s identity is secure, at least for the older generation of players. Kenis describes Mingiedi by saying, “He could tour the world for 200 years, and he wouldn’t change a bit in the way he plays.” However, Mingiedi’s son Augustin, who has taken over playing the lead likembe part, is much more aware of outside musical influence.

This paradigmatic tension between generations helps flavor Assume Crash Position, which adds additional instruments and influences to the band’s Bazombo style in a piecemeal production process, which took place in a Kinshasan hotel room.

“I record everything with a Mac Book Pro computer,” Kenis says, “so I can take it wherever I like. The rest of the production work was to invite people into my hotel room and hand them a guitar or…a fader, or even the mouse and say, ‘Okay, just fool around with this and see what happens.’ If I have a role, it’s like a translator. [It’s the] difference between a literal and a literary translation. I’m just trying to interpret it in a way that is more clearly legible.”

Although Mingiedi, who is illiterate, and his bandmates weren’t used to recording on the computer, Kenis says that they intuitively understood it and became collaborators during the production stage. He found it odd that in this way, without a formal studio and with a continuously open dialogue, much of the demonizing that has infected the culture of Congo was stripped away. When the Congolese elite needed an enemy and a scapegoat, whites fit the bill, but Kenis says that the recording process transcends this type of ideology, and his status as an outsider even allows him a different perspective.

“As a stranger, I can suggest things that they would never dream of doing. For example, a guy from Kasai would never play music with a Konono, because he’s from Kasai and he’s from Bakongo — period. But…when they realize that it indeed works musically, it’s a big surprise for them. It changes the way they see their own music. That’s really fascinating for me, to see that what’s not supposed to work does work.”

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