Konono No 1: Africa's Velvet Underground

Konono No 1's distorted trance music has brought comparison to rock's great experimentalists, writes Robin Denselow
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The Independent Culture

Mawangu Mingiedi is a quiet, easy-going man of 73, who looks as if nothing will ever surprise him again. He had arrived the previous day from Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, and after a visit to the Brussels-based independent record label that has transformed his life, he's now being driven to the first of his tour dates, at a festival in Amiens, France. "Malamu", he comments, suggesting that this should be the first word of Lingala that anyone should learn. "Everything is going well".

Indeed it is. Following us, in a small tour van, are the other members of the latest line-up of Konono No 1, the band that he started some 40 years ago, and which, to his obvious amusement, has won the Newcomers section in this year's BBC World Music Awards. Almost all his musicians are close relatives. There's his son, a couple of grandsons, and a series of cousins, along with a female singer "who is just a friend". They mostly play in the bars of their local area, out near Kinshasa airport, but they are now one of the most fashionable cult bands in Africa - at least as far as young Western audiences are concerned.

Mingiedi insists that he's been playing the same traditional music since the Sixties, but Konono No 1's album Congotronics has brought his band a quite unexpected following. Their furious and deafening, distorted sound has been compared to the sonic experiments of anyone from Can and Lee Perry to the Velvet Underground, and has won praise from the likes of DJ Gilles Peterson, and fans of experimental rock and electronic dance styles. Mingiedi seemed unsurprised. "I'm very glad that people who don't know African music like what I'm doing", he says, "but I don't know the electronic scene at all. I just happen to play the music that they like, but I didn't do it on purpose for that market".

His distinctive, hypnotic sound is built around what the Congolese call the likembe, but is better known in the West by its Zimbabwean name, the mbira, the "thumb piano" that consists of metal rods and a wooden box. Mingiedi first learnt to play in his home region near the Angolan border, where he learnt the trance songs of his Bazombo people. Moving to Kinshasa 40 years ago, he decided that he needed to "make the likembe heard by more people, because Kinshasa is a loud town and I wanted to get noticed". He couldn't use guitar pick-ups to amplify the instrument, so made his own microphones for the likembe "with copper wires, and the magnet taken from old car alternators that I broke up with a hammer".

He found that the likembe now made a thunderous noise, particularly when played, and distorted, through ancient loud-speaker systems that dated back to the Belgian colonial era. So the Konono band was formed with three amplified likembes matched against thunderous percussion and chanting vocals.

The success in the West can be put down to Vincent Kenis, a Belgian producer who heard a Konono recording, dating back to the Seventies, and tracked them down.Thanks to Congotronics, which Kenis produced, the band are preparing for a world tour. Playing in Amiens, Konono's music sounded as thrilling as on the album, but this is wild music from the streets that's best heard in a dance club not in a solemn concert hall. UK promoters take note when the band return here in the autumn.

'Congotronics' is out on Crammed Discs. The band play at the BBC World Music Poll Winners Concert, Brixton Academy, London SW9, tonight