Konono: Welcome to the trance

Konono No 1's dirty-sounding, backyard electronica is heard to thrilling effect on a new live recording. Tim Cumming reports
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The Independent Culture

The band wander up to the stage for the sound check as electrified likembe notes – the high, distorted buzz of the African thumb-piano soldered into a basic sound-system – blast out. It's a sound that makes you sit up and take notice. The likembe itself looks like a fetish of raw, discoloured metal, with its trident of keys and untidy wiring.

The man producing these squalls of notes is hunched over his instrument. This is Mawangu Mingiedi, the 75-year-old force behind Konono No 1, whose debut album was recorded on the streets of Kinshasa in 2002 and released a couple of years later on the Belgian label Crammed Discs.

It brought a new word – Congotronics – and a whole new vocabulary to music, mixing the music traditions of Mingiedi's Bozambo tribe with dirty-sounding, backyard electronica – musical reclamation at its best. "It was in the late Sixties when I first came to Kinshasa," Mingiedi says. "When I first arrived, I was the only one without an electrical instrument." He laughs. "Then I understood why; you can't hear yourself. I wanted the people to hear."

He set about rebuilding and electrifying his likembe, replacing elephant tusk and bamboo with metal and wire. "Once I'd built my first instrument I made more so I could put together a band. I'd get invited to play at weddings and parties – bigger and bigger places. They have little bars in Kinshasa that hire musicians once a week. If Konono were playing, you'd have our own people coming."

The distinctive tribal trance of Konono No I was at first heard only by Mingiedi's own tribe, who had come from their villages to settle in Kinshasa, usually in poverty. "At the beginning we had no specific name," Mingiedi says, "but we had a song that was very popular, talking about 'konono'. That's a kind of position, a crouching position when you're afraid of something" – he curls into a ball in his chair, covering his head – "and people started calling the band Konono."

Their reputation spread. In the early Eighties, Konono's street performance was recorded and broadcast by the French radio journalist Bernard Treton. It was this recording that producer Vincent Kenis heard on his car radio, got hold of and kept playing again and again.

In 1989, Kenis went looking for Mingiedi in Kinshasa, but neither he nor Konono were anywhere to be found. At that time, Mingiedi recalls, "Konono were playing in villages". City survival had become precarious, paying gigs too few. "You had to know where we were. Vincent didn't know"

Kenis returned in 2000 and again in 2002, when he finally made contact. By this time the band had broken up, and Mingiedi was homeless. At Kenis's instigation, he reconvened Konono with new members. The first Congotronics album was recorded under an iron roof in the grounds of the Centre Cultural Français, where the power supply was reliable. Kenis stayed and mixed the record in his hotel room.

Three years of touring brought a cult following and a queue of artists eager to record with them. To date, only one such collaboration has been cut on record – with Björk on the song "Earth Intruders", from her album Volta.

Mingiedi has yet to take his band back into the studio. In the meantime, they have released a fast and furious hour-long live set recorded at the Coleur Café in Brussels, featuring blasts from their debut, alongside unreleased songs.

Live, the three likembe collide off each other, the bass setting a pace that the percussionist picks up and throws into the air. The treble lines sing and scatter over the top, all of it smoking with raw, electrical power – a kind of aural haze punctuated by repeated snare patterns, with an undertow of congas rooting the sound solidly to the floor. It sounds like the music of expulsion, sounds to clean the palate and the ears.

And maybe something deeper than that. Like much African music, the songs contain messages, instructions for use, the lineaments of tribal lore largely lost on Western ears. "In the old days, a part of the songs was for the ancestors, the spirits. Now we play music for everyone to be happy. But we still play to the ancestors," Mingiedi says.

'Live at Coleur Café' is out now on Crammed Discs