The Kasai Allstars - when five tribes get it on

The Kasai Allstars let rip on the latest explosion of the Congotronics sound. By Tim Cumming
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The Independent Culture

Twenty-first century Kinshasa must rank pretty low on the list of desirable destinations. There have been two devastating Congolese wars in the past decade, and only the most basic infrastructure has survived the peace.

A country that once thrilled to the soukous of Papa Wembe, Franco and OK Jazz through the post-colonial decades now has no music industry to speak of – and scarcely any CD, record or cassette players to play its music on, or the electricity to power them. It's too poor even to host a bootleg industry.

Yet the urban tribal music of Kinshasa survives. In the past few years, this musical raw material, buzzing with a scrapyard of instruments soldered and scraped together for open-air, front-yard performances, has achieved cult status among the world's post-rockers and avant-gardists.

It was in Kinshasa, at the turn of the millennium, that Konono No 1 were discovered by the Belgian musicologist and producer Vincent Kenis. Their acclaimed Congotronics album was released on Kenis's record label Crammed in 2001. It astounded listeners worldwide with its mix of the futuristic and the tribal. Musicians such as Björk became fans and invited Konono to play on their own albums.

In 2005, Kenis released Congotronics, packaged with a DVD filmed during recording sessions in Kinshasa. The album brought together bands such as Basokin, Masanka Sankayi, and the remarkable retro-futurist, lost-world rock'n'roll rumble of the Kasai Allstars, fronted by Basokin's singer. It also showcased the composer and storyteller Mi Amor, a man somewhere in his mid-fifties who's dedicated his life to preserving the traditional music of his native Kasai province. "My grandfather housed the musical instruments of his village, and myfather was a musician," Mi Amor says. "But I was theeldest son and I wasn't supposed to play music, so I left the village and settled in Kinshasa. It's the same for many musicians; you go to the capital to play."

The power of music as a ritual force enveloped him from birth. "I had a brother who died when he was very young and to prevent the same thing happening to me, I was surrounded by music night and day – my mother had to sing to me all the time. She soaked me in it."

Congotronics' third volume focuses on the repertoire of the Kasai Allstars. Captain Beefheart would love the title – In the Seventh Moon the Chief Turned Into a Swimming Fish and Ate the Head of His Enemy by Magic. It perfectly matches the discombobulating impact of the music, but it's dance rather than lyrics that provides the basis of the title's vivid imagery.

"During the enthronement of a new chief," Mi Amor explains, "the chief's dance impersonates all the forces of the universe, all the animals – lions, eagles, as many animals as possible that represent power." The seventh moon refers to the month of July; when people want to put a spell on others, traditionally they do it then. "That's when your son dies, that's when your mother gets sick... If you provoke somebody or insult somebody, they'll wait for the seventh moon to settle the score."

The Kasai Allstars is a collective of about 25 musicians from six bands and five tribes – the Luba, Sonye, Lulua, Tetela and Luntu – who originally come from the Kasai region in the centre of the Congo. Their visceral, hypnotic electrification of Kasai tribal music expands the palette of Congotronics with a richly polyrhythmic wall of sound provided by the likembe (thumb piano) augmented by beautifully distorted electric guitars, huge, buzzing resonator drums, slit drums, xylophones and tamtams.

Congolese traditional music divides along tribal lines, but the Kasai Allstars' fusion of five very different ethnic traditions is a genuinely radical step. They're making music that no one has heard before. "There's no such thing as a Kasai neighbourhood in Kinshasa," says Mi Amor, when asked about the Allstars' origins. "But many groups perform in the same area because that's where you can play music live and go out on a Saturday night."

It was Vincent Kenis who had the idea of an Allstar band. "I had been following urban Kasai music in Kinshasa for years, but I couldn't afford to bring the different groups I knew to Europe. So I asked them if it would it be possible to take three of one group, three of another, and try to make a common repertoire."

The idea was unpopular at first. Each group fielded different instruments with different tunings and repertoires – and even different languages. "All these people played for their own community, in their own neighbourhood, and weren't used to working together," Kenis says. "But I noticed that one of the xylophone players was a master who knew all the tricks. He would keep filing the keys to make a perfect tuning. I proposed to him, as a challenge, that he play with another tuning. The idea more or less got together after that, and while I was away they decided to try it."

The first line-up, 14 strong, toured Belgium in September 2000. "Afterwards, I thought; well, that's it, it's not going to last. When you're under the very harsh economic constraints you get in Kinshasa, I thought they would go back to their own groups. But somehow the idea had become so appealing to them that they decided to keep on doing it without any support."

Two years later, Kenis returned to help organise an Allstars tour of Kasai province itself. "Kasai is about the same size as France, right in the centre of the Congo. It was the first time in many years that people from Kasai saw a traditional Kasai group performing on stage. It generated a lot of enthusiasm. So that was a good reason to keep trying to do it."

Recordings were made on Kenis's laptop after returning to Kinshasa. "It was done completely live, either outside the local bar they used or in the back garden of a friend," he says. "You can't record this kind of music in a studio."

The Kasai's festive and ritual music was played in the bush long before the arrival of Europeans. Colonial authorities were stringent in suppressing the erotic dances and pagan trance ceremonies, which they perceived as dangerous and unholy. Today, the prevalence of American Pentecostal churches has more or less wiped out traditional music in the villages. "They call it profane music, the Devil's music," says Mi Amor. "Those who play it are ostracised. Nowadays, traditions are kept more alive in the cities than in the villages. They can't see what you're doing there."

He tells of going home to his native village in 1983 and being greeted by traditional musicians who played all night. "When I last went back in 2006, there were no musicians at all. My brother had to go and buy a cassette player, and the cassette they played was my cassette from Kinshasa." Mi Amor smiles ruefully. "Nowadays it's easier to find thumb pianos, slit drums and marimbas in the northern hemisphere than it is in the cities or villages of the Congo."

Without a musicologist's knowledge, the labyrinthine roots of Kasai's inter-tribal music remain hidden to most Western listeners. But what isn't lost in translation is the raw, visceral power of the band, a power born of the emergency conditions of its making, and that connects with something universal. How else to explain its worldwide success? Congotronics has been called "the sound of rock'n'roll sucked back to the continent of its birth", but it's not really source music we're listening to, not the sound of where we came from, as much as the sound of where we're going.

'In the Seventh Moon the Chief Turned Into a Swimming Fish and Ate the Head of His Enemy By Magic' is out now on Crammed Discs