When Konono No 1’s Congotronics landed in 2004, it turned world music upside down. A multi-generational group from Kinshasa in Democratic Republic of the Congo, its ‘tradi-modern’ sound – Bazombo ritual music played on electrified likembé thumb pianos and scrap percussion through jerry-rigged amplifiers – was crude, raw and enormously fun.
“I first heard Konono in the ’80s, on a tape by a guy working for Congolese radio,” recalls Vincent Kenis, producer with the Belgium-based label Crammed Discs. “It took me 20 years to find them!” Kenis persuaded Konono’s late founder Mingiedi Mawangu to form a new ensemble. “At the beginning, it was artificial. I’d say, ‘Can you play with that person?’ They’d say, ‘No.’ I’d say, ‘Try it anyway.’ And it worked.”
Congotronics was an international sensation. Konono No 1 toured globally and collaborated with Björk and Herbie Hancock, while 2010’s Tradi-Mods Vs Rockers: Alternative Takes On Congotronics saw Crammed enlist non-African artists to reinterpret the Congotronics sound. Next came a tour – an ambitious run of European dates uniting Konono and Kasai Allstars with western admirers including Deerhoof, Juana Molina and Skeletons.
Before the Congotronics International tour kicked off, the 21 musicians spent seven days writing and rehearsing in Brussels. But with no common spoken or musical language, the scale of the task quickly became apparent. Planned songs fell apart as neither party could agree on how to make the rhythms work. “We all made a huge effort to connect to everyone else, but it was an incredible strain,” says Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier. “Not a day went by without somebody breaking down in tears.”