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Konono No.1: Assume Crash Position

img  Tobias Fischer

The increasing speed and power of contemporary communication technology have caused the exchange of cultural information to proliferate. And yet, rather than treating it as something uniquely its own, music from different cultural backgrounds is still for the most part bluntly assimilated - we hear what our ears have been trained to hear rather than what is actually there. A good case in point was Congotronics, the 2004 debut album by Konono No. 1 who were re-discovered by Belgian musician and producer Vincent Kenis after a lengthy search in the band's native Congo: Some rags likened it to Indie-Pop. Others dwelt on the sonic similarities with Rock n Roll. Journalists from the realms of electronic music stressed the connection with Detroit Techno. Comparisons with 70s Psychedelia and Krautrock were made. Punk bands started covering their songs. Björk and Tortoise performed live with them on the same bill. And crowds on both sides of the Atlantic started dancing to the irresistible beats of „Bazombo Trance Music“ - a term which was just as alien and new to Konono's only remaining founding member Mawangu Mingied as the word used to describe the sound of his unique self-built instruments: „distortion“. But amidst all the justified exultation and blissful enthusiasm, some of the most essential aspects of the music got lost.

It is highly unlikely that Assume Crash Position, the official follow-up to Congotronics, will be instrumental in recovering them – if only because, discounting two low-profile live albums released in the wake of their debut, this, only their second studio full-length in forty years, at least outwardly follows in the footsteps of its predecessor. Pieces may be a tad longer this time around, frequently clocking in around the ten-minute mark and thereby bringing them closer to the occasionally three-quarter-of-an-hour-long uninterrupted in-promptu interpretations of their stage appearances at home. But the fundamentals of their music have essentially remained the same: Most of these tunes oscillate between melodic vocal sections and extensive instrumental passages, between carefully timed, composed themes and relatively free-form improvisations, in which the players arrive at constantly new constellations of the group as a whole and their function within it.

Switchovers between these poles are fluent and rarely as outspoken as on „Konono Wa Wa Wa“, on which one of the performers – impatient to finally step it up – bursts into the chorus with a smattering of fuzzy notes, all but forcing the rest of the formation to follow suite. Rather, they are enacted as soft, almost absent-minded transitions: The tempo of the percussive instruments will gently pick up pace, the soloists are coming to the fore with increased incisiveness, electronic effects are all but imperceptibly altering the material and occasionally, timbrally differentiated instrumental layers are adding finely nuanced colours to the ensemble, thereby setting the ensuing section apart from what came before. Thematically, meanwhile, they seem to be entirely unrelated, with the improvisations in no obvious way developing or even alluding to the motives presented in the vocal parts. This sensation of being rocked hence and forth is further underlined by a sound that is airy and weightless rather than, as one might expect from its associations with electronic dance music, heavy and pumping. In many ways, Konono No. 1 are pursuing an approach that is diametrically opposed to the aesthetics of Dub. Rather than leading the ensemble, the bass instead withdraws into a realm of intermittent, delicate thumps. And rather than striving for a minimalism of means, this colourful quilt sewn from myriads of simultaneous events benefits from a tendency towards a rainbow-like side-by-sideness of various instrumental colours and metrums: While the band lay down a slow, stubborn groove, singing is taking place at a break-neck speed and with long, expressive melodic solo-arches, sometimes stretching out over many bars before coming full-circle and being answered by the rest of the group. The effect is stupefying, effectively disproving the naive idea of trance music as being repetitive, dark and hypnotic: On Assume Crash Position, everything is fluctuating, dreamy and lucid, lifting the body off the ground and bringing it into sympathetic resonance with the sound, the groove, the melody, the flow.

The fragile balance between these poles is upheld by Konono No 1's instrument of choice, the likembé, an utterly individual, self-built and electrically amplified variation of the popular kalimba or thumb piano. Its sound resides somewhere between that of a detuned electric Rhodes, a dirty steel drum and a metallically ringing vibraphone. It is both angelic and rusty, sweet and aggressive, elegant and massive and its instantly recognisable timbre, next to the typical arrangement of the music, contributes an essential quality to the material. One can therefore, with some justification, regard the process of constructing the instrument as an integral part of the compositional process, especially so as of the currently nine band members, five are either playing likembé or its deeper brother, the powerful bass likembé. The booklet to Assume Crash Position takes one straight to the places where their raw  materials are culled from: The Ndjili second-hand car parts market in Kinshasa, a smattering of now-empty houses reworked into improvised stores and small acres of land strewn with old car parts. Never content with the instrument's inherently relatively low dynamic range,  Mingiedi fitted it with a guitar pickup, thereby allowing him to communicate at eye- and ear-level with percussion and electric bass. It also allowed him to assume a wide variety of positions in the ensemble, ranging from accompanying the singers and rhythmical support to ferocious, spellbinding solos.

The most striking feature of Assume Crash Position, however, lies in an aspect all but entirely neglected until now: Songwriting. Effectively, the band comprises four ambitious tunesmiths, each with his very own, recognisable script. Menga Waku's contributions are concise and marked by an emphasis on rhythm. Augustin Makuntima Mawangu's are captivatingly diverse, ranging from the sensitive, silky „Mama na Bana“ to the propulsive, stomping „Fula Fula“. Pauline Mbuka Nsiala's catchy „Wumbazanga“ is turned into a Leitmotif of the entire full-length, with the intro being picked up again on „Guiyome“. Mingiedi, meanwhile, signs responsible for the rest of the material and the most obviously melodic inventions. On closer „Nakobala Lisusu Te“, a wounded, brittly beautiful piece lamenting the decline of love in modern times, sung by him personally and accompanied to the serene sound of two plaintive likembés, he also approximates the purity and sadness of the Blues – a feat already hinted at in the opening section of „Makembe“, when, for a few bars, the band touchingly perform the song „unplugged“, before launching into the assault of the electric version.

The album is held together by the way pieces seem to consistently relate to each other – most strikingly perhaps in the transition between „Guiyome“ and „Konono Wa Wa Wa“, which form a coherent entity rather than two separate movements. It is a sign that, despite these superficial traits, Konono No. 1 are working towards a musical symbiosis as part of which the borderline between individual tracks is finally disappearing and the cohesive approach of their roots is coming to the fore in perfect clarity. Perhaps when they have attained that goal, one will finally be able to appreciate their music for what it is – rather than for what it mysteriously seems to refer to.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Konono No.1
Homepage: Crammed Discs Records

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