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V.A.: Tradi-Mods vs Rockers

img  Tobias Fischer

In Stanisław Lem's classic science fiction novel Solaris, the excitement over the discovery of an alien intelligence is quickly dampened by humanity's incapacity of grasping its meaning. Lem's message is pessimistic, all the more since it clearly doesn't merely relate to cosmic matters. Wherever we go and despite our inbuilt curiosity, Solaris suggests, we are merely looking for familiar patterns and a mirror of ourselves. As has been mentioned previously, it is an implication which came to mind around the time Crammed Disc's Congotronics-series was first initiated. Excitement and word of mouth spilt from one blog and music fan to the next: That, in the middle of the Congolese bush, far away from the „Western“ music industry and almost ignorant of every single trend that had established itself in the media, a few bands had independently invented and predated techno, punk rock, indie-rock and trance. The two bands leading this pack of fresh discoveries – Konono No. 1 and the Kasai Allstars – humorously accepted the attention kindly bestowed on them and, instead of joining in the debate, simply replied with the means they've held most dear for their entire lives: Performing and touring incessantly, re-inventing themselves each night in the power of the moment and in gigs which, if permitted, could last several hours and leave the audience as depleted and delirious as the musicians on stage. As if to acknowledge this imperative of the concert over the studio, it wasn't their ravingly received official debut Congotronics, but live album Live At Couleur Cafe which was rewarded with a Grammy nomination.

Tradi-Mods vs Rockers - Alternative Takes on Congotronics
- a double album on which twenty six acts from (partly) Europe and (predominantly) the USA revisit the originals - was therefore, almost by default, not going to end up just another typical tribute sampler. Rather, it can be regarded as a sort of acknowledgement of just how deep and incisive the impact of these pieces really has been and how wide their fans are spread out across the globe and different genres. As if stylistic definitions established over decades meant nothing at all, the record encompasses electronica and country, bridges the divide between sound art and punk rock, juxtaposes epic explorations with charming miniatures, presents a cornucopia of ideas in one instant only to reduce things to a strictly reduced set of parameters the next. The membranes between the deepest underground and household names are permeable, with the line-up comprising both Animal Collective and Columbian drone sculptor Bear Bones, Lay Low, both dubstep wizard Shackleton and punk rockers Michachu & The Shapes, both Dub shaman Mark Ernestus and art avantgardists Deerhoof. Not once does this combination seem contrived or forced and the enthusiasm the project has inspired shows through in the booklet, in which glowing appraisals of the Congotronic sound and philosophy take turns.

The reason why these perceived paradoxes, rather than clashing and crashing at every single moment, are instead enjoying each other's company is that the determining concepts of Tradi-Mods vs Rockers are not running along the lines of genre, but ideas. Effectively, the album represents a firework of individuality, with every single artist or band approaching the material from their own, personal angle: Hoquets are emphasising the do-it-yourself-approach of their colleagues from Congo, by playing a set of self-built instruments on their upliftingly raucous „Likembes“. Wilko's Glenn Kotche focuses on the playful patter of Konono No 1's percussion, always a rhythmical propulsion and a labyrinthine world of sound at the same time. Lonely Drifter Karen merely took their inspiration from the album title of Kasai Allstars' „In the 7th Moon the Chief turned into a Swimming Fish and ate the Head of his Enemy by Magic“, incorporating it into the lyrics of the pure pop of „Hunting on the Moon“. Mark Ernestus recreated the simultaneity of a stable groove and irregular patterns in his „Masikulu Dub“, while Bear Bones, Lay Low engaged in a studio improvisation with sample snippets of „Kule Kule“. Some responded to the „pure, fierce, loud and distorted“ sound of these formations, others to their “rhythmical flexibility“. While the immediate, raw and lo-fi production was tantamount, others were forced to put their entire approach to playing into question after being exposed to the intricacy and to-the-point power of the Congotronics ensembles. Regardless of the level of engagement, however, every single of these pieces highlights a different aspect and not only do they all seem to be valid, but actually lead to at times exhilarating musical results in the process.

At the same time, one can't help but feel that the misunderstanding of this music predating or corresponding with developments in Europe and the States (Asia, with the exception of Ey3's maniacal „Konono Wa Wa Wa“, is notably absent from this sampler) is still widespread. Sylvain Chauveau's comment with regards to „Makembe“, that there may be „a secret passage between Congotronics and experimental music“ by the likes of pioneering improv band AMM, may be tongue in cheek, but it does suggest that these lines are comparable. Reading new ideas into this music, one could say, is by no means a problem per se, but it does pull the music into the safe realm of our own vocabulary rather than trying to understand it from its own position. Most of all, it doesn't help in providing new insight into what really makes up the magic of Congotronics. Jherek Bischoff's orchestral version of „Kule Kule“ is a good example: Possibly the most sweeping and ferociously euphoric contribution of all here, Bischoff decided to transcribe the entire piece to Western notation and then spent a blissful day visiting some of his musician friends to record the different parts. The result is a piece of madcap minimalism, a fulminate continuum of grooves, a constant roar of trombones, sizzling polyrhythmic violins and a psychedelic quilt of shifting accents and emphases. At the same time, this literal transferal bizarrely does not manage to capture the essence of the original, but turns it into something entirely different – something actually acknowledged by Bischoff when mentioning that the absence of the recognisable microtonal nuances is a natural consequence of his procedure. Just like Hungarian composer Béla Bartók discovered he was unable, in using conventional notes and staves, to put down on paper a seemingly simple folk tune, the real magic, his piece reveals by surprisingly not being able to capture it, is located outside of the traditions that have come to define our world.

This is why two cuts which may not be immediately among the most striking seem to work best. On the one hand, Shackleton's ten-minute-long „Mukuba Special“, might, as he puts it himself, „sound a bit strange to the Kasai Allstars“, but actually manages to recreate the dream-time inherent in these pieces, which never „develop“ along the lines of song-structures or motivic transformation but rather through lateral movements and the insistent massaging of a particular nerve. And, secondly, Megafaun's take on Kisanzi Kongo's „Conjugal Mirage“, which doesn't represent an attempt at fusion, nor at a comparison. Rather, it proposes a parallelism, namely that Congotronics is to African folk music what Alt-Folk is to America's traditions: A respectful extension, a continuation of a lineage into the present, an enrichment of the palette and a dialogue between the past and the future. It is a historical view, which makes complete sense and doesn't neglect the fact that, all by themselves, these processes are necessarily similar in their nature, reflecting universal and global movements towards an emancipation of noise and dissonance, an increased involvement of technology and a tendency of lyrics to try and uphold the relevance of the music in times when the words seem to have become anachronistic.

In Solaris, commander Pirk leaves the space station orbiting the planet disillusioned and depressed, but on  Tradi-Mods vs Rockers, the end is far more uplifting. Regardless of intentions and concepts, after all, the work demonstrates that the confrontation with different cultures does not need to be fruitless. This album wasn't intended to yield intellectual and philosophical insight, but rather to thank a group of bands for their stimuli and to hope for the dialogue to continue. On the strength of these claims, the effort has a decidedly communicative and uniting effect rather than a separating one.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Crammed Discs Records

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