Kinshasa’s Konono No 1 remain one of the most exhilarating live acts in the world. Last year, they transformed Cafe Oto, London’s usually thoughtful home of improvised music and other radical fringes, into a sweaty, heaving celebratory dancehall. That this metamorphosis took place in spite of repeated technical problems with the amplification of one of the band’s likembes (the thumb pianos that define their sound and approach) is testament to the resilient, insistent power of their hypnotic grooves.
For their latest project on the excellent Crammed Discs label, Konono team up with a very different kind of artist, Portugal’s Pedro Coquenao (better known by his alias, Batida). Whilst Konono’s music depends on the energy generated by the stoicism, endurance and power of an ensemble, Batida operates more as a sound collagist (he is a documentary and radio producer as well as a DJ). The ostensible connection is that his two albums on the Soundway label have drawn on Angolan music for some of the sampled material.
Whilst they hail from Kinshasa, Konono are also part of the Bakongo ethnic group. Geographically, this group has resided in an area that forms part of both Congo and Angola. Whilst the instrumentation in the music Batida has used is very different, there are some notable rhythmic similarities and musical priorities (particularly in the primacy of groove). The characteristic elements of Konono’s sound are all present and correct here – the pitched bells (played by vocalist Pauline Mbuka Nsiala), the recurring motifs played on the likembes (and often echoed in the vocals) and the propulsive energy of a skeletal drum kit.
What is perhaps most interesting about this collaboration is the way in which these fundamental elements have been carefully intertwined with a range of electronics. The interaction between what often feels like club music pulse and the phrasing of the likembes results in fascinating and compelling cross rhythms. The opening track Niele Kalusimbiko surreptitiously subsumes the drums within an insistent four to the floor house pulse, amplifying the music’s trance-like effect. Bom Dia incorporates regimented handclaps as well as a drum machine. On Kinsumba, Konono’s voices are even chopped and re-arranged, as if to gently rouse the listener from a trance.
Konono are known for stretching out musically in long instrumental passages separating their vocal chant themes, and there are two long tracks here (Tokolanda and Nxonzing Familia) where they are at their most ruthless and effective – improvisatory but also defiantly minimal and streamlined. There is nothing extraneous in their sound, and every sound either supports or enhances the groove. These tracks contrast neatly with moments where the vocals become the centrepiece of proceedings, and where they are allowed to flourish free from musical development or distraction. Niele Kalusimbiko also features the Bissau-Guinean poet AF Diaphra as part of the vocal section, whilst Bom Dia strips out the likembes altogether to focus on the relationship between voices, percussion and subtle synth contributions.
It is of course again worth highlighting the essential role of producer Vincent Kenis in these projects. He has also produced hugely important albums for Staff Benda Bilili and Kasai Allstars, and here demonstrates how comfortable he is working across a range of musical idioms. He is as adept at capturing the rawness of Konono’s megaphone PA sound as he is in experimenting with electronics, samples and editing. The resulting album, jubilant and enthralling, is really a three way collaboration between the two artists and Kenis.