Live Music + Gig Reviews

Congotronics vs Rockers @ Barbican, London

12 July 2011


Constraining music so infectious it’s virtually impossible not to dance to in an all-seater venue might be a somewhat dubious proposition, but other than that there was little to complain about in this jam-to-end-all-jams cross-continental, cross-genre superband love-in, as ‘Congotronics’ (including Konono No1 and Kasai All-Stars) battled ‘Rockers’ (Deerhoof, Wildbirds & Peacedrums, Juana Molina) in a West vs Africa post-rock noisefest to end all noisefests, an African-themed sonic cathedral transported to the Barbican to sort the real musos from the chaff.

For the uninitiated, ‘Congotronics’ is a collective term for various musicians from (guess where?) the Democractic Republic of Congo. In their home country, the genre is known as ‘tradi-moderne’, which essentially means they’ve taken traditional Congolese folk instruments and plugged them in, like grass-skirted, bongo-drumming versions of Bob Dylan if he’d jumped in a time machine and sucked up three decades’ worth of post-rock and before ‘betraying’ his fans.

Recognised for its greatness by Belgian record label Crammed Discs, whose in-house producer and Congotronics champion Vincent Kenis holds everything together tonight, the genre has had unsurprising appeal to Western noiseniks as diverse as American/Japanese post-rockers Deerhoof and Björk, who see kindred spirits in the African experimentalists.

Konono No1, Kasai All-Stars and Deerhoof all join in the inspired cacophony tonight, as do Sweden’s Wildbirds & Peacedrums, Skeletons drummer Matt Mehlan and Argentina’s Juana Molina, who acts as close to a frontwoman as the proceedings can boast. In total, the ensemble cast outdoes Steve Reich (whose influence and influences abound) by one, comprising 19 musicians split relatively evenly between guitars, electric African thumb-pianos, rock drums and Congolese percussion, plus a keyboard. All 19 of them take to the stage together and try to out-noise one another for the best part of an hour and a half.

The African beats dominate, but filtered through a rock edge it’s hard not to see how brilliantly these two genres have followed their separate paths to a convergent evolutionary precipice that meshes them together perfectly. Rock takes its roots from the African music brought to American shores by slaves; Congotronics takes what a century of US and Western musicians did with it after that, applies it back to their own folk music, produces something utterly brilliant, and throws the result out to the West to see what we can do with it next.

Tunes are thin on the ground, it has to be said, along with harmony, melody and any of that other nonsense. In its place is a sea of polyrhythmic feedback that could challenge the happiest of hardcore to get the dancefloor on its feet. And gradually, the audience can’t resist anymore – from one lone dancer in the middle of the back row and a small group to his right, more and more lose their English reserve and are dragged to their feet so that by the end, the whole audience is swaying along to the irresistible beats. Whatever else might be said about the Belgians, they gave Congotronics to the West. Post-rock, sonic cathedral world music. Go on, you know you want to.

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Congotronics vs Rockers @ Barbican, London