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Hearing African Roots in Konono's Music

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

For more than 25 years a small band of resourceful musicians, who live in Bazombo on the border between Congo and Angola, have been making a strange and wonderful music. The group is Konono No. 1, and the album entitled "Congotronics" has just been released. Tom Moon has this review.

(Soundbite of music)

TOM MOON reporting:

It sounds at first like there's a massive party happening a few blocks away.

(Soundbite of music)

MOON: If the recording seems raw, that's because just about everything, except the police whistles, are homemade. The voices come through a megaphone that looks like the speaker from an antique record player. They call them voice throwers. The percussionists play on traditional conga drums and instruments made out of scrap metal and car parts. At the heart of this music are three thumb pianos called likembe. There's a bass likembe and two others pitched higher.

(Soundbite of music)

MOON: There's lots of fuzz around the sound, and that's because of the way these thumb pianos are amplified. Band leader Mawangu Mingiedi realized he could make his likembe louder using makeshift amplifiers hooked up to car batteries. The scrap-heap system introduces distortion that the group initially felt was a bad thing, but now it's become their trademark.

(Soundbite of music)

MOON: If you were to see the 12-member group performing at home in Kinshasa, they'd be up in front of a massive wall of speakers, hypnotizing followers with waves of relentless sound.

(Soundbite of music)

MOON: When the three likembe players lock into the same phrase together, it's like heavy metal guitars cranked to 11.

(Soundbite of music)

MOON: Konono No. 1 isn't one of those carefully preserved folkloric treasures. This music is an unlikely balance of ancient and ultramodern. It's got a lot in common with the repetitious, keyed up music you hear in trendy dance clubs, and that just might be the way this trance-inducing sound finds a worldwide audience.

(Soundbite of music)

KONONO NO. 1: (Singing in foreign language)

NORRIS: The album "Congotronics" is from Konono No. 1. Our reviewer is Tom Moon.

(Soundbite of music)

KONONO NO. 1: (Singing in foreign language)

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Moon
Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.