Konono No.1 - Biography
By Nick Castro
Konono No 1 means "All-Powerful Likembe Orchestra". This seems a fitting name for this hard-driving electrified likembe band. A likembe is much like a thumb piano or kalimba. Konono members build their own large versions of these instruments with various parts picked up from a local junkyard. They use magnets ripped from old car alternators wrapped in copper wire in place of traditional pickups and microphones. They use lance-voix, an old-fashioned tool used to spread propaganda, in place of speakers. Their sound is distorted and raw, an aesthetic often associated with punk music. Connections have also been drawn between Konono and electronica and krautrock, however, the band has had little or no exposure to these Western musics. They claim absolute authenticity and originality. The music they play is a modernized version of what they grew up hearing and playing at births, marriages and funerals. Some songs are, for instance, meant to help welcome the dead to the world of their ancestors. Konono's leader says, “That's what we call masikilu. It's a style of music. It used to be played with drums and a trumpet made out of an elephant's task. I took that sound and modified it by using the likembe, the thumb piano, likembe. It was made out of bamboo back then. But I also used to play a lot with electronics, radios and whatnot. Then one day I just hit me. I decided to convert the bamboo to metal so I could make a better sound from the likembe. We still play for our ancestors and everyone who has departed. They are here all the time. Although I have changed from the bamboo to the metal and the electronics, I'm still communicating with my ancestors all the time..."
The band consists of leader Mawangu Mingiedi, a septegenarean and former truck driver, along with his sons, grandsons and cousins. Mingiedi is the heart of the group and said to be the first person ever to create an electrified version of the traditional likembe. While there is much mystery and conflicting stories around the group, it's believed Mingiedi is the only surviving original member from the group he claims began in 1966. Hailing from Kinshasa, capitol of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the first recorded evidence of the bands existence is a 26 minute track recorded in 1978 by the radio station France Culture. Mingiedi is a very proud though sometimes frustrated man. He says, "So our music used to attract a lot of different kinds of people, musicians included. Then all of a sudden I started hearing my songs on the radio. People who are used to playing electric guitars, they would copy my songs, modify a little bit, and then they would exploit it. They did that for many, many, many years. Nyoko Longo. Zaiko Langa Langa. 70s. 80s. Now Werra Son. All of them. They need me. They can't do anything without me. They need to listen to me, my likembe, the combination of drums, and the sound. So they take it and perfect it. But from then until today, here I am, empty handed.”
It's likely that none outside of Congo would ever had heard Konono were it not for the efforts of Belgian producer Vincent Kenis, who spent many years bringing the music of the Congo and surrounding areas to the rest of the world. Formerly of the avant garde band Aksak Maboul, and the experimental rock group The Honeymoon Killers, Kenis, in the late eighties worked together, as a musician, with OK Jazz's Franco Luambo Makiadi and famous soukous singer Papa Wemba. Later, he would produce albums for Congolese groups Kisanzi Kongo, Masanka Sankayi, Basokin and Kasai Allstars. Kenis recorded Konono in 2002 in Kinsasha, using a sixteen track laptop recording setup. He brought with him some Fender amplifiers which was pleasing to the musicians because the looked so professional in comparison with their own jerry-rigged amplifiers. No one however, was please with the ultra clean sound of these amps so Kenis used a distortion pedal to mimic more closely their original sound. Ultimately, they all agreed to use both setups and blend the sounds together. Kenis also greatly increased the bass at the request of the musicians. Kenis felt that many other white producers of world music fell into the trap of thinking they knew best what the western listeners wanted to hear, in turn putting their own unnatural touch on the recording. "So" says Kenis, "the logical thing to do was to bring some of the musicians into the hotel room, and ask them, ‘What do you want? How do you feel the balance should be? How loud should this instrument be? What you think about the sound of this and that?’ And it was really amazing. Because there was no cultural filter between us anymore. It was just music, sounds, trying to make it work through speakers, which is what production should be about, and not a power game between black and white, which I really dislike." He even showed the players how to use the graphic equalizers and let them adjust the levels as they saw fit. Three years later, the album Congotronics (2005 - Crammed Discs) was released. Instantly it made huge waves in the underground record scene and reached beyond the blanket term of world music.
Konono No 1 is now known throughout the world. They collaborated with Icelandic singer-songwriter Bjork for her 2007 release Volta (2007 - Universal), overdubbing their thumb piano on her pre-recorded tracks. The band also opened for her on numerous tour dates in support of the album. Konono can also count American pop star Beck, and Dutch experimental rock band The Ex amongst their fans. they have recently released the collaborative compilation album Congotronics 2: Buzz 'n' Rumble from the Urb 'n' Jungle (2006 - Crammed Discs). On this album they are joined by Kinshasa bands Masanka Sankayi, Kasai Allstars, Sobanza Mimanisa, Kisanzi Congo, Bolia We Ndenge and Basokin. The mix of electric guitars and electrified thumb pianos played by the younger groups reveals the influence Konono has had on their region in the last 25 years.