The West still has a tendency to evaluate music from Africa in slightly condescending terms – witness how anything rhythmic or percussion-led is so often described as tribal, like it just shuffled up in a grass skirt waving a spear. Of course, anyone listening to a good amount of music from the continent will know the African nations are as subject to the contemporary cultural tides as anywhere on Earth. And it’s perhaps Konono No.1, a street dance band from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who most neatly encapsulates this mélange of modernity and tradition.
Africa has long been the junkyard of the West, and it’s in this territory of discarded scrap that Konono make their home. Founded in 1980 by likembé master Mawangu Mingiedi, Konono fuse the polyrhythmic dance sounds of Bazombo trance with a spirit of makeshift invention: scrap metal drums, homemade speakers built with magnets salvaged from car radios, and so on. One suspects that their debut album, 2005’s Congotronics, won critical plaudits because of rather than despite its roughshod vigour – and if the long-awaited follow-up, Assume Crash Position, takes a softer, more organic approach, it hasn’t tempered their sense of electric motion.
This fuller sound comes courtesy of an extended band, which sees Mingiedi’s original line-up augmented by new personnel including a raft of new vocalists, guitarist Manuaku Pepe Felly and members of fellow Congotronics band Kasai Allstars. There is evidence of a cleaner sound, too – those electric likembé thumb pianos, which once blasted through distortion, now sing slightly cleaner, and the crash of scrap drums is subsumed deeper into the mix. Under Mingiedi’s command, though, you feel the band still have the leadership to turn on a dime: see how Thin Legs switches from its menacing, polyrhythmic opening to a sudden explosion of melody, male and female voices interlocking joyfully.
Assume Crash Position comes to a head with Konono Wa Wa Wa, which builds to a delirious climax, likembé soloing with all the cartoonish intricacy of bluegrass banjo plucking. The album ends in new territory for Konono – a mournful solo piece by Mingiedi where he details his romantic woes over chimes of unplugged thumb piano.
Assume Crash Position doesn’t have the immediate impact of Congotronics, but it shows Konono are still morphing and innovating, led by a spirit of discovery – and whatever they find and pick up along the way.