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Konono N°1: “We sing about love”

KononoMawangu Mingiedi is around five feet tall; he plays concerts standing stock still and wearing a cloth cap and windbreaker, and his instrument is the thumb piano. And at 73, he is the leader of the world’s ultimate buzz band. Not only is Konono N°1 receiving accolades from hot indie web sites and music magazines, but their sound is distinctively, and uniquely, fuzzy.

When Mingiedi came to Kinshasa in the mid-’60s from rural Congo, the ex-truck driver was determined to play the traditional Bazombo music that his parents and grandparents had passed down to him, using a likembe (or thumb piano) made up of small metal rods attached to a wooden board. So that his instrument could heard in cafés above the city’s noise, he rigged up amplification using a car alternator and homemade megaphones – adding even more distortion to the likembe’s natural buzz.

Sitting in a muggy room by a swimming pool at his Montreal hotel, the animated Mingiedi recalls: “I saw people who played modern music, and they had big drums and cymbals, and I said, ‘Where am I going to find the money to get things like that?’ I went into garbage bins; I picked up some casserole covers. They worked!”

Mingiedi recruited musicians to accompany him on likembe and scavenged percussion, and together, in the mid-’70s, they made a recording with a travelling French radio producer. When Belgian producer Vincent Kenis heard the music, he was transfixed. Here, the group’s history becomes clouded; Kenis himself has said that he was first exposed to the music in 1979 and it took him two decades to track down the group, whereas Mingiedi insists Kenis heard it in 1999 and it was just a matter of a few phone calls to get in touch with him. In any case, we do know that Kenis recorded the group over the past few years; the result is the album Congotronics 1, which figured in 2005 “Best- of” lists from CMJ, Mojo, and Pitchfork.

Kenis has described Konono N°1’s sound as “African punk,” and the press has heralded their music’s confrontational qualities: The Independent calls it “furious and deafening,” while The Guardian‘s Alexis Petridis, after seeing the band in France, wondered “how an audience could withstand such an onslaught.” At the Spectrum in Montreal last week, however, the DIY nature of the instruments was the only thing remotely punk about Konono #1’s concert. The group’s infamous distortion gradually disappeared from the mix, as lead singer and bass likembe player Waku Menga, resembling an elated tourist in his “Canada” baseball cap and Jazz Festival T-shirt, exhorted the crowd to “move!” As the audience swayed to the group’s interlocking rhythms, the upbeat vibe recalled that of the neo-hippie “Tam Tam” drumming/dancing sessions held at the foot of Mount Royal on Sunday afternoons.

As Mingiedi explains, through an interpreter who translates his Lingala (a Bantu language) into French: “We sing about love. The music of Konono dates back a long time; back then, there were no schools to instruct people and families, and when there were problems, our ancestors used songs to instruct those who had made mistakes.”

The foundation of Konono N°1 is in family, and since those who accompanied Mingiedi in the first edition of his group have now passed away, his current roster of musicians is based on relatives; his son, Mawangu Makuntima, plays likembe beside him on stage. Other family members have created spinoffs, leading to the band’s current name.

“My group was always called ‘Mingiedi’s Group,'” says the patriarch. “But we had a song that my nephew composed, and that everyone loved. People started calling us ‘The Group that Sings Konono.’ Eventually it became just ‘Konono.’ When my nephew felt capable of creating his own group, he called it ‘Konono N°2,’ and my group was automatically ‘N°1.’ ”

The word “Konono” itself signifies becoming rigid, as in rigor mortis. The band plays their theme song (appropriately enough) at Congolese funerals, but also, incredibly, at weddings – with alternate lyrics that make it more suitable.

At home, says Mingiedi, older listeners “know that I played all the old songs, and they listen with a lot of respect. There are teenagers who understand only the rhythm; they don’t understand what I say or what we sing, but for me, I try to safeguard the culture.”

Even as they tour the Western world and collaborate with other artists (including a recent studio session for Björk’s upcoming new album), Konono N°1 continue to delight Congolese audiences, furthering Mingiedi’s project of cultural transmission — they’re also a big hit at baptisms. When there are no Western promoters slotting the group into rigidly-organized 45-minute sets, the band prefers to play for six hours at a stretch.

When asked how he summons the energy to play these long shows, Mingiedi rises up in his wicker chair and punches the air with vigour.

“I am old, it’s true, but I’m still strong! I make my living doing this. I’ve never felt weak. Sometimes, I ask myself whether my age gives me my strength!”

— Originally published in The National Post

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