Once the likembé was, like its mbira cousin, a thumb piano producing a bluntish sound which in the hands of a virtuoso was a versatile instrument. Mawangu Mingiedi, founder of Konono No 1, was such a musician. But, on moving to Kinshasa, he soon realized that his likembé needed a little more oomph if it were to cut through the urban noise. Which is how Konono came to make a heap of resonators and speakers out of old cars, microphones and much else besides. Oh, and a percussion section of pots and pans, too.
But behind this technical inventiveness, there’s a music that, in its mix of old and new, is vibrant and (stand close to the speakers) vibrating. Its roughshod electrification literally hums. Congotronics is, bar the megaphone-equipped lance-voix (‘voice-throwers’), mostly an instrumental affair. Likembés hammer along, whistles shrill and the percussive patterns get closer in tempo, replicating the raw, elemental quality that made the first electronic dance records so exciting. As the band play live in front of a wall of speakers, the congotronic experience must be formidable, as gut-hitting as a dub reggae event.
Sympathetically handled by Vincent Kenis, the producer behind a quantity of non-Western and electronic musics, Congotronics retains a live ambience that does it credit. Its emphasis is, nevertheless, on variation; you hear it in the way the themes are mutated and distorted. Small wonder that this is the first volume in a series: the crossover potential for this into experimental, dance and post-rock fields is immense.