Out of all the uselessly broad genre labels like "alternative" or "electronic," the "world music" tag is the by far the most distasteful. The idea essentially being: "Let's just toss all indigenous sounds that don't try to emulate American culture together, and repackage the music for over-privileged white yuppies." Well, the Democratic Republic of Congo's Konono No. 1 is a far cry from your NPR-lovin' dad's "world music." Their sound is one that is wild, urgent, and absolutely breathtaking.
The group's ringleader, Mawangu Mingiedi, is a virtuoso of the likembé (commonly referred to as the thumb piano), his roots lying in Zombo ritual music that was originally belted out on horns made from elephant tusks. While Konono No. 1 certainly plays on the polyrhythm and physical pulse of traditional African music, they add something that's new to the mix—electricity. The ensemble's remarkable, if rudimentary, sound system is made up of three electric likembés, amplified by homemade microphones made from salvaged auto part magnets, scrap metal percussion, and towering megaphones.
Konono No. 1, in one incarnation or another, can trace back its origins to around 1978, but the history of this unique style of music goes back further still. In 1960, the Belgian Congo gained independence and became the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the wake of the inevitable political unrest, the Belgians left, leaving behind hundreds of cars, whose parts were salvaged by street musicians. In one of the truest examples of DIY culture, street performers with exceptionally sparse resources utilized whatever they found to make genuine, impassioned music.
Konono No. 1 is a testament to the universal threads that bind all music. The group has also made a few high-profile friends along the way, such as Björk, who enlisted their collaboration on her new studio album, Volta. This is Konono No. 1's first visit to Portland, and I wouldn't count on a repeat visit anytime in the near future. So step away from your blogs and CD-Rs for a night, and see what DIY is really about.