REVIEW: Konono No 1 at Cafe Oto

Konono No 1 at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2015. All Rights Reserved

Konono No 1
(Cafe Oto, 1 February 2015; final night of 3-day residency; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Ten years ago, thanks to a heads-up from the wonderful Charlie Gillett's radio show, I turned up at a small bar off Regent Street, to witness Kinshasa's Konono No 1 play their first UK gig. Then led by its founder, Mingiedi Mawangu, it was a loud and ragged affair, hot on the heels of their first album for the Belgian Crammed Discs label, Congotronics.

They took off bigtime, playing festivals and touring worldwide, and have been game for all sorts of musical challenges that have kept them on their toes, teaming up with the likes of Björk, Herbie Hancock and The Ex - whose guitarist, Andy Moor, played a strong opening set with saxophonist, John Butcher.

So, the chance of seeing them in the tight confines of Cafe Oto, where their three planned gigs swiftly became five, was an opportunity not to be missed. And, I'll put my cards on the table - this turned out to be right up there as one of the most memorable gigs that Cafe Oto have put on.

Playing for near on two hours rather than eight, which they might do back in the DRC, and trimming songs to twelve rather than thirty minutes, the raw intensity of their sound made no other concessions; it wasn't 'world music', it was music for the gut.

Konono No 1 are now a five-piece, led by Augustin Mawangu, 'Papa' Mingiedi's son, with their combination of electrified likembes (thumb pianos), edgily distorted through hand-made pickups, cast iron percussive discipline and vocal call-and-response thrown out of two massive lance-voix speakers that look like giant megaphones on stands.

Deep in the band's DNA there's something of the compulsive layering of JuJu rhythms shoring up a rooting born out of the Masikulu music of the Bakongo culture of the Congo. (Thanks to David Font-Navarrete for these insights - link below)

The traditional bamboo keys of the likembe are now metal, thanks to the Mingiedi's ingenuity, and their crafted, jarring tones took on the feel of twin electric blues guitars as Augustin traded corrosive solos and bass rhythms with Menga Waku. Visi Vincent's snare and cymbals put down unerringly crisp, hard-wired pulses that, as he pumped them out with not a jot of deviation, began to defy belief! With Mbiya Ndofusu's congas and singer, Pauline Mbuka Nsiaka doubling on percussion, they combined to formed the band's joyous, high-energy backbone.

There was no deflection from the musical vision that set them on their way over forty years ago, yet the performance retained a freshness and immediacy that can't be bottled. No embellishments, no frills, just an unstoppable, ecstatic drive which bounced off the walls of the tiny venue with a mesmerising, infectious momentum. "Konono Numéro Un," as they were introduced, they certainly were!

And the duo from Moor and Butcher - well, the kid in the Konono entourage side-stage said it all: "It's a monster!" A frothy, metallic brew that took in Butcher's bird calls, fleet jazz phrasing and harmonics, had Moor scrubbing his battered guitar with a wire brush, and paused for an extraordinary dialogue in sax and guitar feedback.

All in all, something else!

Konono No 1
Augustin Makuntima Mawangu - electric likembe (solo)
Gaston Menga Waku - electric likembe (bass), vocals
Vincent Visi Niati - drums/percussion
Jacques Mbiya Ndofusu - percussion
Pauline Mbuka Nsiaka - vocals, percussion

Butcher/Moor duo
John Butcher - saxes
Andy Moor - guitar

LINK: Congotronics in the Ethnomusicology Review

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