Review: Konono Nº1, Rich Mix

Electrified thumb pianos and the power of simplicity

If you care about music you should see Konono No.1. That’s a bold claim I know, but hear me out. I caught their set at the Rich Mix in East London the other week and I can’t stop thinking about it.

Konono are Congolese. They play the ritual music of the Zombo people adapted for electrified likembés (thumb pianos), with crunchy amplifiers and percussion instruments cobbled together from junkyard finds – a reminder that necessity is the mother of invention. They’ve been around since the ‘60s, but played their first gig outside of Africa as recently as 2003, on tour with Dutch band The Ex. Since then they’ve worked with Herbie Hancock,  Björk and Angolan/Portuguese producer Batida; picked up a Grammy nomination and a BBC Radio 3 World Music Award and lost their leader, Mingiedi Mawangu, who died last year aged 85.

His son Augustin Makuntima Mawangu now plays lead likembé – which is the sound everyone latches onto. It’s what they rave about, and with good reason because it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard: swampy and gungy, as if the keys are stuck down with chewing gum and the amp is made from bumblebees and liquid nitrogen.

And yet there are long stretches when you hear nothing from it at all. The bass likembé is there, buzzing in your chest like a defibrillator. There are vocals (half shouted, half sung) and hypnotic percussion grooves that grab you by the hips, but that’s about it.

All of the tunes blur into one. You drift in and out and you dance and your neck is sore from head-nodding. You sweat so much you can’t tell if you’re sweating into your eyes or your eyes are sweating. The lead singer, Pauline Mbuka Nsiala, twerks. The kit player plays to the crowd, launching himself off his drum stool as though it’s an ejector seat. The conguero is topless: his hands are a blur and his chest is gleaming. And then the lead likembé kicks back in and they do it all over again.

The connection with ritual music is obvious. Watching Konono No.1 is like being in a trance. The energy is relentless and the band’s commitment is total. Their sets are proof of the power of simplicity – of just how much you can do with nothing much at all.

— Thomas Rees

— Image Credit: Konono No1 Official

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