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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Review: Irakere with Chucho Valdes, Ronnie Scott’s

The legendary Cuban ensemble’s 40th anniversary celebration doesn’t quite take off

When Irakere first played Ronnie Scott’s, back in 1985, they sold out the venue for five weeks on the trot. You can watch a video on Youtube of the band in full flow and wish you’d been there. 30 years later (40 years since the pioneering Latin jazz outfit began) and they’re back to celebrate the anniversary, playing two shows a night across six nights, with pianist and founder Chucho Valdes at the helm.  

I’d heard the stories and I was in the mood for a party – for the kind of gig that has you wishing you’d splashed out on one of the tables at the front where you’re right in the middle of the action, with room to dance – and at times it was heading that way.

“Estela Va A Estallar”, a hard grooving take on “Stella By Starlight”, intensified by driving electric bass, boisterous montuno, furious conga and kit playing and shout choruses from the horns, was uplifting. As was the funk number that followed, given an Afro Cuban twist by charismatic percussionist Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé, who augmented his batá drumming with Yoruba vocal shouts, frantic on-stage dancing and a wander through the crowd to orchestra a few claps. “Bacalao Con Pan”, an Irakere classic, was better still and here the horns stole the show, contributing ballsy solos and a few dance moves of their own.

There was the moment Valdes stood up and shouted ‘¡Coño!’ at the top of his lungs before directing a splashy, all-over-the-place pause, and there were piano fireworks – showers of sparks, ostinati that span like Catherine wheels and chords that detonated like rockets.

But for the most part the set felt a little subdued and decidedly underpowered. In the early stages there were too many drawn-out solos under which the rhythm section failed to build. Melodies and grooves felt truncated – they didn’t cook for long enough and the horns often looked disengaged – and when the band left the stage after a little over an hour, declining to play an encore, it felt as if they were just getting warmed up.

It was a young band. As well as reinventing Cuban dance music and making an indelible impression on the world of Latin jazz, Irakere was the training ground for some of the most influential Cuban musicians of the past few decades. Clearly Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera hadn’t fancied a reunion. Still, you would have thought that young blood would have raised the energy levels not dampened them. Perhaps the week-long run had taken its toll. Maybe they were saving themselves for a big finish in the late show. Whatever the reason, if I’d paid full whack for one of those tables at the front I would have been a little disappointed.

— Thomas Rees

— Photo Wikicommons

An edited version of this piece was originally published on


Review: Fatoumata Diawara and Roberto Fonseca, Barbican

The musical traditions of Cuba and Mali leave a capacity crowd in raptures

Though they may be separated by thousands of miles, Cuba and Mali share a common musical connection. Right at the heart of Cuban music lie rhythms from sub-saharan African and last night the two traditions were united once again when Havana-born piano virtuoso Roberto Fonseca (of Buena Vista Social Club fame) took the stage with Fatoumata Diawara, a Malian singer and guitarist who is fast becoming a giant of the world music scene.

The pair first met when Fonseca invited Diawara to feature on his 2012 releaseYo, in which he explored his own African roots. Since then they seem to have been inseparable, touring extensively, shaking up Womad festival and appearing at Jazz in Marciac, where their debut, At Home, was recorded.

It’s a strong release but, as last night’s set proved, it’s nothing on seeing them live. Theirs was a set full of passion and charisma, a blend of fibrous Malian melodies and intoxicating Afro-Cuban grooves in which astonishing feats of musicianship were commonplace.

The dancing rhythms of “Yemaya” set the tone, as Fonseca’s piano raced away and Diawara squared up to the audience, finger wagging, her voice rough-edged and stern. Next came “Sowa”, ushered in by a “Superstition” synth groove, and “Connection”, which saw Fonseca pounding out octaves, his hand a blur, and launching solos for the rest of the band with bursts of swaggering montuno and muscular, cross-handed piano slides that made the keyboard ripple.

“Clandestin” changed the pace, with the pianist taking a backseat in favour of Drissa Sidibé’s kamalen n’goni, a west African lute that sounds like water running over stones. Here and on “Real Family”, a duet with Fonseca, Diawara’s richly-textured voice was the star. It’s a voice full of gravel and grit, that cracks like parched earth as it opens in great yawning stretches, and as the two musicians embraced at the end of the song it had the Barbican crowd cheering themselves hoarse.

So too did “San Miguel”, a rhythmically astonishing game of cat and mouse performed by Fonseca and the band’s Cuban contingent. Bassist Yandi Martínez and drummer Ramsés Rodríguez played like only Habaneros can, spinning out grooves that were at once impossibly together and light years apart and leaving Fonseca’s piano to soar over the top.

The party continued with “Mandela” and “United”, as Diawara unwound her headdress, hitching up her skirts and dancing across the stage with a click of shell-adorned braids. Solos from guitarist Sekou Bah and the rest of the band whipped up the crowd still further and the response was one the biggest Barbican receptions I’ve heard in years. With the whole place on its feet, it took two encores, “Nedbufo” and “Bibisa”, the Fonseca track that first brought these musicians together, before the roars subsided.

There was a sense of theatre about an opening set from French-Israeli singer Yaël Naim and her trio too –  a new discovery for me but a voice I won’t forget. Soft and husky one minute, with a shade of an accent that added to the mystique, and soulful the next, her vocal lines arced through the space like something from The Dark Side of the Moon.

“Dream In My Head”, the first tune that saw her really let rip, and “Coward”, with it’s Bach-y piano lines, sighing cadences and unexpected turns, were both superb. The bubble burst when she departed from her own material and launched a melodramatic rendition of Britney Spears‘s “Toxic”, but for the most part she had the audience transfixed.

As we filed out though, all of the talk was about Fonseca and Diawara and you can understand why. If they keep this up we may well be talking about them for years to come.

— Thomas Rees