Part urban, part traditional, completely contagious

Boston Globe, November 13, 2005

Cynics, begone! For all the depredations of commercial radio and the antics of add-water-and-stir instant celebrities, music still has the power to deliver the shock of the new. And every once in a while, a band comes along to prove it.

The Congolese outfit Konono No. 1, which appears at the Somerville Theatre on Friday, is such a band. It delivers to borrow a term of high praise from the glory days of hip-hop “the style you haven’t heard yet.” Best of all, it’s fully formed, as the Konono players have been honing their art for a generation, even though their 2004 album “Congotronics” is their first international release.

Konono is a nine-member street band that operates at high volume and speed, combining the likembe, or thumb piano, with percussion improvised out of salvaged metal. The amplification uses microphones made with magnets from car parts, and what the band calls “voice- throwers,” huge, conical megaphones that evoke a turbulent 1960s political rally. Augmented by repetitive, chanted lyrics, the sound is intoxicating.

Rhythm and distortion, signature elements of Konono’s sound, are what earned it the attention of the European rock and electronica scene. A Belgian label, Crammed, and producer, Vincent Kenis, are behind last year’s album and the band’s current tour.

“When we were in Europe people talked to us about the distortion in our music,” says Aharon Matondo, the group’s manager, on behalf of Konono founder Mawangu Mingiedi, who speaks neither English nor French. “Everyone appreciates it in their own way, but mostly they talked about the distortion and how it resembles rock.”

The group agrees, to a point. “When they made us hear what they were talking about, we saw that there are some resemblances. But at the same time, music is universal.”

Konono’s principal Western fans have not come from the standard world-music audience, but rather the edgy experimental festival crowd. In the United States, audiobloggers have been instrumental in spreading the word.

Konono’s gritty, hyperactive sound and DIY approach may be as vital an expression of contemporary African urban culture as can be found on disc. It combines rhythms and songs from the Bakongo ethnic group that makes up a large part of Kinshasa’s teeming population, with the noise and detritus of the modern Third World city.

The brilliance resides in the choice to incorporate urban noise rather than fight it. The urban chaos is a source of material that, when you think about it, is every bit as authentic as traditional instruments and story lines.

In fact, the band sees itself primarily as a bearer of a cultural legacy, and only secondarily as a musical innovator.

“Being onstage with [European] artists has perhaps influenced us to change some of our presentation, like the outfits we wear onstage, but only that,” says Matondo. “According to the founder, we have to hold on to the original sound, which is our force and maintains the tradition.”

In keeping with that goal, some of Konono’s songs are instructional, says Matondo. “On one song, a father is telling his daughter not to marry a certain bad man. But the daughter didn’t listen and married him anyway. So the father tells her it’s her choice and not to come to him for help.”

Other songs affirm the heritage of the Bakongo people. “Our song `Kele Kele’ goes back a long time, several centuries. It’s a song that the Bakongo kings used to invoke the spirits. The likembe didn’t exist at the time; they played with ivory horns that were pierced with a hole.

“In Kinshasa, whenever we play `Kele Kele’ all the grandfathers and grandmothers get up and dance. It takes them back to the parties they used to go to when they were young.”

With its wild, futuristic sound and low-fi setup, Konono, founded in 1977, perfectly encapsulates the creativity and contradictions of Third World cities today. Especially since, despite its new global- hipster notoriety, the band operates back home in Kinshasa like any other band, playing the same gigs as anyone else.

“At home, it depends on the event,” says Matondo. “We often play at weddings, or at funerals, or at functions where an official is giving a speech. So we play in the street, in stadiums, anywhere.”

Anywhere outdoors, that is. Whether Konono’s potent sound can be held within four walls without blowing off the roof will be an interesting engineering experiment to witness.

“It will all depend on the sound man,” says Matondo, laughing.