Before you listen to a note of the music I am sharing with you in this post, I would strongly recommend you read this article on the Afropop.org website, in which Crammed Discs' Vincent Kenis explains how he became involved with Konono No.1 and started the Congotronics series.
One of the things that attracted me to African music in general was the fact that it was different. In the late 1970s, when I started looking for 'something else', I soon found that there was plenty of that in Congo (or Zaïre as the country was called at the time). As Vincent Kenis states: "...Congo is as big as a continent. You can listen to one different style of music every day for a whole life without relying on foreign music." Kenis and his friend Tony Van der Eecken* have over the years dug up (good), and recorded (even better), a variety of brilliant modern traditional music styles from Congo and have as a result contributed to the preservation and revaluation of this music.
Luckily they also appear to be very aware of the risk (or downside) of inviting these musicians to perform for western audiences. Vincent: "You talk about spirituality in the music. I don't think a group like Konono when it plays in front of a Dutch audience—which is really nice; I mean, it's a nice surprise for the audience, but I don't think you get the same kind of spirituality. They want to show off because they're like Martians. They are aliens, and they start acting like aliens. And they lose a part of the music that is very strong, and very reflective, and very progressive."
Even after all these years of listening to African music I can still get very sad when I hear people (especially in the western media) referring to this music as "African rock 'n roll" or "African punk". Konono's leader Mawangu Mingiedi: "When I first came to Kinshasa, I started playing my songs at funerals, the last day of funerals, when people were mourning, on the last day of mourning. During a funeral, we play a lot of songs that are love related, because the departed one needs to be consoled. So to get him or her, or the family, away from sorrows, we bring love to the person. We do a lot of songs related to that, and also songs to help them to be welcome to the world of the ancestors."
My first (conscious**) exposure to the music of Konono was listening to two cassettes ("coffret 2 cassettes") released on the Ocora label in 1986. The article I mentioned earlier states that this album was released in 1987, but this is a misconception: the CD was released in 1987. But given the choice between the CD and the cassettes, I would certainly opt for the 'coffret'. It has, like the CD, four tracks, but all of the tracks are longer, and in two cases even much longer. On the cassettes all four tracks are almost 30 minutes, while on the CD the tracks are cut short at a sorry 14'28, a disappointing 26'51, a dramatic 9'31 and an incomprehensible 23'00.
Personally I am stupified by the shortening of the track by the orchestre Bambala by over 20 minutes. Their 'animation Kifuti' accordeon (extra points!!) masterpiece, recorded one evening in 1978 in the Ngaba area of Kinshasa, really gets going after ten minutes, but on the CD it never gets there.
And Ocora have waved the warning of orchestre Sankaï (from Mbuji Mayi) not to intervene in other people's business ("il ne faut pas intervenir dans un affaire d'autrui") and have removed 15 minutes of their track.
The orchestre Bana Luya has lost nearly 6 minutes in the digitisation (and I still haven't figured out which part they cut). They are from the same area as Sankaï, but still very different, - and with bell and whistles when they take the brake off at the end.....
Orchestre 'Tout Puissant' Likembe Konono No.1, at the time led by Nzu-Nlaza, saw their song almost intact, with only 3 minutes gone. And is it my imagination, or is the distortion of the amplified likembes 'toned down' or softened on the CD? A distortion for which Konono even in 1978 used a pedal, by the way.
Does anyone know what the relation is between said Nzu-Nlaza and Konono's present chef Mawangu Mingiedi? I am curious, because in the Afropop article Mingiedi seems to suggest it was 'his' group from the start.
I think I can safely say that in this case cassette wins over CD.
* and if you like the music of these cassettes do yourself an enormous favour and check out these absolutely fantastic radio programmes from 1991 (repeated in 2006) and 2006 which you can still listen to on the website of "De Wandelende Tak". Both programmes feature recordings made by Tony Van der Eecken and Vincent Kenis.
And if you can't get enough there is more on that website, also from Tony Van der Eecken; but older streams are in a pre-broadband bitrate.
The programmes are in Dutch, but for those interested in the music this should be the least of their worries. Personally I get more disturbed by the realisation that there is so much more incredible music from just one country.
** and I add this because a lot of traditional music has been released without a proper identification of the musicians performing.