African Organic Techno

Steven Wishnia May 25, 2005

African drumming and electronica occupy opposite ends of the technological spectrum. African drumming is the oldest music and audio technology on the planet, the sound of bare hands slapping goatskin, amplified by rough-hewn wood. Electronica would not exist without the microprocessor, pulsates at the clock speed of computer chips, and surrounds itself with futuristic machine metaphors. Yet they share an uncanny structural similarity. Both rely on intensive repetition, growing their grooves out of a

mesh of simple interlocking patterns, shading into different moods without breaking the beat.

                If you want to hear the two musics fused – probably unintentionally – you should check out Konono No. 1’s Congotronics (Crammed Discs): Three crudely amplified kalimbas (also called likembes or sanzas – they’re southern African thumb pianos, tuned metal tines mounted on a board or wooden box)

and metal-jam percussion, from agogo bells to hubcaps. If you can imagine African organic techno,

that’s what it sounds like: repetitive, hypnotic, overwhelming, but the crackling-synapse arpeggios come

from thumbs instead of sequencers.

                Originally from the Congo- Angola borderlands, Konono No. 1 has been performing for years in

and around Kinshasa, the Congo’s capital. Here, they take the trance music of the Bazombo people and

amplify the kalimbas with microphones built from wood and salvaged car-part magnets, adding an edge of distortion to the belllike tones. The lead kalimbas sit atop a bed of chattering percussion and chanted vocals, sometimes setting the groove with three-note licks, sometimes dancing around it, and then the

bassline drops in, carrying you away on the wave of sound.

                Congotronics won’t be for everyone’s taste. It’s got nothing resembling Western song structure, and the melodies are minimal. But to my ears, it’s the most amazingly distinctive music I’ve heard in the

last few years. The moment where the bass kalimba returns on “Masikulu” is perfect.



St. Louis has a rich musical history: Miles Davis started out there, and in the ’50s and ’60s, Chuck Berry, Ike and Tina Turner, and Oliver Sain vied to be the area’s top R&B act. Sain, a saxophonist who died in

2003, is virtually unknown outside St. Louis, but he was a mainstay of its music scene. He scored minor

funk hits in the ’70s with tunes titled “Party Hearty” and “Booty Bumpin’” (find these and some beautiful slow jams on his St. Louis Breakdown collection), and he also produced Fontella Bass’ 1965 soul hit “Rescue Me,” records by freejazz players Hamiet Blueitt and Julius Hemphill, and the 1988 comeback CD by Berry’s pianist, Johnnie Johnson.

                The residue of all this is a strong blues-bar scene, and going to the media-reform conference gave me a chance to check it out. The material isn’t always original (is there some liquor-license rule that  requires bar-blues bands to do “Mustang Sally?”), but the basslines are fat and the rhythms rock-solid. One

night found us watching bands and DJs playing amid the gonzo metal sculptures of an abandoned shoe

factory turned art museum. Similar things happened a lot in pregentrification ’80s New York, but this was a lot less self-consciously arty and nihilistic. As Gumbohead thumped out “Hey Pocky A-Way,” a dozen people paraded onto the dance floor, opening and closing lawn chairs (not quite in time to the music). Fontella Bass played the next night, and the one after that we caught bluesman Arthur Williams, cawing the harmonica and sporting a silver sharkskin suit. I danced until my shirt dripped sweat. How often do you get to do that to live music in New York?


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