Congotronics International album artwork by Juana Molina

Crammed Discs and Congotronics

In April 2011 Kinshasan bands Konono N°1 and Kasaï Allstars, Argentinian musician Juana Molina, US alt. rockers Deerhoof, Swedish psych-folk band Wildbirds & Peacedrums, and Matt Mehlan from US agit-pop makers Skeleton$ embarked on a tour of fifteen international festivals, spanning ten countries. This was the original incarnation of Congotronics International, the collective behind the charmingly effervescent ‘Where’s the One’ album, and the result of a lightbulb moment from Marc Hollander, founder of Belgian record label Crammed Discs.

A collective of Congolese and Western musicians performing live, together onstage, playing tracks that they’d created across language barriers during intense workshop sessions just weeks earlier. The troupe took the stage at Benicássim in Spain, the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, Dutch festival Le Guess Who? and others along the way, accompanied by Hollander and Crammed Discs’ producer, Vincent Kenis.

Congotronics - Credit Crammed Discs

Marc Hollander set up the Crammed Discs label in 1980, in part as an extension of the experimental, genre-hopping music venture he’d been working on with Kenis under the name Aksak Maboul.  The pair went on to join suave Belgian new wave outfit and NME cover stars The Honeymoon Killers in 1981, contributing to ‘Les Tueurs De La Lune De Miel’, the set that’s often cited as the best Belgian album of all time.  Aksak Maboul still exists, and Kenis is known to hop on stage to play bass with the Congotronic International crew when the mood takes him. 

What’s more, the pair have realised that the world needs to hear more from the Congotronics project – hence the release of ‘Where’s The One?’ under the Congotronics International banner.  A 23-track set of unbridled, joyous electronica and sinuous African grooves, the album is composed of live versions recorded during the 2011 tour and other, extra-curricular studio tracks that the project’s participants have worked on since. 

In terms of the album’s sound, it’s hard not to draw parallels between ‘Where’s The One?’ and Brian Eno’s experiments with David Byrne in the late seventies. The Eno-produced Talking Heads albums and Eno and Byrne’s seminal 1981 album, ‘My Life In The Bush of Ghosts’, were heavily influenced by the polyrhythms of Central and Western Africa and their juxtaposition with contemporary Western music technology.  

Eno described ‘My Life In The Bush of Ghosts’ as “a vision of psychedelic Africa”, and the ‘Where’s The One?’ release continues this kind of deep-rooted, adventurous approach to cross-cultural genre-smashing, with Congolese music cast as the straw that mixes the drink.

On ‘Super Duper Rescue Allstars’ Deerhoof stand toe to toe with Kasaï Allstars for a funked-up version of their own ‘Super Duper Rescue Heads!’, and on ‘Tita Tita’  Juana Molina bends exquisite, bluesy notes around Konono N°1’s shuffling, chiming percussion. For ‘Tshitua Fuila Mbuloba’, Kasaï Allstars lead singer and all-around vibes controller, Muambuyi, takes the mic for a hip-shaking call and response, while the snaking vocals from Skeleton$’s Matthew Mehlan on the album’s title track could slot comfortably into the Eno / Byrne canon.  

Having existed in various forms since the 1960s, it was Vincent Kenis who had taken Konono N°1 from Kinshasan social band to the kind of name all the cool kids dropped at parties in the early 2000s.  Congotronics, incidentally, is the catch-all word used to describe the sounds made by groups like Konono N°1, their neighbours Kasaï Allstars, and others from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2003 Kenis tracked the band down in their hometown and persuaded them to let him produce an album of their work. 

The resulting set, ‘Congotronics’ released by Crammed Discs in 2005, catapulted them onto an international stage. In 2006 they toured with the legendary post-punk band, The Ex, and by the end of the following year, they were touring and working with Björk. Thom Yorke, Questlove, and Beck confessed their love for the band. They received a Grammy nomination and recorded with Herbie Hancock. In 2010, when Matt Groening was invited to curate that year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in the UK, he chose Konono N°1 as one of the performers.

Kenis knew that Konono N°1 was a fully formed entity right from the start. All he had to do was give them access to studio technology and guide the recording process. Driven by their use of electronically-amplified likembes (a type of thumb piano), handmade electric guitars, unspoiled shouts and chants, and drums made from oil tubs and milk crates, Konono N°1 encapsulated a punky, DIY ethic that immediately aligned them with Western musical experimentalism.

Critics began mentioning the band in the same breath as German noisemakers Einstürzende Neubauten and production alchemist Lee Scratch Perry.

So how did it all start for Kenis?  What drove him to set up the Congolese recording sessions in the first place? “As far as Congo music is concerned, the first ear-opener was listening to Benoît Quersin’s extraordinary Mongo recordings in the early seventies, the second was visiting Kinshasa for the first time,” he says.

“The third was being hired in a Latino band where most of the Latinos were Congolese and ending up playing keyboard on the last album by O.K Jazz, the fourth came when during that session Franco revealed to me the existence of a distant uncle, a successful producer and sound engineer who worked in the Congo in the 1950s and brought African Jazz to the forefront.

The following year, following his footsteps, I contributed to bringing vocal combo Zap Mama to the forefront as producer and sound engineer, then launched the Congotronics series, recorded and produced in Kinshasa using a laptop-based mobile multitrack studio.

Hollander and Kenis worked with the Kasaï Allstars next, producing and releasing their 2008 album ‘In The 7th Moon, The Chief Turned Into A Swimming Fish And Ate The Head Of His Enemy By Magic’, before Hollander came up with a way of concreting the Congotronic sound’s symbiotic relationship with Western rock and avant-garde music.

In 2010 his label released ‘Tradi-Mods Vs Rockers’, a compilation album featuring covers of – and tributes to – Kasaï Allstars, Konono N°1, and other Congolese bands. The set included tracks from contemporary luminaries like Deerhoof, Andrew Bird, Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, and Animal Collective, all chosen by Hollander. One idea led to another, and the next logical step was to herd the musicians into a studio together and then take the whole thing into the live arena.  As Hollander puts it, “taking this a step further and organising a real-life encounter was very tempting…” The Congotronics International phenomena was born.      

It’s over a decade between the initial tour and the new album, and I suggest to Marc that the Congotronics project feels a little, well, temporary, popping up as it does every few years.  Are there any plans to make it less fleeting?  How about another Congotronics International tour? 

“It would’ve been great to make the project more permanent, but it’s logistically and financially very challenging, as the artists live on four continents, and are all busy with their own projects – though they’d certainly love doing this again,” he says. “Connections were established though, which led to occasional collabs.

Juana Molina feat. Congotronics

Juana Molina collaborated with Deerhoof on a track for one of their recent albums, Deerhoof recently remixed a Kasaï Allstars track, and so on.” How about live stuff? “One project is coming up soon. On June 14, Hot Chip and members of Kasaï Allstars will perform a unique show in London, as part of the Grace Jones-curated edition of Meltdown, at the Southbank Centre.  

The show will go under the title ‘Hot Congotronics’. There’s talk of doing more shows with this line-up next year.”  When he was asked about his experience of the Congotronics exercise, Muambuyi said, “when we stayed in the Alps for a few days, working on new tracks and jams for the future album, we all lived in a big house. I remember preparing food together with Juana, we were blending our cooking styles, our respective cuisines.

And in the end, everybody ate together, like children of the same family.”  The Congotronics International family, then – hectic, noisy, and chaotically wonderful. And what’s next from Crammed Discs, Vincent? “I’d rather not reveal anything now but it’s still to do with the Congo…”