Tradi-Mods Vs. Rockers
Alternative Takes On Congotronics
, November 24th, 2010 10:13
It's impressive how widely felt the ripples generated by the Congotronics series have been, especially when you consider that many of the artists involved have been making music for years, largely unknown beyond relatively local circles. The success of Konono No. 1's Assume Crash Position earlier this year is a case in point, generating considerable critical acclaim despite stretching their metallic jams further outward into longer, even more mind-bending shapes. And they appear to have been particularly influential on Western musicians, all the way from Bjork (who co-opted Konono to play on her last album Volta) to the US indie likes of Animal Collective and Deerhoof – both of whom appear on this latest addition to the series. Tradi-Mods vs. Rockers is appropriately billed as Alternative Takes On Congotronics – rather than simply offering a hastily put together set of remixes, the end product proves far harder to pin down, and is far more interesting as a result. The invitations extended to its contributors simply asked them to submit a track in some way inspired by the source material; in some cases they've provided remixes, but others have written entirely new pieces of music.
Crucially, everything on Tradi-Mods vs. Rockers retains the unique character of the source material. Andrew Bird's 'Ohnono/Kiwembo' and Hoquet's 'Likembes' translate the thrum of thumb piano and handmade drums into more familiar instrumentation: the former's graceful violin lines work with a similar disregard for simplicity, and the latter is energetic bordering on manic, pushing the original into territory it previously only touched upon. It's hard to avoid the feeling, across all the Congotronics releases, that each of the bands that feature only fully come into their own in the live arena. After all, the likes of Konono No. 1 honed their sound over years playing to locals, generating a sort of celebratory atmosphere it's quite tough to simply recreate on record. It's to the artists featuring on Tradi-Mods vs. Rockers' credit that they simply sidestep that issue by bringing their own differing experiences to the table. Animal Collective's 'Quick As White', for example, is particularly characteristic of Avey Tare and co, burying looped samples beneath pools of reverb that billow outward with each drum hit.
As ever with a compilation of Tradi-Mods vs. Rockers' sheer size – twenty-six tracks, many stretching way beyond the five or six minute mark – it's initially bracing to take in. It's certainly not the sort of record it's easy to play from start to finish, despite the thematic and sonic consistency provided by its source material. Rather it functions more as a series of snapshots to delve into: like an old photo album, each page reveals something previously unnoticed. Its most interesting trait is immediately noticeable: as well as offering a glimpse into the mind of its creator(s), each interpretation offers a unique glimpse at the particular aspects of the Congotronics sound that they find most fascinating. In the case of Shackleton, for example, whose dense, techno-informed style already betrays a keen ear for rhythmic interplay, it becomes clear that Kasai Allstars' free-flowing approach to percussion has caught his interest. His expansive 'Mukuba Special' is one of the compilation's highlights, taking an echoing dub-inspired approach to the original material and teasing peculiar dissonances from tiny scraps of voice. Basic Channel/Rhythm & Sound man Mark Ernestus pushes Konono No. 1 though an even deeper dub filter, stretching 'Masikulu Dub' out into eight minutes of blissful sensory deprivation. And Deerhoof's unsurprisingly idiosyncratic take 'Travel Broadens The Mind' sees them latch onto the rare properties of Kasai Allstars' mbira melody lines, recasting them as three minutes of tightly interlocked guitar and bass.
Of the rich diversity of interpretation offered up on Tradi-Mods vs. Rockers, the most successful prove to be those by musicians taking inspiration from dance music. Perhaps that should have been obvious from the outset: Bass Clef, whose 'The Incident At Mbuji-Mayi' takes time-displaced sound into London's funky scene circa 2010, has long been an outspoken fan of African music, as have Shackleton and Ernestus. Besides, much of the Congotronics music is designed for the same purpose as theirs: dancing, celebration, communion. So when Boredoms' Eye turns 'Konono Wa Wa Wa' into fucked, lo-fi acid house, or when Optimo set the delicate dance of likembes above a cavernous kick drum, it serves as potent reminder that for all its melodic unfamiliarity, our dance music culture isn't as far removed from Kinshasa's as it might first appear.