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Kasai Allstars
Beware The Fetish Andrew Spragg , June 25th, 2014 14:02

Richard Mosse's recent installation, film and photography project The Enclave is perhaps the best indicator of late capitalism's troubled perception of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Using a stock of infra-red film that renders the Congo in shades of bubble-gum pink, it sits somewhere between war documentary and hyper-real hallucination. Ben Frost, Mosse's musical collaborator, has also made several references in interviews to how the experience of making the film influenced his own album A U R O R A. Both seem to invoke an anxiety and tension that surrounds any mention of the country and its complex past, while at the same time suspending it in a form of vacuum. Whatever the aesthetic merits and noble intentions of the aforementioned projects, it is hard to steer them clear of the usual post-colonial reductions. The Democratic Republic of Congo is still a raw nerve, and for all the attempts to situate and understand it from the exterior, it is perhaps best left to those faced with the day-to-day realities of the place to speak on its behalf.

Beware The Fetish is a possible starting point for that dialogue, though located away from the eastern region The Enclave documents. The Kasai Allstars boast fifteen members, all from the Kasai region. They come from five ethnic groups that have experienced conflict with one another in the past, a fact that imbues the innately social function of the music with a significance that extends beyond mere token inclusivity. The record's accompanying booklet highlights this, with its shots of dancers and musicians pushing to the foreground the celebratory and theatrical elements of the group's music. The subject matter of the songs is moral in tone, extolling the virtues of hard work and tradition. Overt political commentary is side-lined, though this reviewer did baulk at a linear note, an unattributed quote, for the title track, "developed countries didn't become rich just by chance but through hard work." It is not the place of this music review to offer commentary on this opinion, but it is worth noting as it gives an indication that some aspects of the Kasai Allstars do not chime neatly with the positivist, punk-rock or post-colonial narrative that music criticism often invokes to describe them.

Setting aside the political complexities momentarily, the music itself is robustly engaging. Driven largely by a power-house of drums, it offsets chiming guitar lines and xylophones with the waspish buzz of hot-wired likembe (thumb piano). Part of what has made the Congotronics project such an appealing prospect has been the conversion of traditional instrumentation, like the likembe, using electric amplification to give it a distorted and raw-throated quality. The vocals complement this, often a combination of yells that are mixed to emphasise a spatial relationship between the many singers. On 'He Who Makes Bush Fires For Others' the listener is thrown into a stereo field of call and response, bedded in amongst a shimmer of electric guitar. Pushing the eleven minute mark, it is one of the highlights of the album, not least because it never ceases in its vibrancy and energy.   

This aforementioned energy is one of the notable features of Beware The Fetish, and it is impressive that it is captured so effectively by the recordings. Vincent Kennis – the producer and a driving force behind the Congotronics project – has managed to retain the group's essential qualities, striking a balance between field-recording and studio post-production. For instance, the clarity of the resonator and slit drums on 'Salute To Kalombo' serves to bring the syncopated precision of the musicians to the fore. Elsewhere, the title track's arrangement gives each element space to interact without one becoming the consistent focus. It is precisely this interactivity in the Kasai Allstars' music that appeals, a form of democratic and collaborative interplay that speaks to the communal spirit of music, its inherent sociability and recognition of common purpose.

As a title, Beware The Fetish could be considered a warning. This is music that simultaneously occupies the traditional and the new, the political and the a-political. There is a desire, equally present in this article, to reduce the music of a group like the Kasai Allstars to a form of empty signifier. It is expected to function as a suitable receptacle to all our insecurities, uncertainties, and it simply refuses to be that. The much heralded influence that the Congotronics series has had on American and British indie rock musicians has been decidedly one way, to the point that the closing track 'The Ploughman', a collaboration from the Congotronics vs The Rockers tour, feels like an aberration. That aside, there is much to be enjoyed and engaged with on Beware The Fetish. Just don't expect it to function purely for your benefit. This is an album that resists being the Other, but also resists even entering into a discourse that would consider that the only position. It is music innately of itself, and a privilege to hear, even at a considerable distance.