A New Language In Music: Congotronics vs Rockers Interviewed

As the Congotronics vs Rockers tour hits the UK and Konono Nº1 appear on the Quietus Village Mentality Stage at Field Day, Kevin E.G. Perry discovers more about this fascinating collaboration

It is early May 2011, and twenty musicians find themselves together for the first time in a recording studio somewhere in Brussels. Producer, bass-player and musical ringleader Vincent Kenis is marshalling his troops: half of them represent ‘Congotronics’ – drawn from the ranks of Konono N°1 and Kasai Allstars – the other half are ‘Rockers’, flown in from the States, Sweden, Argentina and Japan. The atmosphere, according to Matt Mehlan of Skeletons, is "intense".

Deerhoof vs. Kasai Allstars – Travel Broadens The Mind (from “Tradi-Mods vs Rockers”) by Crammed Discs

Mehlan continues: "I arrived early in the morning for the first rehearsals, jet-lagged, feeling crazy, and getting totally immersed in music with both the Congolese bands and Deerhoof, Juana Molina and Wildbirds & Peacedrums, with no other purpose but to find a way to communicate musically. No ‘I have an idea’ or ‘This is a song I wrote’, or ‘We should do this’ – just playing for hours and hours and not knowing what’s what, just looking for a language… That’s an experience that I’ll keep thinking about for a long, long time. We’re actually still working on communicating with words! So having a process of music preceding the words is just incredible. It’s a good lesson to remember when you start thinking or talking too much about music – or anything else."

Deerhoof’s John Dieterich agrees: "Communication has been very difficult, but it’s also been very cool in that we have had to work out most of our differences through playing. A lot of times, while playing music, you attempt to work out problems through talking, and it often causes more problems than it solves. For me, I could just go in and play all day with these people and I can learn so much. It’s been a dream come true, truly."

That a twenty-piece ensemble who speak five different languages onstage – English, French, Chiluba, Kikongo, Lingala and Swedish – could overcome these communication barriers to play together, write together and perform together publicly less than two weeks later, at Brussels’ Cirque Royal on May 12, is surely testament to the best instincts of the human race. Speaking to those involved in this ambitious, globalised supergroup, I’m reminded of a line in Guns, Germs and Steel, anthropologist Jared Diamond’s concise history of the last 13,000 years. Diamond notes that despite the fact that the written word was developed by humans on at least two independent occasions in entirely separate geographical locations, Sumeria and Mesoamerica, both systems shared a kindred logic. Despite vast cultural differences, people on opposite sides of the planet created the same patterns. "These similarities," Diamond writes, "attest to the universality of human creativity."

Mopero of Kasai Allstars says that the Congolese musicians have been impressed by the way the ‘Rockers’ have taken to Congotronics. "We were pleased because it means that our music interests people across the world," he says, before adding: "What was sometimes surprising for us were the tempos, which were very different from ours." He doesn’t mind these mutations, however: "We have no problem with people changing our music. It enables our music, and our cultural identity, to become more widely known. We need to play with other people, the way we do it in this band, with the ‘Rockers’. It makes us grow."

One man who has spent years helping Congolese music get heard around the globe is Crammed Discs founder Marc Hollander. He says the idea for this tour grew logically from Tradi-Mods vs Rockers, the Congotronics tribute album that Crammed released at the tail end of last year. "We thought that it would be great to take this one step further, and create the conditions for a real, two-way encounter between musicians coming from such diverse backgrounds. It’s really been logistically ‘challenging’, to say the least, as we’re dealing with a travel party of around 25 people, including 19 musicians from six different bands, who each have their own schedules and activities."

Online rehearsals and tentative songwriting began in early April, with Dieterich in New Mexico, Mehlan in New York, Kasai Allstars in Kinshasa, Wildbirds & Peacedrums in Sweden, and Juana Molina just outside of Buenos Aires. However, like Mehlan and Dieterich, Hollander picks out the first physical rehearsals as the revelatory moment: "The first couple of days of the rehearsals proper, back in May, were overwhelming: a lot of jamming had to take place before things started to jell. Among the memorable moments during that phase were Kasai Allstars trying to explain one of their basic rhythms to the ‘Rockers’ by beating on a coke bottle, and Juana Molina teaching the Congolese how to play in 7/4, a metre which they’d never heard, let alone used before, by making up a dance routine."

Hollander adds that it was "not too difficult" to put the band together – and, speaking to those involved, their enthusiasm is obvious. Mehlan: "I feel extremely lucky to be a part of this project – it’s been amazing musically, and even when it’s not amazing it’s still totally wonderful to be a part of. Our set is pretty unanimously joyous, and it’s a kind of joy that’s infectious. I’d say it’s near impossible to ignore that feeling – the rhythms especially."

There have been occasions, however, where the rockers have had to learn to adapt to the Congolese way of doing things. Mehlan explains: "At first I was very intimidated by the Congolese, I won’t lie. It took quite a while to feel like we were getting to know each other unless we were making music. But the whole group is warmer now, more relaxed and getting more familiar, and joking – even when the jokes have to be translated. There was one moment in rehearsals just recently, where Juana was trying to explain something – I think we were stuck on a song and there were a lot of conflicting things going on. So Juana says something to the Congolese, as she’s the only one of the ‘Rockers’ who speaks French, fortunately or unfortunately for her, and it’s just dead silence – really intense, and she didn’t understand why they weren’t responding. Augustin from Konono told her later, and I paraphrase, ‘You people respond too quickly. In Congo, we wait to see if the person is lying to us. Then we think about what they said. Then we respond.’ When she told me that it was kind of a huge sort of relief or glimpse into gaining a better understanding."

The Congolese musicians have also learned much from the experience. "We discover and learn a lot of things about different people, music and even instruments," says Mopero, "We were impressed by Mariam’s (Wildbirds & Peacedrums) steel drum. We thought at first that it was a Swedish instrument!"

The increasingly convivial band arrives in London this week riding a wave of acclaim following well-received festival shows in Madrid and at Roskilde, but also retaining their ramshackle air of spontaneity. As Hollander points out: "Things are sometimes still a bit shambolic and raw, but in a good way. There’s such a wealth of talent and possibilities gathered in that band that the possibilities are endless." What the future does hold is a new album of material recorded during this tour, penciled in for a spring 2012 release, and potentially another tour to follow that.

For now, Congotronics vs Rockers are just enjoying exploring their shared language onstage. "The shows have been great. We loved them, and so did the audiences, that must mean that they were good," says Mopero, "It’s really great playing with people from so many different countries." Dieterich adds: "I’ve never been involved in such a large group and it truly is insane. When everybody is really going it sounds like something close to a freight train bearing down on you."

Congotronics vs Rockers make a strange and twisted freight train, laden with ecstatic sounds carried from across the globe: a universe’s worth of human creativity. As John Dieterich points out when he talks about what first drew him to this music: "I felt and feel an affinity with the way the pieces of the puzzle work in a lot of Kasai’s music. The whole doesn’t make sense unless every little bit inside it is fit just right. With Konono, I just love the strength of the melodies and the power and beauty that they’re able to wrest from what appears to be simple materials. It’s very inspiring music."

Matt Mehlan agrees: "It’s just so raw and honest and natural – if I have to debate the honesty of music I lose interest – and there’s no debate here. After meeting and playing music with Konono N°1 and Kasai Allstars it’s even more true… music comes so naturally to them, and without over-thinking, it is undeniably cool."

Congotronics vs Rockers appear at the Barbican on Tuesday, July 12th, then tour. For more information, go here. Konono Nº1 appear on the Quietus Village Mentality Stage at Field Day 2011 on Saturday, August 6th. Also on our stage are Omar Souleyman, Gruff Rhys, Faust, About Group, Anna Calvi, Mark Kozelek, The Sea & Cake. For tickets and the rest of the bill, go here

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