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Despite having achieved international fame through releases on Fatcat and Crammed Discs, the Kinshasan group Konono No.1 have performed only a handful of times in the UK. Consequently, anticipation is high as the first tones tumble from the speakers, and the rhythm section of drums and metallic percussion rattles into life. Bubbling, chiming melodies are generated by ‘thumb pianos’ known as likembe, and are equally important for both their tonal and rhythmic content. The whole ensemble contributes to a single, kinetically-charged, interlocked groove which shifts and changes slowly under the rousing call-and-response vocal lines.
Even in the face of this raucous assault, apart from a few nodding heads the assembled crowd is mostly stationary. I begin to fear that it’s going to be one of ‘those’ London shows. You know the type: audience reaction reduced to an embarrassed patter of applause and a shuffle of feet as people self-consciously look round them to check if anyone’s been brave enough to start dancing yet. Even the band seems somewhat straight-faced and nonplussed by the tepid feedback they’re receiving. Then something ever-so-subtle happens, coincident with a particularly vivacious repeated likembe line: the front row of performers simultaneously break into a knowing grin, as percussion player Pauline Mbuka Nsalia abandons her instrument to gyrate and sway slowly at the front of the stage. As she fixes people with her eyes one by one, they begin to follow suit. It’s clearly catching, and before long limbs are flailing and voices are calling out all over the room.
Much has been made of the parallels between the incidental distortion produced by the antiquated megaphones Konono No.1 use for amplification, and the use of overdriven guitar amps by the pioneers of rock music. Tonight though, the fuzz is distinctly toned-down, and the sparkling lucidity of the texture is all the more evident as a result. The music is relentless, even martial in its propulsive nature, but the atmosphere is one of pure joy: polyrhythmic and cyclical elements seek to hypnotise and entrance the dancer, but are always balanced by jubilant, enlivening melodic passages or jarring, precise rhythmic stabs. One can interpret this dichotomy as in some way evoking the intent of the music, which often seeks to marry celebratory escapism with a keen social awareness or message. The initial repertoire of the group was adapted by founder Papa Mingiedi Mawangu from the trance music of the Bazombo ethnic group, and its ritual lineage is evident: time dissolves in the turbulence of the dance and the absence of motion becomes inconceivable. Only when the lights come on after the encore do I realize my legs are aching, I’m severely out of breath, and I truly have no idea how long the set lasted.