Electrifying a thumb piano sounds about as unlikely as, say, strapping a jet engine onto a surfboard. That very action, however, explains the central mystery behind Congo's Konono No. 1. But don't expect an esoteric creation myth from founder and likembe virtuoso Mawangu Mingiedi, who explains that his feedback-rich music exists simply "because it's a very soft-sounding instrument and Kinshasa is a very noisy town."
The likembe has a gentle, waterlogged twang, like a mouth harp encased in Jell-O. It is as native to the Congolese sound as the ancestral hum of the Bazombo trance music brought to Kinshasa by Mingiedi when he left his hometown on the Angolan border after the death of his father. Answering questions with producer Vincent Kenis via e-mail, Mingiedi describes Bazombo as "the cradle of our music. There's a little bit of it in whatever we play."
Konono No. 1 aspired to bring those ancient polyrhythms to urban gatherings, but how to rock the party with one of the quietest instruments going? As the likembe was hardly a match for the squall of city life in Congo's capital, amplification of Mingiedi's chosen instrument became the order of the day. This was to be no small feat, considering the resource-poor and occasionally violent setting he found himself in. "Bad things can happen in Kinshasa," Mingiedi explains. "Even when there's peace in the streets, it's certainly difficult to lead a peaceful life in a place where the most basic commodities are absent or intermittent at best."
While matter-of-fact about the hardships of life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mingiedi is far more forthcoming when describing the trial-and-error process that ultimately led to the creation of Konono No. 1's wall of plucks and feedback: "I started with cassette recorder microphones, but the feedback was difficult to control. Only later did I try electric guitar pickups, then reverse engineered them, then started to design my own models."
Mingiedi's likembe hack is now the stuff of DIY legend, and it extends to more than just his particular instrument. Konono No. 1 is an ensemble of recycling genius - of wood microphones crowned with salvaged magnets, of percussion rendered from pots and pans, of car battery-powered amplifiers. Onstage the band is also flanked by massive lance voix, or voice throwers, megaphones originally used by Belgian colonizers. Yet even accompanied by dancers and armed with piercing whistles, Konono No. 1 has its heart in the three likembes that bob across the waves of rhythm like fragile tin boats. Mingiedi says these too have been modified: "First it was hollow, like the traditionally built likembe - then to suppress feedback I used a solid block of mahogany."
As years went by, word of Konono No. 1 trickled out, eventually reaching the ears of Crammed Records cofounder Kenis in the form of a culture broadcast in 1979. He remained enraptured by Konono No. 1, actually traveling to Congo to find them. As he writes in a letter to the music blog the Suburbs Are Killing Us, he was able to interact with other "tradi-modern" bands yet was told that Konono No. 1 had ceased to exist. Finally, in 2000 he received word that they had reunited - using the same equipment they had played years before.
Fast-forward to 2007, and Konono No. 1 have traveled the world, performing at the Kennedy Center, opening for Dutch legends the Ex, and most recently contributing to the first single off Bjork's latest record, Volta (One Little Indian/Atlantic), titled "Earth Intruders." When I ask if Konono No. 1 will perform with Bjork, Mingiedi answers with hints of Sun Ra, "I hope it will happen. If it does, watch out for our special Earth intruder stage outfits." *