Album Review: Congotronics International – Where’s The One? : Indispensable document from the Congolese/leftfield indie supergroup, live and locomotive.

The Breakdown

An inspirational recording from the Congotronics /Deerhoof hub, capturing the band’s wild live shows and the power of their musical community.
Crammed Discs 8.8

Collective, supergroup, ensemble…whatever way you look at it Congotronics International were a big big band. Nineteen musicians, five guitarists, three likembe players, five percussionists, two bass players, three drummers and an overflowing pool of vocal talent, they aimed for scale, scope and scintillation. Formed in 2011 from members of the pioneers of the ‘tradi-modern’ sound, Konono No.1 and Kasai Allstars, together with their ally/producer Vincent Kenis plus musicians from leftfield rock tuned into this new afrobeat dimension (Deerhoof, Juana Molina, Matt Mehlan from Skeletons and Wildbirds & Peacedrums), the idea behind the band was bold and brave.

As the curators of the increasingly influential Congotronics albums, the Crammed Discs label wanted to build on their ground breaking collection of re-imagined electro-Congolese music,‘Tradi-Mods vs Rockers’, with an extended series of live shows. And so the band came to pass, an inspirational creative leap that some ten years later is finally getting further exposure in the shape of ‘Congotronics International – Where’s The One?’ (via Crammed Discs from 29th April).

It’s not that these recordings from concerts between 2011 and 2013 have been gathering dust in the vaults all this time. The tapes have been shuffling backwards and forwards remotely over the years with Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier taking a lead in blending the live takes with studio recordings made before, during and after the tour. The final result is an extensive musical offering, weighing in at twenty plus tracks, that does so much more than document a run of performances. It thrives on the creative connections and tensions between a crowd of players from different traditions, revels in the solutions they found together and captures the unpredictable power of the sound of their short lived community.

Extraordinarily all the songs for the set and the album were primarily originals, worked up by the musicians in studios from Kinshasa to Buenos Aires, Stockholm to New York then shared via the internet. A seven day coming together for rehearsals in Brussels preceded the shows and from then on Congotronics International were flying. Title track ‘Where’s The One’ sets the tempo if not the tone from the outset. Chiming highlife guitar rolls, familiar likembe tumbles and Congotronic parps may be the fanfare but the song soon ramps up to a fully pumped, push and shove whirl. The vocal range of the group gets highlighted from the off, Matt Mehlan’s assured indie sneer, Juana Molina’s subtle coos and the Kasai Allstars volume-matching power more than equal the song’s fret wrenching finale. Ironically the title hints at the group’s early issues in latching onto each other’s eclectic rhythms but the sheer vibrancy here blows away any imperfections – it’s some opener.

That same gusto surges from the grooves so many times on the record. The thunderous rolling charge of ‘Banza Banza’ sees Kasai vocalist Kabongo Tshisense holding his own over crunching guitar/drum tumult while ‘Super Duper Rescue Allstars’ finds jaunty art pop and African melodics somehow riding along with big beat drums. The dynamics seem to rise even further on the redefinition from the Congotronics canon. Konono No.1’s ‘Kule Kule Redux’ is a reminder of the proto-techno credentials of this music but the re-acquaintance with Kasai’s ‘The Chief Enters Again’ is perhaps more daring, skipping from incantation to ceremonial stomp to a dust raising wig-out.

At times the album might seem to be skating close to the edge of frenzy but Congotronics International always knew how to keep a balance. When Juana Molina takes lead vocals on ‘Resila’ and ‘Tita Tita’, the songs ease into a lilting airiness that swim with invention. The ensemble swoon around the vibe, their dusty street rhythms ensuring the tunefulness maintains an edge. Elsewhere Mariam Wallentin brings her blues-jazz voicings to the pounding intensity of ‘Doubt/Hope’ whereas Kasai’s Tshisense and Mopero Mupemba ease things back with the tender and simple acoustic ballad ‘Beyond the 7th Bend’.

This may all sound like a sprawling stylistic clash but ‘Where Is The One’ is woven tight by the band’s relationships that grew through the project. No song gets neglected and everyone gives their all. The decision to thread shorter studio and rehearsal cuts throughout the album only adds to the warmth and authenticity that seeps through to the listener. This is the whole story, at times relentless but totally irrepressible. Pruning it down in pursuit of tightness would strip ‘Where Is The One’ of its artistic intent and reduce the experimental drive that motivates every one of Congotronics International’s players. As the gorgeous highlife injected ‘Mulume/Change’ says ‘If we just stay the same what will become of us then’. This record may be looking back to times gone by but it has the magic to carry anyone forward.

You can get your copy of ‘Where’s The One?’ by Congotronics International from your local independent record store or direct from:

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