SOMETIMES a record comes along that disrupts your expectations.
Since their debut album in 2008, Kasai Allstars have been one of the cornerstones of Congotronics, that vibrant assemblage of polyrhythms and scrapyard instrumentation which bolted a whole new wing to the afrobeat star-liner. Buzz drums, wired-up thumb pianos, hubcap percussion and salvaged guitars mixed with more traditional African instrumentation, defined their sound. The songs were lengthy trance-like explorations, hypnotic in their repetition, electronically charged music without a synthesiser or sampler in sight.
So a first encounter with their new record, the quizzically titled Black Ants Always Fly Together, One Bangle Makes No Sound, with its promise of programmed beats and a more studio-realised outcome, could have required careful handling. But this is one change that can be embraced confidently by any listener new or returning to The Kasai Allstars cosmos.
Yes, the album, available on the ever-faithful Crammed Discs now, is less raw and raucous than the collective’s previous soundclashes but the rhythmic drive and energy is still there. What’s lost in spontaneous intensity is replaced with a new focus on a song’s potential to move you in other ways.
Opening track “Kasai Munene” confidently flaunts these new parameters, with its bright, lilting chord sequence and nimble, hissing electronic beats, but it retains some Kasai Allstars’ staples. The knowing repetition and zig-zagging cross-rhythms are there at the base, solid and dependable, maintaining a real connection with their past. Fittingly sung by four of the collective’s stalwarts, Muambuyi, Mi Amor, Kabongo, and Tandjolo, the different voices also bring bantering variety and a harmonic team spirit to the album’s introduction.
That togetherness is a theme that has underpinned the group since its formation, emerging as it did from the confluence of five different bands from distinct Congolese regions. It’s aired once again here through the album title (Black Ants Always Fly Together, One Bangle Makes No Sound – think about it …) and in several of the new record’s tracks.
“Unity is Strength”, despite its rumbling rhythmic drive, steps away from the Kasai template but survives the slightly fluffy synth twinkles with fluid MC work. “Olooh, A War Dance For Peace” hits harder, building an evocative chant around the blend of booming hand drums, electronic beats and jangling guitar resonance. The song features a new vocal contributor, the pure-toned Bijou, and an added hint of autotune for complimentary zip.
Elsewhere guitarist, songwriter and producer Mopero Mupemba paces the record carefully by maintaining a balance between shiny afropop numbers and tracks that feature Kasai Allstars’ instrumentation at the head of the mix. In the pop corner you’ll find the swishing “Baba Bende” sparkling with highlife energy and “Betrayal by Gossip”, which bundles up Latin, eastern and electro into a melodic gift of a song. “Like a Dry Leaf On a Tree” brings a cooler tempo with its slow, spinning balladry, choral support and chiming Eighties synth scales, but thankfully manages to steer clear of schmaltz with its authenticity and heart.
For those seeking something a little closer to the Kasai Allstars’ signature, Black Ants… is a record that still delivers. “Musungu Elongo Paints His Face White To Scare Small Children” fittingly breaks out from a playful disco rhumba to a rootsy face-off of muscular fuzzed guitar lines. The band also shift through the gears on “Hunters and Farmers Need the Blacksmith”, taking a tuneful folky starter and winding it into an full on juke joint skip. But maybe it’s on hyperspeed “The Large Bird, the Woman and the Baby” or the album’s final track that the band skirt closest to their trademark groove. Shaped around rootsy vocal exchanges and a refreshing bubbling beat, “The Goat’s Voice’” has a charm and warmth born of Kasai Allstars’ enduring low-fi ethic.
So, Black Ants Always Fly Together, One Bangle Makes No Sound may in some ways be more restrained and coherent than the band’s previous releases, but it still retains that element of surprise and unpredictability that make Kasai Allstars so intriguing.
It’s a record that keeps you in touch with the collective’s significant musical heritage but which leaves you wanting to join them on any future excavations.
Kasai Allstars’ Black Ants Always Fly Together, One Bangle Makes No Sound is available now digitally, on CD and on vinyl from Crammed Discs and may be ordered over at Bandcamp.