Critical World
Thinking Globalization Through Popular Culture
Social Distortion
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« Tradi-moderne » ou « techno-trad » ?
Congotronics et le plaisir de la distorsion

Conférence donnée lors du colloque “Patrimoines musicaux : circulation et contacts”, oct. 28-31 2009, Faculté de Musique, Université de Montréal

Distorted wave forms

Guitar with fuzz

Source: wikipedia
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Sound of Distortion

Source: wikipedia
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Kasai All-Stars (Congotronics 2)
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Johannes Fabian on noise in the Congo

Fabian « transformation of noise to meaningful sound », (2000 :115)I was in bed in a room at a mission in the middle of Dendale township [in Leopoldville], trying to get some sleep.  Around the square where the mission’s building lay loudspeakers from what seemed at least four different bars or dancing halls blasted Zairian music into the night air; each playing a different record yet creating in my tortured head a common effect, a kind of pulse caused by seemingly never-ending repetition of guitar riffs.  Here was African life that assaulted me physically, mades its presence painfully felt.  I was about to go out of my mind, as the saying goes, when a tropical downpour swept all sound from the square (1998: 85; c.f. Fabian 1990: 79).

Adaptation et transpiration

Adaptation et transpiration :  ALMAZMazanza Maurice (Born in Luozi, Bas-Zaire, on Oct. 4, 1950) is a self-trained, self-employed acoustic guitar manufacturer.  In business since the mid-1970s, his workshop’s name (ALMAZ, ‘Atelier Lutherie Mazanza’) is the only widely recognized brand of locally manufactured string instruments, and he has supplied guitars not only to some of the Congo’s biggest names (Youlou Mabiala, Rigo Star, and others), but has also had photo opportunities with the well-known French musician Jacques Higelin, who returned to France with two custom-made Almaz masterpieces (Conrath 1984).  In actuality, all of Mazanza’s guitars are custom-made, since he personally inspects each instrument that leaves his shop, and this only after he has completed the technically demanding process of placing the frets.  Mazanza reminisces about the first guitar he made:”I made the first one with particle board from Belgian cigarette containers, I think I had a metal saw [figure 4.2].  With money from the sale I bought what I needed to make a second guitar.  I used to do this in my free time, especially during summer vacation, then my Dad told me to concentrate on my studies, “Don’t mix money and studies,” he used to say.  After I started repairing imported guitars, I used to fix everyone’s guitars, lots of Wendo’s musicians would come to see me (Feb. 19, 1996).”By 1967, he was making almost 60 guitars per year and had a team of five assistants.  In the same year he placed his first advertisement in a local paper (L’Etoile du Congo, August 5).  In 1996, he was paying 12 full-time employees, had mechanized every stage of production (with machines he himself designed) except for frets and tuning heads, and was able to produce somewhere between a total 50-60 guitars per month (bass, solo, mi-solo).  From Mazanza’s point of view what is most important about his story is his personal effort:

“Edison said only 1% of his work was inspiration, the rest was ‘transpiration’ (‘sweat’).  He suffered a lot to invent everything he invented. Before concentrating on technical aspects, I have to do administration and place the frets.  I sleep at 7:00 p.m., get up at midnight to read the Bible, then I work until 3:00 a.m. and go back to sleep until 5:00 or 6:00 a.m.  Sometimes I suffer from being overworked.  During 2 years or so I used to forget what I had just eaten (Feb. 19, 1996).”

Ce qui est le plus fascinant, ce n’est pas les guitares qu’ALMAZ a crée mais les machines qu’il a crée pour faire des guitares [DIAPORAMA]

Nanook Gramophone

4 atalakus

Adaptation et “l’article 15”

Adaptation et « article 15 » (?)The atalaku’s primary instrument, apart from his voice, is a hollowed out metal insecticide spraycan that is modified in order to be used as a maracas [figure 1.3].  Maracas have always been a part of Congolese popular music, but in the early years musicians used imported gourd-style maracas (as was common in Afro-Cuban music of the period).Young musicians in the 1970s, faced with an increasingly precarious economy, but also a music scene controlled by older musicians who had close ties with the regime, struggled to have access to professional quality instruments.  This, they say, was the primary reason that they began fabricating spraycan maracas, which over time have become an iconic symbol of the popular dance music in Kinshasa.From the atalaku’s point of view, the choice of this particular type of can—one that is made of a high-quality, durable metal that resonates loudly enough so that it does not need its own microphone in concert—is not random.  Most atalaku prefer this can over a myriad of other cans (perfume, powdered milk, sardines, etc.) primarily because of its sound
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, but the production of this instrument is also a sign of resourcefulness (débrouillardise).

The musician who presented me with my first spraycan maracas was visibly proud of his recycling skills.  He explained how he removed the nozzle, perforated each line of sound holes, and opened a small triangular door on the bottom for inserting the hardwood tree seeds that we would look for together [SEEDS, BEBE]

I have held on to the image of this instrument not only because it represents the atalaku, a central character in my story, but also because of the way that the maracas evokes a time of crisis, when Kinshasa’s mosquito problem is used as a metaphor for economic hardship and political insecurity [SAMBA].

Loud metal sound does not need to be amplified

Renewal of popular music made possible by traditional music, song structure

maracas used to look like this [BOW], now they look like this [MOBIL]  it was through this instrument (‘modern’ on the outside) that ‘traditional’ musicians were able to de-ghettoize folk music and make themselves an integral part of the increasingly competitive ‘modern’ music scene [ATALAKUS, NONO]

Atalaku avec marakas (Nono)

Bebe collecting seeds

Spraycan maracas

Press Clippings

Konono No 1 hail from the impoverished suburbs of one of the world’s most dangerous cities – the Congolese capital, Kinshasa. And if globalisation and digitalisation are reducing the musics of the world to a homogenised aural goo, no one has told them that. Employing three amplified “likembe” thumb pianos, percussion improvised from car parts, traditional drums and vocals bawled through megaphones, they make furiously intense urban trance music to which a degree of frantic buzzing distortion is entirely integral. (Daily Telegraph)But what really makes “Congotronics” (Crammed Discs), the debut album by the African band Konono No. 1, one of the most startling of recent world-music releases – and drawn comparisons to the German electronic-music pioneers Kraftwerk and the reggae producer Lee Perry – is the amplification system the band has used for the last 30 years….Electronic-music devotees have raved about “Congotronics” on the Internet, while some world-music fans remain suspicious. “They say this is rock and not traditional African music,” Mr. Kenis said. “They don’t believe it. But the public that doesn’t care about African music immediately catches on to this music. (NY Times)Here was African music at rock volume, with a quivering undercurrent of analog electronics. The raw sound vibrates like a passing train engine, with percussion led by twanging thumb pianos, simple drum patterns, and singers chanting and blowing whistles…”They are unique within the world-music bracket, as they [also] cross over to a non-world-music audience . . . an electronica-scene kind of audience. [This scene] can enjoy the intensity of Konono.”… In the process, it creates homemade sounds similar in spirit to those aspired to by budding groups weaned on garage bands and self-made heroes, from those three-chord poets the Ramones to oscillator-mangling noodlers the Silver Apples. For many of Konono’s fans — which include big names like Wilco and Beck — the otherworldly buzz coming from the primitive amplification takes them to another level, where folk music meets the avant garde. (Cleveland Scene)Konono No 1 emerged from the Angola/Congo border bush and relocated to Kinshasa, steeped in the traditional Bazombo trance music. They amassed a collection of differently pitched likembé (thumb pianos, or metal rods attached to resonators and pick-ups), plus pots, pans, cutlery, microphones adapted from car parts, whistles, massed vocals passed though megaphones and a massive sound system…The likembé merge to provide a brutal, hypnotising beat, the cousin to The 13th Floor Elevators’ electrified jug or John Cales manic viola. The rapid intensity of rhythm matches the finest exponents of Krautrock, occasionally drifting close to the confused energy of Aphex Twin or Autechre, with the damaged tempo of Beefheart or Marc Ribot slithering in. (BBC)

The musicians perform before a wall of conical P.A. speaker cones, megaphones, and old amps that blast out propulsive grooves. Thumb pianos are held out before the musicians like computer keyboards while percussion instruments mingle the thump of traditional African drums with the metallic clinks and clanks of refashioned junkyard scraps. Whistles howl and tweet while voices chant in call and response. Funneled out of the makeshift microphones and speakers, the sound of this traditional music, ritually performed for centuries, takes on a crunched, distorted timbre, reveling in the limitations of amplification as well as its cavernous resonances…Intriguingly, hip groups in the United States such as Tortoise have embraced Konono No. 1. Why has Konono No. 1 struck a chord with indie-rockers rather than world music mavens? Part of the reason is a very purposeful marketing campaign. But there’s something else going on, too. Konono’s sound is not polished and hyper-synthesized. This is not your typical watered-down international musical diplomacy. Instead, Konono offers a more rickety, homemade, do-it-yourself integration of the body and the broadcast. Where fingertips can make vibrations across the electronic pathways of the World Wide Web and amplified megaphones can growl to the ancestors, you get a space where the old and the new can be rearranged in provocative, invigorating, and potentially revolutionary ways.  (Pop Matters)


Ce sont des orchestres traditionnels qui jouent de la musique traditionnelle, qui sont électrifiés et qui essayent de perpétuer leur rôle traditionnel dans leur communauté. Ils ne prétendent pas faire autre chose que leur musique régionale, mais avec des moyens modernes, comme l’amplification. Ils préexistent au soukouss et ils pensent qu’ils lui survivront», note Vincent Kenis. Néanmoins, un danger existe : «Ils croient forcément qu’une batterie neuve vaut mieux qu’un amas de ferraille. Mais c’est cet amas de ferraille qui a un son unique au monde.» – Bertrand Dicale (Figaro)


Sobanza Mimanisafichier


Kasai All Starsfichier

Finding it necessary to amplify his likembes to make them heard over the noise of the city streets, but lacking any cash with which to buy imported equipment, Mingiedi was obliged to improvise: he built likembe pick-ups from magnets salvaged from old car parts and plugged them into banks of home-made amplifiers powered by car batteries (mains electricity not being available in Kinshasa’s suburbs); augmented traditional percussion with found scrap metal constructions; and–lacking microphones–had his vocalists shout their lyrics through reclaimed colonial-era megaphones known as “lance-voix” or voice-throwers. (All About Jazz)

String machine

Electrical Box

“Effrakata” Koffi Olomide

19 Minutes de Ngwasuma


Drowning Goat

Kasai All Starsfichier

There’s little precedent for a record like Congotronics, even as the music at its core goes back many generations and predates the discovery of electricity by some time. It’s important to note that these are not pop songs in any sense of the word– this is traditional trance music with an electric twist, and should be approached as such. That said, it’s among the most fascinating music I’ve heard and deserves a listen by anyone with even the remotest interest in the possibilities of sound. – Joe Tangari, March 17, 2000 (Pitchfork)

Quick As White

Kasai All Starsfichier


Koffi Olomidefichier

Lufuala Ndonga

Congotronics Artist


Kasai All Starsfichier


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