Not all trance music is created equal. We periodically need to remind ourselves of this axiom. There are valid reasons why the ancient trance musics of Asia and Africa continue to enthrall us today: they synch up with our heart/earth rhythms; they connect us to the brain waves of our distant ancestors; and, by the way, they sound awesome.
There's good new trance music, of course, but it's not the kind you hear at spacious clubs with dress codes. No, the best new trance music bears more grit and friction than that (hear Sunroof! and Vibracathedral Orchestra's third-eye-punching output). One of the most thrilling recent trance-music discoveries has been Konono Nº1.
Producer Vincent Kenis of Brussels-based Crammed Discs discovered the Congolese 12-piece on a French radio station 25 years ago. "When I first encountered it," Kenis told the New York Times, "I thought it was the equivalent of punk music in Africa." After a 10-year search, Kenis located the band in 2002 in a poor Kinshasa suburb. He noticed that their sound hadn't changed since 1980. They were using the same gear. Why mess with perfection, eh?
Septuagenarian Mawangu Mingiede leads Konono Nº1, who call their music "tradi-moderne." The ramshackle unit's North American debut, Congotronics (issued on vinyl by Ache Records), is instantly identifiable by its variously pitched likembés (thumb pianos, which are metal rods attached to a resonator) run through homemade amplifiers, in order to be heard over the urban clamor.
Based on Bazombo trance rhythms, Konono's tracks undulate and tumble with irrepressible momentum, further catalyzed by raucous chants in a rhythmic foreign tongue and spirited bashing of busted hubcap cymbals and other found implements. Unamplified, likembés sound placidly ruminative, pretty. Electrified and played by three skilled Congolese, they unleash torrents of kundalini in listeners. You will covet a likembé after one listen to Congotronics.
For many, Congotronics will be the first "world music" album they buy. What distinguishes this disc from the tasteful tonnage of world-music releases (usually other countries' chart fodder repackaged for mainstream Western consumption) is its raw, DIY feel. Congotronics radiates the urgent sound of poor Africa like a 1979 Bronx mix tape conveys the hungry expressiveness of nascent hiphop.