Buzzing in a non-Mande African Context

Konono N°1’s electric likembe (source)

The buzzy timbre has also found its way into non-traditional non-African music, likely a by-product of the African Diaspora. This effect is particularly obvious in the United States, where the buzzing sound has evolved into a ragged/buzzed quality in much of American music. Some examples of this aesthetic are the raspy voices of jazz singers:Louis Armstrong in “Kiss to build a Dream on“, in raw blues: BB King “Blues Man”, the magically distorted guitar of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”, and George Clinton’s buzzy funk in “Atomic Dog”.

Meanwhile, back in Africa, this buzzy timbre has had an even more noticeable influence on contemporary music. One of the leading modern African groups are the Congolese Konono N°1. Zombo truck driver and trained likembé player Mawangu Mingiedi formed the group in the 1970s in Kinshasa. The likembé is a traditional instrument similar to the mbira and is known for its plucky buzzing sound. It is from the region that borders the Congo and Angola and is causally referred to as the “thumb piano”. The group’s music is a modern interpretation of Zombo likembé music that is traditionally played with horns carved out of elephant tusks. Konono N°1 instead consists of several singers, dancers, three electronic likembés (bass, medium, and treble) and percussion instruments. One aspect that makes Konono N°1’s sound so distinctive is that all of their instruments and electronic equipment are self-constructed from scrap materials and other items salvaged from junkyards. For example, the group’s microphone is carved out of wood, built out of a car alterator and hooked up to a large horn shaped amplifier that is used as a speaker. Many of the instruments in the rhythm section are found pots, pans and car parts, amplifying a raw buzzy timbre. Though this stemmed originally from necessity and poverty, the resulting affect of this equipment is a desired yet initially unintentional distortion which colors Konono N°1’s music amplifying their instruments’ buzzing.

Their album Congotronics released in 2005 by Crammed Discs has led to wide spread acclaim, an international tour and is available on itunes. Konono N°1 have collaborated with Icelandic recording artist Bjork and American producer Timbaland on the first single off Bjork’s 2007 album Volta called “Earth Intruders”. That same year Konono N°1 also opened for Bjork on several dates of her 2007 tour.

Konono N°1 are regarded as on the most influential Congolese artists for their unique blending of traditional Africa aesthetics into an experimental electronic format, creating what BBC World radio calls “dissonant, fabulously polyrhythmic, 21st Century African music.” 1

Videos:An edited compilation of several videos of Konono N°1 concerts. Note the clear shots of their makeshift equipment. Konono N°1’s video for their single “Lufuala Ndonga” off Congotronics. The video for Bjork’s “Earth Intruders”, the subject of the Bjork/Timbaland/Konono N°1 collaboration. Konono N°1’s offical siteKonono N°1’s myspace.N°1’s win as the 2006 BBC radio world music newcomer of the yearWikipedia article with basic information A compilation of reviews of Konono N°1’s Congotronics, all extremely positive1

Dancer at Konono N°1 show (Source)

-Tadd Gero

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