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Published: 2006/04/16
by Jesse Jarnow

Congotronics 2: Buzz ‘n’ Rumble from the Urb ‘n’ Jungle – various artists

Crammed Discs 29

It was by necessity that the rural thumb pianists of Congo went electric. They'd gone urban first. Literally. Moving from the bush to the teaming suburbs outside Kinshasa, they needed their music to be heard over the crowds of the public spaces where they performed. So they wired the thumb pianos up to megaphones — big, generic cones that look like they could have been rigged anywhere between last week and 50 years ago. The sound was magical.

Congotronics 2: Buzz ‘n’ Rumble From the Urb ‘n’ Jungle is producer Vincent Kenis’s second dispatch from Kinshasa. Where the first, released in 2004, focused on the work of a single group, Konono No. 1, Buzz ‘n’ Rumble is a showcase of more than a half-dozen outfits from various towns and districts. At the center of almost each are the thumb pianos, likemb which cycle through trance-like melodies with stunning musical efficiency and effortless cool.

From the first joined-in-progress moments of "Wa Muluendu" — credited to Masanka Sankay and the Kasai Allstars featuring Mutumilayi — the accuracy of Kensis's branding is obvious. The speakers distort the likembwarmly, pushing them into the realms of oversaturated bleeps. The sharp, metallic edges are worn down, and what's left is an impressionistic fluttering of color. Musically, too, each outfit is made possible by its amplification. How else could the likembe a lead instrument? How else could they get over the electric guitars?

The pieces are all beautiful. Though there are occasional vocal chants on nearly each tune, they hardly interrupt the grooves, parts drawing from the same scales and polyrhythms as the thumb pianos. Often, they're piped through the same speakers, such as by the Kasai Allstars, whose vocals blur in much the same way as their gloriously overdriven likemb That band's assembled chaos, showcased on three tracks, is one of the disc's highlights.

A pair of outfits don't feature thumb pianos, though are as every bit Congotronic as those who do. Basokin, represented with "Mulume," are driven by a pair of gnarly, lighter than air guitars, which twist and tumble over a bed of percussion that creates the illusion of masking a thundering drum kit at its center. According, meanwhile, drives Bolia We Ndenge, meanwhile. With its buoyant lift, their "Bosamba Ndeke" recalls some of the rhythmically raw Cajun music collected on Harry Smith's fabled Anthology of American Folk Music.

An accompanying DVD of the recording sessions is appropriately lo-fi, giving the music far more context than even the most scholarly of liner notes could. This is music of the industrial world. Besides the megaphone amplification, percussion instruments are also fashioned from spray paint canisters, plastic beer bottles, and sardine can rattles. It makes sense instantly.

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