Kasai Allstars and Brian Eno Reinterpret African Music With a Modern Touch

In 2004, the Belgian label Crammed Discs introduced the wider world to what is called, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, tradi-moderne—that is, music that combines the traditional and the modern, Central African folk music filtered through modern instruments and an urban sensibility. The Congotronics series of albums, featuring tradi-moderne bands Konono Nº1, Basokin, the Kasai Allstars, and others, became a minor phenomenon for a few years in Europe and the United States, and for good reason. The music in the series captured something both familiar and unheard, the bright melodies and hypnotic rhythms of traditional Central African music turned up and transformed into something entirely new.

Konono Nº1 were the initial superstars of the series. The band’s origins go back to the very beginning of tradi-moderne, in the 1960s and ’70s, and its leader, Mawangu Mingiedi, is considered a virtuoso on the likembé, the electric thumb piano that is at the center of much of this music.

But the Kasai Allstars have turned out to be the most exciting of the Congotronics bands. The band has just released its second album, Beware the Fetish, a remarkable double disc set that stands as the pinnacle of Crammed Disc’s tradi-moderne releases so far. It’s not officially part of the Congotronics series, but its formidable scope and ensemble strength make it superior to its predecessors, as good as they all have been.

At more than an hour and 40 minutes long, Beware the Fetish is a massive collection—only two songs are under six minutes and two stretch out past 10 minutes, with an average song length of eight and a half minutes. The press release accompanying the album recommends “PLAY IT LOUD!”

The songs themselves aren’t particularly dynamic; the structures are basic and repetitive. But there’s a lot going on, with multiple voices and instruments—likembé, xylophone, electric guitar, and various percussion instruments—weaving in and out of each other. The focus isn’t on individual performances but on group playing—a surprise, considering the history of the band.

Unlike Konono Nº1, the Allstars were not a functioning band before they recorded their debut album, In the Seventh Moon, the Chief Turned Into a Swimming Fish and Ate the Head of His Enemy by Magic, in 2008. They are genuinely all-stars—the 15 core members of the group all come from existing bands from the Kasai region of the country. (Each of those five bands represents a separate and distinct ethnic group. Considering the recent bloody history of ethnic conflict in the Congo, this creative cooperation is itself a powerful political statement.)

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Brian Eno nods to African music with the title of his new album with the English synth-pop veteran Karl Hyde. But High Life isn’t a sequel to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Eno’s 1981 world-music collage collaboration with David Byrne. It’s an odd album; there are clear references to Nigerian highlife, the jazz-influenced African pop music that gives the album its name, in the track “DBF.”

But elsewhere High Life sounds conflicted and vaguely nostalgic, with echoes of U2, Roxy Music, and Eno’s solo rock albums from the ’70s. What ties it all together is Hyde’s meticulous guitar-playing, which covers the various styles presented here but keeps them all connected to each other. The only real misstep is the next-to-last song, “Moulded Life,” which reeks of late-’90s dance music, but the floating ambient closer, “Cells and Bells,” feels out of place on this album—Hyde’s presence barely registers.

High Life is the second Eno/Hyde collaboration in as many months, following May’s Someday World. The new album is easily the better of the two, and as good as it is to hear Eno sing again after so many years, it still feels slight.

 


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