Interview May 9, 2011
Vincent Kenis
Afropop contributor Kenneth Routon checks in with Belgian musician/composer and mastermind behind the Crammed Discs series 'Congotronics.' Kenneth Routon: In 1983, you participated in the recording of Zazou Bikaye’s Noir et Blanc, one of the first recordings to fuse traditional African music with European electronica, which someone described as, “Fela Kuti-meets-Kraftwerk.” Did you intentionally set out to create this kind of musical hybrid? Vincent Kenis: Almost all credits for this album must be given to Hector Zazou; it was Zazou who had the brilliant idea to put Congolese singer Bony Bikaye in contact with hardcore analog-synth freaks CY1. I'm not sure Zazou had foreseen to which point that encounter would be fruitful, the fact is that only a musician as gifted as Bony Bikaye, who was at the same time a product of the exceptionally fertile modern music of his home town Kinshasa and an recipient of the rich polyrythmic and polyphonic tradition from Central African music, could have not only found his way into the dauntingly irregular rhythmic structures created by CY1 from scratch in the studio (the sequencers were totally unreliable and unpredictable then), but even use these structures as a basis to improvise songs on the spot... it worked beyond anybody's expectations. Zazou also wrote the horn arrangements on the spot. I improvized some bass and guitar parts (BTW my part in 'Djuya Feza' was intended to sound a bit like Konono N°1, which I had discovered some time before through the recordings of Bernard Treton) and some dub and scratch effects. I also assisted Gilles Martin and Marc Hollander for the mixing.
KR: In 1991, you produced Zap Mama’s first album Zap Mama, which was later re-released by Luaka Bop as Adventures in Afropea 1. What was it like working with Marie Daulne back then?
VK: In the beginning Zap Mama was more like a collective of girls with no other goal than to entertain and surprise each other. The fact that I had been involved in Afrocuban and Congolese music as a musician, and with Baka pygmy music as a musicologist, gave me some credibility as a consultant. I also introduced them to studio production techniques, telling them what was possible and not possible (what was not possible I ended up trying to do later at home with my sampler and sequencer, which were extensively used). Like with Noir Et Blanc, Zap Mama's first album was largely a work of collective improvisation, and probably superior to the sum of its parts. I feel very lucky to have been part of these two albums blessed with the magic of innocence. KR: Konono’s music comes from a region that has suffered centuries of violence, terror, and oppression. What impact do you think this history of violence and terror has had on the development of their sound? VK: I personally think that the emphasis put by the media of UK and USA have always put on violence terror and oppression in RDC is a unconscious sequel of a moment in history one century ago when those countries attempted to snatch Congo from Belgium through what must have been one of the first systematic manipulation of public opinion through the press. I don't contest the horrors in the 'scramble for rubber' years 1890-1908; it's clear that Leopold II was a ruthless entrepreneur, but at the time the French and the English also did extremely nasty things in Africa and elsewhere on a much wider scale. I have the impression that Leopold’s atrocities got more publicized because he was an easy target, and because of the enormous interests at stake. I believe also that the 50 years that followed the handing over of the Congo by Lepold II to Belgium produced much more material comfort and durable infrastructures and health and real education for the population than most other colonial systems, and in many aspects were the happiest in Congo’s history. Considering such a small country as Belgium, and the fact that it never had a colonial tradition nor desire in the first place - it was handed the Congo from Leopold without having asked for it - the result was quite impressive. I believe also that in a way, the Congolese were given independence without really having asked for it, either: the people who wanted Congo’s independence the most were 1° a small clique of ignorant politicians who despised the Congolese people even more than the Belgians did, and spent the next decades proving it 2° the USA, whose only concern was not to let Russia take over the country and cut them from strategic resources such as uranium and cobalt. They were the ones who unreasonably hastened the independence process. In that post war/cold war period, Belgium had become almost a colony of the USA and there’s very little it could do to prevent the violence, terror, war and oppression in Congo which followed, and are a direct consequence of the American politics, not Belgian. Of course poverty and limited resourses contributed to Konono N°1's unique sound, and I suppose Mobutu's "authenticity" politics fueled their resistance to change. But when one mentions violence, terror, and oppression, I suppose one refers mostly to Kivu; Kinshasa and Kivu belong to different economic areas, they are almost 3000 km away from each other, I don't believe that what happened in Kivu for the last 15 years has had a real influence on life in Kinshasa compared to the considerable and continuous degradation the city has been under for the last 50 years. KR: On the Congotronics 2 DVD, Bolia We Ndenge’s performance is preceded by a skit in which an officer of the colonial army gives him an accordion, apparently to calm discontent. Can you tell us more about Bolia We Ndgenge? VK: Bolia We Ndenge comes from Lake Mai Ndombe, a region which used to have a special status as "Domaine de la Couronne" and where rubber exploitation, done at the time for the only profit of Leopold II, was especially intensive. Curiously, they still seem to be proud of that special status and talk about the current king of Belgium as if he was still "their" king. The reference to the accordion is a mark of respect to the man who brought modernity and opened them to the outside world. Or maybe they tell me that because I'm Belgian. KR: You once remarked that some of the most interesting music tends to come from people and places under  the grip of totalitarian control, a comment that on the surface seems counter-intuitive. What did you mean by this? VK: I just meant that when for whatever reasons, good or bad, people are told that their culture is as good as any other and that they should be proud of it and try to exploit it and develop it instead of feeling retarded and dropping it in favor of supposedly superior foreign cultures, it usually gives them confidence, which usually gives good results musically wise. KR: Although Konono seems to have been part of Mobutu Sese Seko’s “authenticity” campaign in the 1970s, Mawangu Mingiedi claims the group never received any financial support from the state. VK: When he handed the BBC World Award to K1 in 2006, Hugh Masekela said that on his visit to Kinshasa as a musician on the occasion of the Ali-Foreman boxing match in 1975, many "tradi-modern" groups were playing in the main squares of the capital as a display of the zairean "authenticity". I don't know about Konono N°1 but I know for sure that several "tradi-modern" groups did receive amplification equipment and instruments at that moment. Of course on the long run it was politically far more effective for Mobutu to help the groups who had a trans-ethnic appeal and could be thus used more easily as vectors for his political slogans - the best known example is Franco's OK Jazz but Tabu Ley Rochereau's Afrisa, Zaiko Langa Langa, Wenge Musica and many others released records which explicitely supported the "parti unique". To get any airplay on the state radio, it was almost mandatory to pay allegeance to Mobutu in one way or another. KR: You’re both an ethnomusicologist dedicated to reproducing the congotronics’ sound with minimal intervention and a record producer who produces a commodity marketed primarily toward the WOMAD demographic. How do you personally deal with the tensions between these two roles? VK: I have no particular target in mind, I produce records that I like. I just avoid manipulating the musicians and transform their music to a point where they don't recognize themselves in what I do. Sometimes it's difficult, sometimes there's no other solution than to manipulate them because they have very limited interest in the process of producing a record. Konono N°1, again: when I came in Kin last year for their second album, I first recorded a rehearsal with a little MP3 recorder I put on a table in front of the group. There was a real loud TV in the room with a Nollywood show, nobody bothered to turn it off. At the end of the rehearsal, Mingiedi sent his grandson to ask me if the six songs I had recorded were enough for an album, when would it come out, and when would he get the money ? I went to Mingiedi and said "don't you remember that on your first album there were dozens of microphones and cables, that I kept fiddling amps and moving mic stands all the time, that I asked you to do several songs again ?" he said "No. So when will I get the money ?" When the final takes were recorded, I couldn't even persuade him to come to my hotel room and decide with me which ones were the best, and when a journalist asked Augustin what he thought of the fact that I had added some Kasai musicians to one of the songs, he looked surprised, kept silent for a moment, then candidly admitted that he still hadn't listened to the album! Come to think of it, maybe it's only normal for a performing group to consider CDs like a means of making money no more important than t-shirts bearing their name; and it's no wonder either that they show no interest in my attempts to make their music sound different from one album to the other, since what they do on stage sounds exactly the same as 40 years ago and people still enjoy it.
KR: On the first Konono recording, you added only a distortion pedal, a heavy-bass sound reminiscent of reggae sound systems, a few breaks, and what you referred to as a little “subliminal magic.” What did you mean by “subliminal magic”?
VK: My main trick is to listen to rythmic tracks and emphasize the melodies I hear in them, through EQ (sometimes very radical) and compression. I also use a lot of side chain. This allows you to control the compression of a track with the dynamics of another. I also use dynamic filtering of reverbs. I used a lot of filter sweeps but now I avoid them. KR: Some suggest your interventions have not been quite so modest, that your association with Belgian’s Crammed Discs means that you are driven, above all, to satisfy market demands for musical novelty. VK: Of course I'd rather not release two albums by the same artist which sound identical, but that's mainly to satisfy MY demand for novelty, see above... I'm trapped in an awkward situation: people expect new things, the groups I produce have been playing the same stuff forever, they're too jealous of their culture to accept an outsider's input (they even won't let me tune their guitars), I feel it would be misunderstood, if I started to use their sounds as a mean for personal expression, so I have no other choice than trying to be creative in the least remarkable way possible, although receiving no feedback from them whatsoever should leave me total freedom.
KR: It also been said that your expressed concerns regarding the need to “evolve” Konono’s sound seems premature given the fact that so much of the region’s folk music has so far remained largely undocumented. How do you respond to these criticisms? VK: Documenting all folk music from a specific region is something only institutions can afford: universities, museums, the BBC, some private foundations. An independent record label has to make money and thus obey many constraints, many of which have nothing to do with music. Fro one, groups that don't tour abroad have zero chance to sell records, and groups that do tour abroad have to fit certains parameters: 1° there must be not too many musicians (10 seems to be a maximum) 2° they should present guarantees that their music can sustain interest from the public for a reasonable amount of time, because launching a "product" means hitting on a specific nail long enough for the message to come across, and this costs money 3° they should present guarantees that they won't disappear in the Western paradise on the first occasion, because any desertion means zero chance to get visas for the remaining members next time, which would halt our business instantly (no tours = no records)... this means we have to give preference to middle-aged unadaptable types with a big family rather than to clever turbulent teenagers who don't mind emigrating permanently. In Kishasa alone I can see at least a dozen groups that I would love to produce, but the system as it is now makes it impossible. KR: There is a kind of terrible irony here. One one hand, Konono’s sound is considered by many Kinois to be passeé, even “primitive” (i.e., the stereotypical image of Africans as drum-beating savages), not exactly the modernizing image the educated population there want to project to the outside world. On the other hand, this music has been enthusiastically embraced by consumers in Europe and North America, some would say precisely because they satisfy the global demand for exotica, which, of course, plays right into the contradictory attitudes associated with Western primitivism. Does this sort of thing trouble you? VK: Should I have refrained from loving blues music because it didn't correspond to the modernizing image the young generation of black Americans wanted to project to the outside world? Should I have refrained from loving Thelonious Monk out of fear of being assimilated to those people who were interested in him for the "wrong" reasons, his eccentric behavior, his leopard skin pill box hats etc ? KR: Reviews in the international press describe this music with phrases like “prehistoric acid house” and a host of adjectives ranging from “brutal” to “wild;” in contrast to the raw, buzzing dissonance of their sound, their musical instruments, as one writer put it, “resemble children’s toys.” Do you feel that these kinds of distorted fantasies and images of former colonial subjects necessarily explain their appeal among European and North American audiences? VK: I first thought of Konono as urban punk rockers more than as drum beating savages, the fact that they were African or colonial etc was irrelevant to me. It is true that the rebel attitude connotated with that type of sound in the West can be misleading - especially when people expect a second album radically different from the first - but in the end I think most people just enjoy their music without referring to these stereotypes any more. I hope so anyway. KR: At the same time, many have remarked that the Congotronics series really seems to break with the cliché images and sounds of “world music” – that is, watered-down, polished studio recordings and idyllic images of exotic peoples and places. Do you think the Congotronics series departs from these and similar trends in the “world music” scene? VK: What I can say is that I'm glad to have contributed to the fact that the full spectrum is now available - on one side Amadou & Mariam's Westernized music begging for consensus, on the other side Staff Benda Bilili and their "we are what we are, take it or leave it" attitude. KR: David Byrne, Paul Simon, Ry Cooder, and many others, have all had to endure biting criticism from some critics, especially scholars, who insinuate that their collaborations and recordings with indigenous musicians reflect a kind of neo-colonial project of exploitation. Do you think some of these artists have been unfairly accused of being “merchants of misery”? VK: That is precisely what I feared when producing Staff Benda Bilili, but somehow no one has accused me so far of being a "merchant of misery", on the contrary, one critic said that after listening to the album for 5 minutes you completely forget their almost caricaturally tragic history and surroundings and just feel like dancing and enjoying their music... reading that article was a very happy moment in my life. KR: The Congotronics series does seemed to have revived interest in music from the region. This is significant considering the fact that Kinshasa had been a booming center of commerical African pop music before experiencing a sharp decline in the 1990s. Has the international recognition of the Congotronic series had any impact on changing local attitudes toward Konono’s music and other groups like them? VK: Not at all. Just like "popular" painter Chéri Samba, their success among the "whites" is misunderstood and generally attributed to chance, or witchcraft. KR: Kinois have largely swept aside traditional music in favor of the cosmopolitan, affluent sounds of Hawaiien-style soukous. Yet, you’ve expressed hope that the hip hop emerging Kinshasa’s poorer districts – where the youth lack microphones and beat on beer cases and plastic with spray cans full of little stones. Have any of these hip hop groups followed Konono’s lead by building their own homegrown sound systems? VK: I soon realized that most Congolese hip hop musicians would sound and look exactly like their American models if they had access to the right equipment and paraphenalia. For them, being associated with tradition - or even Africa, I suspect - is to be avoided at all costs. I know a hip hop singer who's designing his own instruments but he has been doing it before K1's success. KR: What new project(s) are you working on? VK: Last year I told you about that live music I filmed and recorded in South East of the Congo. Well, the CD/DVD came out in February and has been well received, it's called "The Karindula Sessions". The Kasaï Allstars’ new album isn't quite finished yet. After they failed to get visas for their tour in 2008, which dramatically limited the diffusion of their CD "In The 7th Moon" and killed their hopes for another tour any time soon, the group as such virtually ceased to exist (though most members kept on performing independently). Getting them to play together again, enjoy it, and evolve their style, took me 3 months. When I came home, I realized that what I had on the hard disk was maybe not groundbreaking enough as a follow-up for the excellent "In The 7th Moon". Meanwhile in Brussels, "Tradi-Mods vs Rockers" had come out. An inititative by Crammed Discs CEO Marc Hollander, it's a double CD or reinterpretations/ recreations of music from Congolsese artists, mainly Konono N°1 and Kasaï Allsars, by musicians coming from the alternative rock scene: Animal Collective, Deerhoof, Juana Molina, Shackleton, Andrew Bird, Megafaun, 23 artists in all.  The stir caused by that album was such that the infeasible - get these musicians from the North and the South to really meet in person, create music together, and get on stage – suddenly turned into a remote possibility. This is what I’m working at now. It's called "Congotronics vs Rockers" and involves U.S groups Deerhoof (in full) and Skeletons (represented by their leader Matt Mehlan) , Swedish duo Wildbirds & Peacedrums, Argentinian singer Juana Molina, Belgian pop band Girls from Hawaii, as well as 10 musicians from Kasaï Allstars and Konono N°1, and myself. It’s been one month now that I’m in Kinshasa to prepare the Congolese rehearsals for the meeting which will happen in Brussels on May 5. Unfortunately, a key figure of the Congolese outfit I had imagined, Mbuyamba Nyunyi from Kasaï Allstars, fell gravely ill just as the rehearsals were about to start. He died one week ago, at sixty-three. By far the most brilliant of the true Luba musical tradition, he was also an amazing songwriter, dancer, multi-instrumentist, music instrument maker. Besides, his amazing musical sensitivity and openness to other cultures made him my best ally for that crazy project. Everybody in the group showed amazing courage, determination, kindness, and mutual support facing this tragedy, but as you can imagine it took us a while to get back on track, especially for me, since suddenly I faced the necessity to become a real member of the group at a moment’s notice, in effect replacing its most irreplaceable member, at least as a bassist, when I hadn’t been playing the bass seriously since the Honeymoon Killers days in the early Eighties… Being already very frightened by my responsability as a MC of sorts, musical consultant/translator, sound engineer, and technical supervisor of the communication between the two parties, I had figured I would be part of the project as a musician only marginally. Well, we’ll see… We're busy now exchanging ideas through MP3s on the internet through the Atlantic Ocean (North and South). Its a fascinating process. World premiere in Brussels on the 12th, concert in Madrid on the 14th, then everybody goes back home until the real tour starts, from June 25 in Brussels to August 3 in Tokyo, with stops in Paris, London, Berlin, Holland, Denmark, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain and Italy. There are plans to release a DVD/CD of the event before the end of the year. This will no doubt help to publicize Kasai Allstars’ new album, which I hope will be completed right after the end of the tour.