Out today on Strut Records, Kondi Band finds, or maybe forges, the
link between hand-hewn folk music and modern electronic music. Led by
Sierra Leone’s Sorie Kondi playing a custom-build 15-pin
lamellophone called the “kondi,” the band is a collaboration with
producers Chief Boima and Will LV, based in Los Angeles and London
respectively. But Kondi (the man) and kondi (the instrument) are
unmistakably the star of Kondi (the band). The modern production is
always graciously at service to Kondi’s beautiful voice, and
Right from the
get-go, the album’s parameters are laid out. In contrast to, say,
Konono No.1, the kondi is presented with crystal clarity—it’s a
bigger, airy sound. The electronics sizzle and hiss, but don’t
overwhelm. By the end of the second track, “Nor Follow Sweetness,”
the kondi is swirling in a light phaser effect, and synthpads
tastefully bounce off it in counterpoint. Bass, drums—the
electronics are the band.
Kondi’s road to
this release has been anything but easy. Born blind in Freetown,
Sierra Leone, he never had a formal education, but he started writing his own songs and playing a modified kondi dating back to 1977. Just as he was
finishing recording his first album in 1998, the Sierra Leone civil
war overwhelmed Freetown. Most of Freetown fled the city, while Kondi
was left to hide in his home as the city around him was looted and
burned. His master tapes were lost, and his producer had gone home to
Ghana. After eight years as a performer, Kondi got a chance to
record again, this time at a studio with the American engineer Luke
Wassermann. The album, No Money No Family,
was released both in Sierra Leone and the United States. It
was through this album, uploaded on YouTube, that
Chief Boima found Kondi.
“I was initially drawn to it in terms of the social commentary of it, and the virtuosity of his playing, and really pride in it being something uniquely Sierra Leonean," Boima, whose family has Sierra Leonian roots, told Afropop's Morgan Greenstreet in 2017.
The remix made the
rounds and led to a Kickstarter to bring Kondi to America for the
first time, and the Kondi Band was formed. The first Kondi Band
album, Salone, was released
by Strut in 2016, and Will LV came into the fold during the
group’s 2017 European tour.
The group is a
rebuff to folk purists and an invitation to think beyond tired
notions of “authenticity.” The individual artists’ personality
and innovations can be overlooked in a rush to make the release
representative or shorthand for a country or musical style, but the
Kondi Band is the work of these
artists. Thus its style is
durable enough to incorporate dub inflections, funk basslines, and
guest spots, like fellow Sierra Leonian singer-songwriter Mariama
Jalloh on “She Doesn’t Love You,” the album's first single.
The Kondi Band doesn’t sound like much else out there, but its easy to imagine people are going to want to sound like them.