Let the annals of Dublin City read that for two hours on Friday, 12th April 2013, Whelan’s of Wexford Street was, by the power of Congolese trance, transported to downtown Kinshasa and that the inhabitants of the aforementioned music venue were possessed and bewitched by the relentless, driving, polyrhythmic pulse of Congo-tronica as cast by DRCs finest, Konono N° 1. If Congolese music seems an exotic mystery then think again. Tonight is all about a kind of DIY madness, as the band play African trance music with the likembé at its centre. The instruments are homemade and are rigged up to Konono N° 1’s equally cobbled together PA. They provide the bottom bass and melody to the music and the interplay between them gives those caught up in Konono’s spell a mercurial line to follow as they lose themselves in the Afro-trance hex.
The band, formed back in the mists of time (somewhere in the 60s apparently) unceremoniously take to the stage, numberingnumber five tonight – we seem to have lost a likembé player somewhere along the way. There’s a bit of faffing about with the backline – I guess technical difficulties and idiosyncratic sound systems go hand in hand. Holding it all together at the back are a hoppity drummer who can’t seem to sit still on his seat – that dude’s got a serious case of ants-in-the-pantsitus – and a conga slapper par excellence. Between the pair of them they keep the trance driving onwards and upwards – never flagging and laying down the ground for the likembé and vocals to work their magic on. These guys, given away by their youthful looks and exuberance, are recent additions to the line-up. The original Konono N° 1ers rightfully take position front of stage. On the left and right we’ve got two likembé players, while holding court in the centre is Queen Pauline knocking out rhythmic lines on her scrap salvaged cowbells. All three share vocal duties and fuck knows what they are singing about but it sure is pretty sweet sounding.
The likembés buzz along played at levels where they’re just beginning to breakup. It is quite an ear-opener to hear the tones, textures and colour emitting from these elementary instruments. At times you’d swear they have a clavichord or a Hammond organ stashed somewhere, filling out the sound. The players thumbs are all a blur as they pick out the notes looking at times like they’re texting each other on some antiquated forerunner of the mobile phone.
The songs play on building in intensity as the dancing breaks out in waves throughout the audience; this is one nation under an Afro Groove. Brothers and Sisters, Africa and Eire, Democratic Republic and Irish Republic united – getting their freak on. Hips gyrate ‘n’ booties shake. The room is sweating, from the windows to the walls. This is planet trance, this is the real United Nations. I’m pretty damn sure I saw someone combust, going off like a Roman Candle shooting ever higher, transported by the groove, transcending time and space, joining Mr Kurtz on his journey up the Congo. But there’s no Heart of Darkness here, no Horror to be found. Faces on and off stage are beaming, whatever it is we’re all caught up in we’re all in it together.
The dreaded Gremlins visited us again towards the end of the night and as a result we are flying on just one likembé for the last 20 minutes or so but nobody seemed to notice, or if they did no one seemed to care because at that stage of the game we were beyond caring. But it does raise the question of how much more intense the gig would’ve been if we’d been treated to the full complement.
Promoters U:mack did a sterling job getting Konono N° 1 here in the first place but somebody needs organise one a return visit for one of the upcoming summer festivals. We need to experience this again sometime somewhere in the summertime in a field under the stars as God intended. Until then those damn likembés are still a-ringing and a-buzzing in my ears and man they still sound pretty damn fine.