Twenty-six years ago, American guitarist and producer Ry Cooder traveled to Havana for a multinational recording project whose original intent fell apart due to some participants’ visa issues. Not wanting to waste an opportunity, he patched together a week of sessions with his available Cuban musicians and new ones found on the fly. The results became Buena Vista Social Club, an album, film, and percolating series of concerts (by the entire ensemble as well as by individual touring artists) that sought to introduce, celebrate, and preserve Afro-Cuban dance styles and their performers.
That documentarian lens helps to view the Congotronics International collective and their imposing musical document, Where’s the One?. Finding popularity in the 2000s, “Congotronics” is a form of Afrobeat where common rock instrumentation is supplemented with traditional percussion, the kalimba thumb piano, and makeshift instruments built from the scraps of colonialism and capitalism in central Africa. The name was first applied to the 2004 album by Konono No. 1, a street band who’d been knocking around Kinshasa for three decades, and then to a series of albums and musicians which followed it in sound if not directly out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In 2010, Crammed Discs released Tradi-Mods vs Rockers: Alternative Takes on Congotronics, a massive tribute album where artists from Andrew Bird to Shackleton covered and interpreted the newly ascendant genre. Trying to maintain that momentum, the following year the label brought together musicians from Congotronics acts Konono No. 1 and Kasai Allstars with American and European musicians-as-fans for increasingly intense interactions: remote songwriting and demo-trading, then in-person collaboration and rehearsal, then a 16-date tour. Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier would work off and on for the next decade alchemizing the live material with studio sessions, and it’s just now seeing the light of day as Where’s the One?.
The lineup of the Congotronics International collective—also including Matt Mehlan from Skeletons, Juana Molina, and Wildbirds & Peacedrums—suggests dense and swirling experimentation. It delivers, in mass quantities. In particular, the front and back of Where’s the One? take the celebratory sounds of its mid-2000s sources and magnify them, amplify them, loop them around themselves like thick woven threads. The ensemble finds the devotional and ecstatic in “Banza Banza” and “Hand To The Knee/Tshimbala Mulumbayi.” They construct Neubauten-like weirdness in “Chateau Rouge” and “Bombo & Sifflets.” And powered by female guest vocals, they bring Western pop and rock sounds to the fore on songs like “Doubt/Hope” and “Mulume/Change.”
At 21 tracks (23, running 82 minutes, if you tack on two bonus cuts) Where’s the One? threatens to be overwhelming. What might have started out as plaintive plucked and chanted melodies would be amplified to concert crowds, played in front of a band with multiple guitarists and drummers, and then tinkered with for years behind production boards. Thankfully, this feels like an album arranged in three parts, and its center section is a respite filled with short interludes (“Beyond the 7th Bend”), quiet improvisations (“On the Road”), smaller groups of players and instruments (“Even the Boa Can’t Swallow a Viper”), and hints of balladry (“Ambulayi Tshaniye”). The contrast is necessary as a palate-cleanser, and welcome evidence of sonic diversity and restraint.
Much like Buena Vista Social Club did in the 1990s, Where’s the One? engages in tourism to a little-heard corner of the musical world, trying to benefit the players and bring new forms of joy forward from behind political and bureaucratic barriers. Where Ry Cooder’s quick trip to Cuba resulted in endless permutations of passionate cool, Congotronics International’s 11-year-long journey feels powered by groove and largely unchecked energy.
Label: Crammed Discs
Adam Blyweiss is associate editor of Treble. A graphic designer and design teacher by trade, Adam has written about music since his 1990s college days and been published at MXDWN and e|i magazine. Based in Philadelphia, Adam has also DJ’d for terrestrial and streaming radio from WXPN and WKDU.