In November 2005, I had the opportunity to interview Congolese thumb piano group Konono No. 1 following their performance on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. Konono No. 1 founder and patriarch Mingiedi was very friendly and enthusiastic about the interview but the process proved a little complex—-mainly because of the double language barrier in between us. Mingiedi (pictured) spoke only Bantu. While on tour he communicated with Konono’s sound man via a translator who spoke only Bantu and French. Konono’s sound man spoke French and a little bit of English. Ignorant American that I am, I speak only English.
As the interview began these three men sat down across from me in a row and translated my questions from English to French to Bantu. The answers were then passed back through the same confusing process in a multilingual game of telephone.
Remarkably, this worked—-or at least it worked 75 percent of the time—-and we were all able to have a pretty nice, if clumsy conversation about the band’s history, their homemade likembé sound system, and Dutch punk group The Ex. Then out of sheer laziness I never published it—-until now. Check Konono No. 1 out tonight when they perform at the Black Cat at 9 p.m.
Me: I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about some of the history of the group? Just as far as how long you’ve been playing? When you started using the amplified equipment?
Soundman Translating for Mingiedi: He learned the music at home when he was young because his father was playing music for the king. The King used a lot of music when he wanted to talk to the population but he prefers the rhythm of “Masikulu.” Masikulu is a kind of rhythm—-an old rhythm—-music from Congo. Before about 1700 when they play Masikulu it’s not with the likembé; they played it with horns. He started to play Masikulu music with the likembé. That’s the story of his music.
One of the things that I think has drawn a lot of younger audience has been the distortion in the sound and I wanted to know if that’s something that’s out of necessity for them or if they like it. If they had the option not to have it anymore, would they do that?
“Distortion” is really a new word for him. He doesn’t know what it is but he thinks that maybe it’s the pickup that he made—-that it’s really powerful—-that it makes this distortion, and he really loves it.
How did he learn how to make the pickups?
First he tried with an auto radio with the speaker and he sees that when you touch it there’s sound on the other speakers. So he tried that, but it’s not really enough for the likembé. After that he tried the pickup for a guitar. He found it and tried it—-and he wanted to do a more powerful microphone because the pickup of a guitar was not enough either. So he tried to do it himself.
So they’ve had the chance to play with bands that are very different from them—-like The Ex and Tortoise. I was wondering what they felt about that music? I found out about Konono through them playing with The Ex and I was wondering how they felt about being paired with that kind of music?
He’s really happy to play with this kind of band. The first time he went to Europe he met Terry from the Ex and he was really surprised and happy to see that they played the music—-because on the last album of the Ex they play the music of Konono—-and he was really happy. I think before they don’t know this kind of band.
A lot of musicians here have a hard time living off of just making music and I was wondering if they’re able to entirely live off of doing Konono or if they had to have other jobs for a long time to support it?
Mingiedi—-all his life has been music. That’s why when he was young he didn’t go to school didn’t go to school. He can’t read he can’t write. He doesn’t know that—-because music is the only way of his life. It’s the only things he do. The band is his family, his son and his grandson.
How did they begin making records. When was the first time they recorded?
The first person who recorded Konono is Bernard Treton, who made a compilation of Congolese music that featured Konono. Crammed heard this music—-it was in 1974—-and Crammed, since this time has really wanted to discover more Konono. They went back to the Congo and found Konono and recorded the first CD, Congotronics.
How did they feel about the show tonight? How do they feel about American audiences have been? How has their behavior throughout the tour affected them?
He is really happy because he has seen the public dancing and singing. He sees that the Congolese music has come into their bodies.
Photo courtesy of Crammed Discs