Konono No. 1, Focusing On Africa and Designing Your Life

Presented for your approval, my report on the magnificent Konono No.1‘s three-day residency at Cafe Oto in London, as broadcast this week on the BBC World Service programme ‘Focus On Africa‘. Freshly arrived from Kinshasha, and with translation provided by Ata Ahli of BBC Afrique, band leader Augustin Mawangu talks about his reaction to London crowds and the history of the band he now leads, originally founded by his father back in the late sixties:

I was lucky enough to snag a ticket for the opening performance before their unprecedented five-show run sold out, and to interview this relaxed and talkative chap enjoying an entirely justified after-show high – who could blame him? But the path of the broadcast journalist is seldom paved evenly and this first commission of the year came with a minor caveat: along with my usual list of questions, I had been asked by the Focus editorial team to obtain ‘vox-pops’ from members of the crowd after the group came off stage, just in case the following afternoon’s interview should fall-through and the package need fleshing out. Now, I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I am most certainly not a fan of our on-going mania with soundbite culture, encouraging random passers by to engage in idle conjecture in lieu of actual meaningful or factual content. In fact, I object to it all rather strongly. But, as you may have noticed, the BBC are all for it, and I like to think I’m mature enough to put my own mis-givings aside and go with something vaguely resembling the flow, especially when finances are tight and my editor is calling the shots – ‘bitch gotta make rent’ as Caitlin Moran might have put it.

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The unique amplification of the group’s three likembes is what gives Konono No.1 their unique sound

Of course, walking up to complete strangers brandishing a recorder is seldom an agreeable position to find yourself in, so as I strode semi-purposefully through a venue packed to capacity with post-gig revellers, I resolved to ease myself gently into the proceedings by starting with someone I recognised. Quickly spotting an old acquaintance whom I knew to be something of a music expert, I reasoned he would be as good a place to start as any.

Or so I thought. In hindsight, my polite request for his thoughts on the evening proved to be quite an error, for they opened up some kind of internal flood-gate, resulting in a rather unexpected torrent of vitriol about just how much he hated soundbites and interviews of this nature and mainstream broadcasting in general; finishing with the suggestion that I go stick the whole endeavour up my proverbial – not quite what I was looking for. Attempting to pour oil over these ridiculously over-troubled waters, I explained that I wasn’t terribly keen on this approach myself, but had an editor to answer to; which was met with the snarky riposte ‘No you don’t. You design your life how you want it to be!’ While I was momentarily trying to figure out what the hell that actually meant, my subject then delivered what he clearly considered the killer blow by proceeding to ruminate for the benefit of my recorder on just how harrowing the holocaust must have been – his idea of a compromise, presumably. Such thoughts off his chest, and with no apparent plans on the horizon to design a life other than that of the pretentious, self-righteous ass-hat he had apparently become since our last meeting, I decided to leave him to it. Surely one of the strangest ever responses to a polite ‘How did you enioy the show?’

The funny thing is that in principle we appear to agree on both the subject of soundbites in journalism and the horror of Hitler’s final solution, but I can’t help thinking that it’s a little unsporting to try and shoe-horn the latter into an item that, given the current state of world-affairs, was presumably one of the very few remotely positive or light-hearted news stories Focus On Africa ran that day. I also like to imagine that I can maintain such opinions without having to resort to being a complete dick about them when probed on the subject.  This is after all a report on a concert, an enjoyable and friendly social event, not the scene of some unholy apocalyptic massacre. Thankfully all this nonsense was rendered entirely immaterial the following afternoon, when Augustin gave such a fine interview that everything else was deemed superflous to requirements. I had originally decided that this encounter was the single most ridiculous thing to have happened in 2015 thus far until a bizarre incident this morning in which some mad old trout branded me a ‘Popinjay Hipster’. Now THAT is how you do soundbites! Or at least it would be, had I been recording her…

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Konono No.1 – Founding member Mingiedi (who also built the instruments and amplifiers, but no longer tours) and son Augustin at the front.

These minor quibbles aside, thanks must go to Augustin Mawangu for being such a candid and interesting interviewee, Ata Ahli for the translation from French, Kim Chakanetsa for being super and tour manager Michel Winter for his help in arranging everything. I should also thank Vincent Luttman of Nostalgie Ya Mboka for providing an equally fascinating history of the band that was very sadly cut for time. I shall have to make use of his contribution one day, but meanwhile you can take advantage of his expertise on Congolese music for yourself by tuning to Resonance FM every Saturday at 1330. He was also the very first person in the UK to host a live performance by Konono No.1 way back in 2004, though everybody else seems to have forgotten this fact.

Seriously, this band are one of the most incredible live acts I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing and I urge you to go if you happen to have access to any of the cities they’re visiting as part of their European tour this month. It’s a pity we couldn’t have had longer with Agustin as there were so many more questions I would have liked to put past him, but the interview had to be slightly curtailed – partly because it was freezing and partly due to the presence of two middle-aged men dropping C-bombs and borderline racist remarks within earshot of my recorder. Weirdly, they appeared to have actually attended and enjoyed the gig as well, which made their aggressive and confrontational posturing even harder to figure out. What a confusing mix of human nature I’ve encountered while compiling this report. I suppose we shall just have to chalk it up to people increasingly designing their lives how they want them to be, which may prove rather tiresome for the rest of us in the long-run…

POPINJAY HIPSTER x

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