Kasai Allstars

Kasai Allstars – in the 7th moon, the chief turned into a swimming fish
and ate the head of his enemy by magic
Crammed CD

Crammed Discs’ first two Congotronics records reintroduced Kinshasa’s amazing Konono No. 1 amongst others to the world beyond the Congo and ethnomusicology, along with the pleasures of the amplified and distorted likembe or thumb piano. The third volume of the series features Kasai Allstars, 25 musicians from five ethnic groups from the Kasai, a region of the Congo east of Kinshasa. We’re told that they speak different languages, have had intermittent conflicts but decided to pool resources and form a “superband”, at the suggestion of producer Vincent Kenis. Apparently this was a challenge because, aside from language issues, the instruments, repertoire, even the tunings used by the participant groups were different.
The sound here is broadly similar to that of the first two Congotronics records, the latter of which featured recordings by the Allstars, as well as two bands whose members feature in the Allstars, Basokin and Masanka Sanyaki. But compared to the groups recorded on Ocora’s remarkable 1986 compilation, Musiques Urbaines à Kinshasa, or a number of the acts featured on Congotronics 2, things here are more orderly – the whistles, shouting, stop and start movements, not to mention Konono No. 1’s signature distortion have been arranged into something that has a more regular rhythmic pulse closer to house or techno. Flashes of Franco’s OK Jazz and the older traditions of Congolese pop surface in the sound.
It’s often delightful and the groove is tough, but it’s hard not to feel mildly suspicious. Without in any way claiming that the distortions of Konono No. 1 are more authentic or representative of anything, there’s a hint of the creeping sanitization of a sound that befell various west African acts such as Youssou N’dour and Salif Keita in the 1980s in an attempt to package them as “world music”. The title is great of course but isn’t it a little heavy-handed in its packaging of “raw” exoticism and Otherness? There’s a certain tentativeness in the music that is probably the result of the attempt to find commonalities in the musics of the different participants. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Fusion” is often unfairly used as a critical label, given that just about everything in the universe is a fusion of something or other, but it all depends who’s doing the fusing. And who’s listening — this is a beautiful record, but I wish it had a little more chaos in it.

Originally published in The Wire, 2008.

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