Augustin Mawangu Mingiedi may not be a household name known to all world music lovers, but many will know and love Konono No. 1, the Congolese band that he led to prominence during its second incarnation. Sadly, Mingiedi passed away last week at age 56 of complications from diabetes. He succeeded his father, Mingiedi Mawangu, as leader of the group following his death in 2015 at the age of 85. The elder Mingiedi Mawangu founded the original group in the 1960s and invented its star instrument, the electric likembe. For decades, they performed in Congolese villages and cities, but didn’t release their first album until 2004. Congotronics, which was released by Crammed Discs, fused traditional Congolese music with an edgy electronic sound.
I’ve been a fan of African music for almost forty years now—from the sweet sounds of Congolese rumba to the modern soukous style that followed, as well as the modal blues-inflected groove of Malian music and the vocal magic of South African zulu choirs and jive. But Konono No. 1 has always looked and sounded like no other African groups that I’ve ever come across.
For one thing, their stage set resembled a junk store with garbage cans as big drums, rough-hewn thumb pianos, and large congas. In the center of it all was the unique sound of the amplified likembe, a thumb piano variously referred to as a mbira (in Zimbabwe), sanza (in Cameroon), or kalimba (in South Africa)—the westernized version of the instrument. It’s a sweet and pastoral type of traditional instrument that sounds wonderful when played solo and acoustically. The members of Konono No. 1 make their own likembe in different sizes and run them through amplifiers, pushing them to the point of distortion, which gives their music a sense of urgency. The band’s signature mix of traditional African instruments served with a big dollop of distortion have more in common with punk, trance, techno than other styles of African music.
Konono No. 1 recorded several albums plus a DVD, but I have always loved Congotronics most, perhaps because the music is so different from any other African music. I was immediately captivated by its hypnotic grooves and electrified sound. The success of Congotronics led to tours throughout Europe and in the U.S. The group gained even more fame outside of their country when Bjørk recorded and toured with them in 2007. Their spirited sound has crossed over from the world music category into pop and indie territory, thanks to its dynamism, use of junk instruments, and its crazy sound.
Fortunately for fans, Konono No. 1 will soldier on with most of its members intact, and with Augustin’s son, Makonda Mbuta, stepping up to play lead likembe. The band’s future is now assured with its third-generation leader of this most unusual Congolese outfit.
Here is the track “Lufuala Ndonga” from Congotronics: