Konono No 1's success after their 2005 album, Congotronics, took everyone by surprise--perhaps even the musicians themselves. Popular folklore has it that they formed in Congo's Kinshasa in the 1960s, and recordings from the '70s verify the band's long history. The formation is simple: a few electric likembés, which are pumped through speakers salvaged from junkyards, giving the sound a ruddy, dissonant hiss that is more appealing than disjointed. The band needed amplification to rise above the din of the marketplace, where they played together for decades until a producer from Crammed stumbled into them and recorded the now famous album. Since that time, they've toured with Bjork, recorded with Herbie Hancock, and played numerous global festivals. Their second full-length album on Crammed, Assume Crash Position (Crammed), is certainly more polished, though in this world, bright is wondrously covered in lo-fi buzz. A whistle, chanting, salvaged percussion, and those likembés, make this eight-song recording the tightest and most enjoyable thing I've heard from the Congo explosion. This is trance music explaining a folk history, and all fingers point to the dance floor. The shorter songs on here are actually the downers, for you need the 10+ minutes of "Makembe" and 12 of "Wumbanzanga" to fade into the groove. I retract that statement, partially: the closing four-minute gem, "Nakobala Lisusu Te," featuring one sole thumb piano and voice, is a beautiful ending to an album of stunning depth.
Distorted thumb pianos are not the only sound going down in the Congo. Bukavu-born singer-guitarist Lokua Kanza hooked me with 2003's Toyebi Te, and again with the unbelievable a cappella trio effort alongside Gérald Toto and Richard Bona, TotoBonaLokua. He is a rare singer who completely and totally captivates live--a sole man and acoustic six-string entrances the crowd with soft lyrics and unbridled passion. Silence suits Kanza on his latest outing, Nkolo (World Village). This album shows an incredible depth in that sense of hopeful solitude it evokes in the listener. Whether he's singing in Lingala, French, or Portuguese, you're spellbound. It's the way "Dipano" grows out of a flutter of guitar notes and a whimsical flute, as well the chorus of voices that build upon themselves. Thumb pianos do in fact appear: the kalimba-led ballad "Yalo" is the soft, lay your head back and relax number. The real treat on this album is "Mapendo," a throwback from the Toto-Bona sessions, in which he explores the power of the solo voice. There's nothing like it when this man steps up to the microphone, and I can only imagine that this record will further make him as popular a name as his Congolese counterparts.
Embarked upon an equally adventurous journey out of his British Colombia base is Adham Shaikh, who has been turning out a United Nations of global tapestries for a decade-and-a-half. No producer has so effortless and succinctly woven a diaspora of sound as Shaikh; his prowess has grown so great that he has released not one, but two exceptional albums, each one devoted to one aspect of himself. Universal Frequencies (Sonic Turtle) represents his world fusion dance efforts, leaning on a greater emphasis on BPM and bass than anything he's released prior. The first word to mind whenever I receive a package from Shaikh is "textures," which is why he's able to re-invent and imagine styles like Balkan-reggae and digeridoo-jaw harp-trance. Here he takes a few common themes, such as the two-parts each of "Water Prayer," "Crossroads," and "Sonicturtle's Coupe Decale" and invite a number of guests to vocalize and instrumentalize overtop the rapid flurry of beats. His music emits a hypnotic aura with its relentless push and delicate movements of strings and synths. He balances aggressive rhythms with melodic counterpoints so well it's almost challenging deciding whether to hit the dance floor or submit to the wave, which is where the second album comes in. Resonance (Sonic Turtle) is a collection of ambient tracks he's compiled over the years for various projects in the yogic arts, healing modalities, and chill remixes of his own work, including a gorgeous retuning of "Gayatri Mantra." Beats are sparse and spacious, pads are heady and light, and his yoga is strong no matter what the situation. Soon you'll be asking the man what he has not accomplished, which will be a rhetorical query at best. Nobody is uniting the world's music like this man.