DRC Music - "Lourds (featuring Yende Bongongo of Okwess International)" (Kinshasa One Two)
African music enthusiasts have long been enchanted by music of the deeply fascinating, deeply troubled Democratic Republic of the Congo. Your parents’ Zaire is a place lacerated with Leopold II’s Belgian colonialism, Mobutu Sese Seko’s Leopard King kleptocracy, and the all-too-familiar wounds of incessant attacks from Rwanda, Uganda and — remember Laurent Nkunda? — within. Despite all of this, foreign visitors have returned again and again to explore the heart of darkness for a taste of Kinshasa’s soukous or the street party vibes of Konono N°1 and associated acts Crammed under the Congotronics umbrella.
DRC Music’s Kinshasa One Two is another kind of exploration. Unlike compilations of long-lost 45s or first-time recordings by decades-old artists, Kinshasa One Two packs its own modern production for the trip. Organizing the collective is Blur’s Damon Albarn, himself no stranger to cross-continent arrangements thanks to past efforts with Mali Music and The Good, the Bad & the Queen. Both of those albums were the product of months of recordings and studio work; DRC Music is, in stark contrast, a rush job conducted with Congolese musicians and 11 producers in five days.
It’s amazing this is as cohesive and listenable as it is given the circumstances. With editing going on sometimes as recordings were happening (evidenced in the video trailer posted a few months ago), none of these songs sounds slapdash or aimless. The delicacy in dealing with local musicians especially protective of their sound is something Albarn has alluded to in interviews, but unlike some moments on Mali Music, you never get the impression that the Congolese are being trampled under the foot of the largely European contingent’s production prowess.
Opener “Hallo” is a good lead-off for showcasing the project at large. Featuring a vocal back-and-forth between Albarn and Nelly Liyemge (the only time Albarn appears so obviously), the song is a symbiotic relationship where every element feeds off each other. It’s got a strong dub vibe, but Tout Puissant Mukalo’s vocals and the cyclical melody cast an easy spell. “K-Town” is more upbeat and more antiquated sounding. The production team held off on fiddling with this one, not to mention the a cappella “Love.”
No matter how far into this you get or how many times you play the songs through, identifying the contributions of each producer is well nigh impossible. I sort of pick up the melancholy of Kwes on the stripped-down “Lourds” and Jneiro Jarel (Shape of Broad Minds, Dr. Who Dat?) sounds like he had a lot to do with “African Space Anthem (A.S.A.).” I was initially attracted to this by the prospect of Actress’s involvement, and “If You Wish to Stay Awake” sounds most like a production from Splazsh.
Who turned what knob when doesn’t make a whole lot of difference, ultimately. DRC Music is a success because it showcases Congolese artists in a modern European dance context rather than the other way around, which is a lot less obnoxious than, say, Buraka Som Sistema. There are a few “bangers” to be had here, sure, but that’s beside the point of process. That such disparate musicians with such massive amounts of tape from the field could put something together this tastefully gives hope that whatever and wherever Albarn decides to operate next, he conducts proceedings in the same considered fashion as he has here.