Kasai Allstars – Beware The Fetish

DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC? Dumb question. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t. Same with Kasai Allstars: Congo’s most unlikely heroes have just released an album comprising 100 minutes of distorted thumb piano, evil spirits, ghosts, voodoo and – gulp – fetishes. If you don’t believe in magic, what the hell else is there to believe in? If you’ve previously missed out on the Congotronics phenomenon, this is as good a place as any to start. Kinshasa has become home to transplanted villages from the provinces, wedged awkwardly together in small urban plots, where their ancient ceremonies and rites faced being obliterated forever by the sound of the city if they couldn’t be amplified. Louder, longer and more outré was the order of the day.

“If you don’t believe in magic, what the hell else is there to believe in?”

The twang was the thang. First came Konono No. 1, using a variety of likembe (thumb pianos with metal spokes and resonators); then Kasai Allstars arrived, a mélange of five ethnic groups, with grass skirts, headdresses, witch doctors and tales of village chiefs turning into fish and eating their enemy’s head. They may be as ‘inauthentic’ as any boy-band but, by god, they know how to give audiences something memorable.

The unlikely magic continued with the Tradi-Mods Vs Rockers compilation and tour: the Africans first remodelled by outsiders, then touring with the likes of Deerhoof and Juana Molina, both sides of the equation pushing their songs into previously unlikely shapes (represented here by a live The Ploughman). Then Kabongo Tshisensa found himself on-stage at London’s Young Vic last summer, starring in A Season In The Congo with Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Off the wall: Kasai Allstars by Benoit Van Maele

Reassuringly, all this success has yet to spoil the Allstars, even if the person who decreed that this should be a double CD needs their head examined. No rough edge is smoothed out, no harmonies will be described as “sweet”. At points it sounds as if the producer, Vincent Kenis, asked five groups to play one tune simultaneously, then blended them by removing all superfluous elements and adding several vocalists all desperate to be heard above the others.

On the surface, Beware The Fetish is like My Bloody Valentine or Metal Machine Music, as unbowed or compromised by trying to give the people what they want. Yet at its heart is a burning desire to make fantastic pop music. Mopero Mupemba is one of Africa’s unsung guitar heroes, the drumming of Tandjolo Yatshi will shake any neighbourhood and Kabongo delivers what may be lyric of the year on Thus Spoke The Ancestors: “Mbuyamba will now dance with one side of his body, as if the dance had only been borrowed.”

It’s an incontestable fact that the only people who ever find magic are those who go looking for it. Believe…

Watch The Chief's Enthronement:

And Thus Spoke The Ancestors: