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Vincent Kenis Interviewed: Konono No. 1 Meets Batida

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We’ve been following the excellent tradi-modern Congolese group Konono No. 1. since their debut record in 2004 on Crammed Discs. Vincent Kenis is a Belgian producer who brought this excellent group to international attention to Konono No. 1 and the Kasai Allstars through the Congotronics series. We’ve interviewed him in the past and even made a radio program on the “Congotronics Story.” We recently got him on the phone to discuss the new record, Konono No. 1 Meets Batida (Batida is the artist name of Afro-Portuguese producer Pedro Coquenão, with whom we’re also quite familiar. In fact he was featured in our recent Hip Deep program “Afro-Lisbon.”)

Morgan Greenstreet: Hello, Vincent, thanks for taking the time to speak with Afropop today.

Vincent Kenis: Yes, Hello !

We’re quite familiar with your work with Konono No. 1 and Crammed Discs, in fact we featured that story in our program “The Congotronics Story.”  We’ve been enjoying the debut track from the new Konono No. 1 meets Batida record!

We’d love to know, how did this new Konono project with Angolan-Portuguese producer Batida come about ?

Well, we noticed Batida for a while, and it was really exciting because we could hear echoes of Congo and Angola in what he does. I didn’t know Angolan music at all actually. I heard about kuduro, but that was it. Actually I was into Angolan music as far as it was close to the Kasai music that I was recording with the Kasai Allstars, because the Luba people are in Angola also. And so that was another connection. But of course Konono is from the Kongo culture, and Kongo culture extends through Angola, Congo and Congo-Brazzaville. So there was bound to be connections.

Actually, the traditional horns of Kongo, called mpungi, these horns are the inspiration of Konono’s style. Actually originally the likembe of Konono was designed to replicate the mpungi repertoire, the horn’s repertoire. It was kind of a portable version of these big mpungi bands, they were at least eight or 10 horns, made of ivory originally, and this is a tradition that encompasses a good part of Angola also. Also the rattle called dikanza, which is kind of an emblematic instrument in Angola, which was used also by Bonga on stage, it’s exactly the same as the bokwasa rattle in Congo. So there’s a lot of connections. Also, the emblematic rhythm of kuduro is almost the same as the emblematic rhythm of Kinshasa ‘70s, ‘80s pop music.

So with Pedro of Batida, we tried to pinpoint references in Konono music and kuduro music. Pedro is not only into kuduro, he’s Portuguese, and he has many different influences; he’s a DJ, he has a radio program, so he has a mix of many influences, including Angolan music; he was born in Angola. What we have in common, Pedro and me, is that as soon as we heard Konono’s sounds, we wanted to duplicate it, in one way or another. He started doing some stuff with Konono records by himself a long time ago, so it was bound to happen.

So how did the studio process go in Lisbon? How long did Konono and Batida work together on the album?

Well, we stayed one week in Pedro’s garage, actually. He has a studio in his garage.

And what was the process like? How did the actually musical collaboration work? Did they do overdubs?

No, I don’t think there were any overdubs, it was all live.

Wow. So they recorded together, or did Batida kind of remix Konono’s recordings?

Well no, they really collaborated. Konono played electronic drums with Batida, and we made a setup in which Konono’s drums were duplicated or enhanced by Batida. Pedro gave the drummer many sounds to choose, to work with, and that’s how they found to work with each other. Konono’s groove…it’s easier to grasp it using software that can copy the groove. That’s what Pedro did actually: he used the drums and bell hits of Konono to quantize his playing.

Oh cool, so that he would be in lock with them and play along with their music?

Yeah. We did some reverse also: some songs were based on the kuduro rhythms played by Pedro. He played with the dikanza, the rattle instrument, and there was quite a lot of jamming in these sessions actually, it was really nice.

And of course Pedro has his oil drums with buttons to trigger samples, it looks a bit like a likembe, so he had his own likembe to play with them. Of course it’s completely different because it’s electronic and just firing samples, but very nice accompaniment, nice ambience, too.

So all that was electronic was performed live, be it with drums or the electronic drums. Visi [Vincent], the drummer for Konono, he had his normal drums, but he also had a tom and a bass drum and another drum that were connected to Pedro’s synthesizer and triggered unique sounds.

Oh, that’s super cool. So some of the electronic sounds are actually played by Konono on this album. That’s awesome.

They had never used electronic drums before; they really enjoyed it, it’s a new experience for them. They appreciate using their own original setup, but they’ve been working with different musicians, especially in 2011, with the Congotronics vs. Rockers project, there were members of Konono in there and they really enjoyed working with European, American and Japanese musicians, and they were really ready to expand. This could have happened before, because they had already played with Bjork and Herbie Hancock, but with Bjork it was half a day in the studio, with Herbie Hancock it was like two hours, and they couldn’t really relate to that new music. It was only really when they started to play live with all these Europeans and Western musicians that they really got into electronics. Because what they do is not electronic music: it is electronically amplified traditional music. But Pedro was really essential to opening them to these different styles.

Excellent. We also loved the track “Tokolanda” which we recently premiered: 

One thing that I’ve always found interesting about Konono, is that their music is often appreciated by Western electronic and experimental music fans, but their music is also very traditional.

The equipment they use, it sounds how it sounds, I mean, they try different equipment to get the sounds they want, but they’re not into electronics, they don’t know anything about computers or the electronic music culture of the West, or even rock ‘n’ roll, or even rhythm & blues, all of this is very foreign to them. They can relate, though, to traditional music from Angola, and modern music from Angola which is starting to be heard in Kinshasa nowadays.

Really? I didn’t know that.

Yeah, well it’s mostly in the rich-kid circles, but more people are getting into that music.

Oh, wow, I didn’t realize that. So were there were some guests on the album as well?

Yes, there’s a rapper, a guitarist, a woman singer on one song, and a drummer, but we used him only for the hits and rolls and stuff like that, because it was really difficult to get into the specific groove of Konono.

Do Konono and Batida have plans to tour together?

I don’t know precisely but I know they’re going to play together at some point during the summer. The record comes out April 1.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Yeah, the pasteis de nata are really good, you know, these little cakes they sell there with coffee there (laughs) there’s a lot of cinnamon in it, so it’s a bit of a souvenir Portuguese colonization across Asia, I guess. I really enjoyed my stay there in Lisbon because I had no idea about Lusitanian spreading of music, except of course for Cesaria Evora and Angolan kuduro. But I think the connection is going to last. I really hope to have a meeting of Konono and Batida in Angola, and of course in Kinshasa.

That sounds awesome. Our recent Hip Deep program Afro-Lisbon and the Lusophone Atlantic: Dancing Toward the Future featured Batida and the whole Afro-Lusophone scene in Lisbon.

I’ll check it. Lisbon is a really lively city, we were there in February so it was a little bit rainy, but there’s a lot of nightlife, a lot of people from everywhere, people from Angola, and a lot of people from Mozambique, which is a really different culture, and they get together in Portugal. Lisbon is a meeting place of music from lot’s of different cultures and places.

Thanks so much Vincent and we look forward to hearing the record.

My pleasure.

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