Esquire Magazine: “The Electrified Likembe”

October 1, 2006

This article originally appeared in Esquire magazine.

IN ALL POPULAR MUSIC, the road to suck is paved with good intentions. This is especially true of world music: The very name is anemic, roping in supposedly pure sounds as disparate as Celtic reels and Chinese pentatonic-scale caterwauling. All the more reason, then, to celebrate the stateside Afrobeat underground that’s been steadily building for a few years now. And the one single sound that jangled my nerves all year: an electrified likembe.

The band is Konono No. 1, part of a scene identified by the Belgian Crammed Discs label as “Congotronics,” a distant cousin of Afrobeat, political music first inspired by the Nigerian Fela Kuti, whose sax flirted with Coltrane while his band hustled like James Brown’s; check out Brooklyn’s Antibalas orchestra or Chicago’s Afrobeat Project. Like Afrobeat, Congotronics synthesizes African and Western sensibilities and doesn’t aspire to any kind of purity. Konono’s show features a conga player, a kid with a snare drum and the top half of a high-hat cymbal, a codger playing three cowbells pounded into different timbres, and those likembes–aka thumb pianos, usually a calabash gourd or, in this case, a wood box fitted with thin strips of metal to form keys–plugged into guitar amps.