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.