Written by Wayne Marshall*
As if there weren’t already enough to tease out about Konono N°1 and Congotronics, a recent article in The Guardian points to a song and video called “Karibu Ya Bintou” by Baloji, a Congo-born rapper who cut his teeth on the Belgian hip-hop scene but who has worked over the last few years to return to “roots” — in part by incorporating “traditional” sounds of the Congo, from soukous guitars to Konono’s hallmark distorted likembé. The latter can be heard supporting the vivid video for “Karibu Ya Bintou”:
It may be tempting to read something like “Karibu Ya Bintou” as a relatively straightforward exercise in “indigenizing” or localizing hip-hop, but the story of Baloji’s transnational musical moorings — especially his ambivalence toward Congolese pop — complicates such an interpretation:
His first rap outfit, Les Malfrats Linguistiques (“The Linguistic Hustlers”), morphed into Starflam and Baloji became something of a Belgian hip-hop heartthrob. Meanwhile, living above a legendary record store, Caroline Music, in Liège did wonders for his musical education. “I heard everything…PiL, Kraftwerk, Queens of the Stone Age, the Smiths…”
Despite suffering from the rampant racism of smalltown Belgium – he was almost deported back to the Congo at the age of 20 – Baloji can thank his adoptive country for the eclecticism of his style. Until recently, however, he hated most African music, especially Congolese soukous, the bedrock style of post-independence pan-African pop. “For me, it was the worst music in the world,” he says. Nonetheless, when he received a letter from his mother out of the blue, in 2007, his Congolese heritage came back into his life with a vengeance. It inspired Baloji to return to his roots and record an album – a kind of soundtrack without a film – to tell his mother what his life had been like over the past 20 years.
That said, it’s perhaps telling — as with the success of Crammed Discs’ marketing of Konono N°1 as Congotronics — that Baloji would find the greatest interest in his work at precisely the moment he decides to place himself on a map that is easy enough to read.
Legibility does have its advantages. So it’s not terribly surprising that Baloji’s surrender to soukous on another song, “Independence,” ends up serving as a vehicle for a sort of Congolese nationalism, if one that strongly resists the authority of the state. As with “Karibu Ya Bintou,” the video is directed by the duo Spike & Jones, who have an awesome name and seem to make pretty awesome clips:
Most poignant though, I think, are Baloji’s own words on the matter of musical heritage and nationhood, or of signifying Africanness vis-a-vis certain source material. Here he shows himself to be, among other things, a thoughtful student of hip-hop, which, for all the dots it connects around the world, clearly draws plenty of lines in the process
I want to make music that is very African and very modern. You have to be proud of who you are. You can sample Bob James or Curtis Mayfield, but it means more when Talib Kweli or Kanye West sample them because that’s their heritage. But we Africans also have an interesting heritage, which has richness and a diversity that is huge and under-exploited. We can also go deep into it and make it modern, celebrate its value, just like the Americans.
Putting aside the gnarly notion that Bob James constitutes some part of Kweli’s and Kanye’s heritage (which he surely does, at least in Nautilus and Mardi Gras), I can’t help but hear echoes of Baaba Maal’s “Yela” (as discussed in this space almost 3 years ago to the day), which Maal himself refers to as “ancient African music” despite also noting that it sounds a lot “like reggae” — not to mention, of course (as also shared 3 years back), Christopher Waterman’s classic article about jùjú, “Our Tradition Is a Very Modern Tradition”: Pan-Yoruba Music and the Construction of Pan-Yoruba Identity.
In case you missed that one way back when.
If I may be allowed one last little addendum, I’d like to share a recording that seems somewhat germane. While revisiting The Noise 6 for the post I wrote for LargeUp, I came across a real gem of a pre-reggaeton track. Don’t get me wrong, the Ivy Queen and Bebe songs are standouts, to be sure, but the final track — #16 to be exact — is definitely the biggest eyebrow-raiser. It’s worth noting, if you don’t know, that the last tracks on proto-reggaeton albums are often the weirdest, and this one, simply labeled “Bonus Track”
As you’ll hear, there’s definitely a nod to “Whoomp! (There It Is)” and no doubt a few other jams from the Miami-Atlanta axis (though all the percussion can make it sound a bit like drum’n’bass at times, save for the tempo). Oh, yeah, and there’s the appearance of that ol’ “Egyptian” melody.
Although plenty is going over my head, no doubt, I suspect this is about as allusive as any other track from this era, which means it’s utterly full of vocal references and direct samples. It definitely gives a good sense of how widely Puerto Ricans were listening to hip-hop and contemporary club music as they sought to synthesize their own thing. No doubt for plenty of listeners — and maybe the producers and performers themselves — such a track might even sound both “very African and very modern.”
* This post first appeared on Wayne’s blog Wayne and Wax. He has kindly agreed to us republishing it here.