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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Music composed out of loss, joy and some discarded car parts is beginning to catch on across the country. A band that's attracting fans on college campuses and among acclaimed rock artists, Wilco, Beck and Tortoise. The debut album from the band Konono No 1 is a surprise underground hit in the United States. Now, the band teamed up with fellow Congolese musicians to record a second album and is set to tour America this summer. NPR's Jesse Baker has more.

JESSE BAKER reporting:

Every band needs a name. So the ever-evolving ensemble, Konono No 1, took its name from the first track off its debut CD.

(Soundbite of Konono No 1 song)

BAKER: Despite the upbeat tempo and a rhythm that makes you want to move, the song's about death. It tells the story of one man's journey home to Angola in the midst of war, but he never makes it. Konono is how the family feels when they learn of his death, as if everyone has died. Konono literally translate to mean the death has shrunk.

(Soundbite of Konono No 1 song)

BAKER: The music grew out of the chaos that came with independence. What had been the Belgian Congo became the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1960. As the Belgian colonists fled, they left behind cars, many of which were cannibalized and turned into instruments by would-be street musicians. Alternator magnets were used in microphones, smashed hubcaps became cymbals and old radios powered by car batteries were turned into amplifiers, and just about anything else that makes a sound when you bang on it became a percussion instrument.

(Soundbite of Konono No 1 song)

BAKER: In the 1970s, Angolan musician Mawangu Mingiedi, or simply Papa Mingiedi to his fans, took his thumb piano to Kinshasa. His son, Aharon Natondo, says his father was an instant on the streets of Congo's capital.

Mr. ANWA MANTUDO (Son of Mawangu Mingiedi): (Through Translator) So when he came to Kinshasa, he started playing (unintelligible) and then this rhythm brought people to him, a lot of crowd came to him.

BAKER: Papa Mingiedi formed a band, mostly made up of his sons and nephews, and recorded an LP with a French engineer. The band didn't have a name, but one song got some play on the radio in France and caught the ear of Brussels music producer Vincent Kenis.

Mr. VINCENT KENIS (Music Producer): The music was so powerful and so different from anything I ever heard. I was really hooked to this music, because I was really much into, you know, noise music, punk music, and for me, it was African punk music by (foreign word).

BAKER: Kenis spent the next 20 years looking for the unnamed Congolese band he had heard once on the radio.

Mr. KENIS: Finally, I found them in 2000 after having been in Kinshasa three times and looking for them with no results. Finally, they arrived and you don't have to convince them to record, of course. They are very glad to be able to make their music known to the foreign world.

(Soundbite of Konono No 1 song)

BAKER: Aharon Natondo remembers his father's first meeting with Kenis.

Mr. MANTUDO: (Through Translator) The first thing he did was to test him. He took (unintelligible) and gave it to him. He said why don't you play this for me. When he played, he realized that this is the person who played the song he first heard in Belgium.

BAKER: Kenis says when he finally found the band, the music scenes on both continents had changed, and it seemed to Kenis like he was the only one who cared about this music.

Mr. KENIS: Their own people don't listen to them so much anymore. They used to be stars like 30 years ago. The family is 70 years old, you know, the group has existed for 40 years now. But in Congo, the music is passé. When I gave my record of Konono No 1 to Congolese, they tell me these songs are 30 years old. This is hardly new to us. It doesn't interest us.

BAKER: But the very idea that Konono is out of style makes Papa Mingiedi defensive.

Mr. MAWANGU MINGIEDI (Konono No 1): (Through Interpreter) Everybody just goes crazy about his song. He can play it and the Congo people will go crazy. He'll play it here in the U.S., people will love it. He'll play it in Europe, the same thing.

BAKER: Aharon Natondo is quick to clarify his father, explaining they are full-time musicians in their country. They make a living through their music.

(Soundbite of Konono No 1 song)

Even before Konono's album debuted last summer, it spread on the Internet, picking up fans like Glenn Kotche.

Mr. GLENN KOTCHE (Wilco Drummer): I love the sound of the likembes, the thumb pianos that they play. It's a really unique take on that instrument. It's a distorted fuzz tone, you know, it's not far from the Jimmy Hendrix type of guitar sound.

(Soundbite of Konono No 1 song)

BAKER: Glenn Kotche is the drummer for the band Wilco. He got a chance to play with Konono after a festival in Brazil. The American rocker and the Congolese band jammed with children in an impoverished Brazilian neighborhood playing, anything they could get their hands on.

Mr. KOTCHE: These junkyard instruments built from car parts and stove parts and, you know, buckets, and we were able to go with Konono there and all play together, and they didn't have their likembes or their kalembos, so we just kind of all improvised and jammed together. But that was one of the best experiences, being able to play with Konono and all these kids and not even being able to communicate with any of them, just through the music.

BAKER: Konono No 1 doesn't play outside of the Congo very often, with the exception of a handful of shows in Europe and a month-long tour of the U.S., which brought them to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

(Soundbite of Konono No 1 song)

BAKER: The musicians played to a standing room only crowd and despite the language barrier, they seemed to communicate pretty well with their audience.

Unidentified Woman: They're singing about - I don't - they're trying to get us moving. I know that.

(Soundbite of Konono No 1 song)

BAKER: So what if the crowd didn't know they were dancing to a song that Aharon Natondo describes as a father's disapproval of his daughter's true love?

Mr. MANTUDO: (Through Translator) So the father insisted that he didn't want his daughter to marry that gentleman, but the daughter didn't listen, so anything that will happen to you from now on, if you have nothing to wear, if you have nothing to eat, that's your problem.

BAKER: But in the hands of Konono No 1, troubles have a way of disappearing behind a driving beat and the buzz of a thumb piano. Jesse Baker, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of Konono No 1 song)

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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