Kinshasa’s Fulu Miziki are sonic explorers

Fulu Miziki spent the Covid lockdown refining, isolating and recording their handcrafted instruments, resulting in their truly spectacular Ngbaka EP.

There is a moment about halfway through Ok Seke Bien, the opening song on Congolese collective Fulu Miziki’s Ngbaka EP, where the choral vocal that has been present since the beginning of the song drops out and all of a sudden the listener is forced to focus on the muscular techno construction of interlocking percussion that has been pulsing away beneath it. It’s a beat that is being created by a well-drilled unit of musicians using homemade instruments. In this moment, the listener gets the first of many glimpses into the genius of Fulu Miziki.

Across the six songs and mere 21 minutes of their debut EP, the collective map out a sonic terrain that will leave fans of experimental music captivated, and many asking what was that sound?  

Their music videos are no less riveting. Watching one of the masked members fiercely plucking away at a homemade three-stringed bass guitar in the video for Ok Seke Bien, while the rest of the collective are locked in percussion precision behind him on what looks like a tennis court is one of the richest three and a half minutes you could spend.

From the hybrid tuba and French horn that Richard Wagner designed in the mid-19th century to Kraftwerk’s prototype electronic drum machines and custom-built vocoders, the history of music is filled with stories of composers inventing their own instruments. Fulu Miziki are just one of the latest sonic explorers in this long lineage of musical invention.

Their name translates as “garbage music” or “trash music” and is a reference to the fact that all the band’s instruments are built out of waste. 

If you watch one of the videos of Fulu Miziki in their outlandish home-made costumes, you will see a band creating music from an assortment of long metal tubes, planks of wood, plastic buckets, metal coils, soap dispensers, metal chains, paint cans and a wooden drawer, all while looking like the greatest cast of African superheroes and villains you’ve never heard of.

Digital sheen

Founded in 2003 as an eco-punk collective in Kinshasa by artist Pisko Cane, Fulu Miziki’s story is hardly typical. The collective’s first six years saw them graduating from rhumba and hip-hop influences to their unique “trash music” sound, which they would then develop for a further decade before releasing any music commercially. 

During this time, Cane was joined by seven additional core members: Sekelembele, Abbe la Roche, Padou, Tche Tche, DeBoul, Le Meilleur and Aicha Mena Kanieba.

Fulu Miziki’s first recordings date from only a few years ago, when the band began filming live performances and uploading them to YouTube. These performance videos are true spectacles and really give a sense of the power of this live outfit. Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit and Fulu Miziki’s live focus came to a halt.

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Forced to turn elsewhere, the collective retreated to their bedroom studios and began to focus on the electronic arrangements of their songs. Here they would record, isolate and refine samples from their homemade instruments.

The results achieved on Ngbaka EP, which dropped on London-based record label Moshi Moshi Music in November last year, are truly spectacular.

The electronic arrangements give a digital sheen to the band’s original ramshackle sound, creating a futuristic vision of Kinshasa in the process.

The hyper-buoyant Bivada, which pays tribute to the labourers of the markets of Kinshasa, appears to draw on both rhumba and dancehall to create a wholly new sound, while Mokili Makambo presents a frenetic fusion of what sounds like Angolan kuduro, Tanzanian singeli, British grime and European gabba.

Kinshasa noir

In retrospect, with so many bedroom producers in its ranks, Fulu Miziki’s diversion into electronic arrangements was probably par for the course.

One of its members, La Roche, dropped solo album Liye Liye on Uganda-based label Nyege Nyege Tapes in January, offering up a truly original sonic world that always has one eye on the build and release of tension. It is the first in an expected series of records from Nyege Nyege that focuses on new music from the Democratic Republic of Congo and as a first instalment it’s captivating.

Liye Liye is dominated by digital synth melodies that feel lifted from computer game soundtracks, cold synth pads that sound like they come straight out of a Gary Numan record and heavy kick drums that feel equally influenced by South African gqom and British grime. The overall effect is a psychedelic, noir vision of Kinshasa.

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On Elela, La Roche uses gunshots, car horns and revving engines on top of a tension-building synth melody to ram home the sense of urban dread, while on Olambaka Bien he uses a rolling bassline, swirling synths, trap-influenced percussion and white static sound effects to create the album’s clear highlight.

On Figuyr, he draws on the soukous rhythm to create something that sounds like Kraftwerk reborn in the Congo, 50 years after their original Dusseldorf origins.

Listening to the impressive sound world that has been created by La Roche on Liye Liye, it’s difficult not to expect big things from the Fulu Miziki collective, who are currently touring Europe promoting Ngbaka.

It may have taken them almost 20 years to release their first EP, but it’s one well worth the wait. The quality of La Roche’s solo album in such quick succession suggests the floodgates may have burst, and this critic will be eagerly awaiting the next instalment from Kinshasa.

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