KONGOS: Live Music, Citizenship, & A Message

Corinne Pachl

KONGOS

via Ken Phillips Group

“One thing I can say to you is
You gotta be good an’you gotta be true…
And it makes no difference if you’re black or you’re white
For Tokoloshe, tonight is the night.”
-John Kongos, “Tokoloshe Man”

Summer Friday nights in the Kansas City Power and Light District are often filled with laid back people just wanting a casual night under the stars, and June 26, 2015 was no different.  On this particular night, a friend and I ordered a Boulevard Wheat each – the best local beer properly enjoyed in downtown Kansas City, MO – and relaxed on an empty bench to people-watch before the show; two bands were going to begin a performance within the next thirty minutes or so.  With no expectations for this free concert, I contentedly sipped my drink and watched the crowd meander into the beautiful courtyard, aptly named Kansas City Live!, resting in the center of over 50 bars, restaurants, and shops.  In this open-air courtyard, on this stage below, a couple of bands would play for a few thousand people.

Ten minutes until the first band was to go on, I ambled my way up to the barricade, stepping around people lounging on the steps dividing the standing room from the bar/bench/table area.  Why not enjoy the show from the very front?  

I didn’t know what to expect from the night – I only knew that Kongos was supposed to play.  I had heard that this band was from South Africa, so I was interested to know what their music sounded like, besides “Come With Me Now,” which had been playing on the radio for weeks.  I was hoping for a night full of stomping rock and emotion.  Little did I know, I was going to get so much more.

o|o

It turns out that Kongos the band is also a whole generation of the Kongos family.  They are a group of four brothers – Johnny, Jesse, Dylan, and Danny, whose last name is actually Kongos.  The three eldest were born in London, England, and after moving to Johannesburg, South Africa in 1988 – the town their father grew up in – the youngest brother, Danny, was born.  There, they attended a Greek Saheti school in Johannesburg.  Since their father was Greek, he thought it best for them to follow in his path and to be immersed in his culture (Lanham).  It wasn’t until the 1990s that they moved to Phoenix, Arizona (KONGOSMUSIC).  But what does all of this have to do with anything?  After all, everyone is descended from different kinds of people from all over the world.  Kongos doesn’t seem any different on the surface.

The difference is that Kongos has found a way to incorporate their roots into their everyday lives, while the rest of us tend to ignore or forget our own.  They have been able to combine their family’s history and background with their personal musical inspirations into a telling story about where they come from and where they want to go.

o|o

After the opening band finished, I noticed for the first time that the sun was setting.  The sky was visibly darkening through the translucent ceiling; the ceiling fans and gathering cigarette smoke didn’t distract whatsoever from the clear night.  The smell of burgers and booze was now more noticeable and I could detect a hint of someone’s weed.  Would it really be a free show without someone lighting up?

The venue was now comfortably full from front to back and from floor to the second terrace of bars and restaurants overlooking Power and Light.  I wasn’t being pushed around by the other attendees, yet a few thousand people stood as far back as the merch tables past the courtyard.  Everyone was clearly enjoying themselves; over half of the crowd was taking advantage of the fact that KC Live! is one of the only places in Kansas City where people can drink outdoors in a public area.  It was great to see such a variety of people there; besides legitimate Kongos fans, there were adults chilling out for the night, some people were clearly regulars for these free Friday night shows, others were college students like myself just excited to be out and about for once.  We were all buzzing excitedly, antsy for Kongos to begin.

About twenty minutes later, the stage lights went completely dark and a cheer erupted from the crowd as the giant Kongos logo illuminated the stage with white fluorescence.  Four men took to the stage and immediately I could feel them command the attention of everyone behind me. The bassist, Dylan, I noticed was barefoot.  The drum set was pushed to the front of the stage, rather than positioned behind the other instrumentalists; an odd choice, but at least I would be able to see Jesse’s face!  On the right stood the guitarist, Daniel, with a ball cap fixed to his head, and on the far left sat the accordionist/keyboardist, Johnny.

A voice echoed out to the crowd, but it took me some time to figure where it came from – the drummer!  Somehow between keeping the beat and swinging his long, bushy hair out of his face he managed to sing too!  Now I understood why his drumset was pushed to the forefront.  

This band was like a breath of fresh air from the moment they began. They instantly felt like they were absolutely in sync with each other, from the rocking movements in the music to the physical way they moved together, even though they were spread out across the stage.  It did not take long for the band members to introduce themselves as a group of brothers hailing from South Africa.  Suddenly everything clicked in my head; as brothers, they might have known each other better than they knew themselves individually.  Making music together probably came second nature to them.

o|o

In the first half of the 1960s, their father, John Kongos, and his band, Johnny Kongos and the G-Men, was hitting the Top 40 charts of Johannesburg, South Africa (Kellman).  But convinced they could become even more successful in the United Kingdom, where the British invasion of rock and roll music was booming, John and his band relocated to London in 1966.  By 1967 they had created their first single and had changed their name to Florinda Rose, which quickly morphed from a beat-driven rock group to a psychedelic pop band called Scrugg.

But the three singles the young South African band managed to put out didn’t do well at all.  They broke up by 1969 and Kongos was left to his devices.  But far from discouraged, he was determined he had a sound to share with the world.  Remaining in London, he decided to go solo and cut his own records.  Using his background from South Africa as well as his talent as a songwriter, he actually picked up some buzz in the U.K. and U.S. through the early 1970s.  The two singles, “Tokoloshe Man” and “He’s Gonna Step on You Again” received the most buzz; they both reached No. 4 on the U.K. singles charts in 1971 (Unterberger).  Both of these songs used heavy, jungle-like rhythms, and the latter is laced with a looping segment of actual African tribal drums; it is cited in The Guinness Book of World Records as the first song to ever use a sample on a record (Unterberger).  Since then, John Kongos has worked with many musicians, such as those who have worked with Elton John and David Bowie in their early days.  Now he manages his sons’ band, who have taken their father’s musical experience and story as a struggling musician in a foreign land to heart.

It was John’s enthusiasm as not only a musician, but also as a father, that inspired his children to create music of their own.  Since he moved around so much in the 60s and 70s, seeing the world and following his passions, he wanted his children to learn the same.  By growing up in the United States and South Africa, and even attending a Greek school to learn more about their Greek heritage, the Kongos brothers were put in a setting that allowed them to interact with their background rather than simply learn about it.  This interaction influenced them so heavily when creating their own music and deciding what to do with their lives.  

Their music style – defined as alternative music, kwaito, and hard rock in their music catalogue – is directly related to various ethnic styles the brothers enjoy listening to and participating in.  “To be honest, it’s a bit of everything,” Jesse said (Lanham).  “Jazz drums, tribal drumming, Middle Eastern and West African rhythms.  So I’ve basically delved into all of those rhythms, but not mastered any of them, so they all kind of bleed together a little bit.”

o|o

About an hour into the set the Kongos broke out into their hit song, “Come With Me Now.”  Most bands save their most well-known song for the end of the show to make the crowd stick around until then.  So I was baffled for a minute; surely they couldn’t be finished yet!  I soon realized that they were not even close to being done here; this unusual choice actually proved to me that they don’t mind being themselves on stage.  They were going to wait to play their personal favorite songs at the end, rather than make the usual “crowd-pleaser” choice, which would have been this single off of their album.

Mid-set the Kongos brought up their friend and crew member Moe’z Art, who was not only introduced to the crowd, but then proceeded to be given a microphone and a place on stage.  It was so unexpected; suddenly the band was playing what seemed to be a weird rap interlude with an accordion, bass, and drum rhythm.  But then it turned into an even sultrier version of the Beatles’s “Come Together.”

Dylan Kongos tossed his hair back and forth in a head-banging motion and they all danced around as though no one was watching.  They moved together so effortlessly.

I was impressed with how comfortably they could swap instruments between songs.  The accordion player stuck to his end of the stage with his wide array of keyboards and the drummer to his drum set and microphone hanging overhead, but the other two brothers would switch guitars and all four could swap voice parts like it was no big deal.  If I hadn’t seen them live, I would have never known that they all took turns singing lead.

o|o

The Kongos brothers clearly come from a talented, diverse group of people, and this is very evident in their music.  From their African, Greek, and English roots, to their musical inspirations such as their own father, the Beatles, and Joni Mitchell, they have tried to incorporate all kinds of sound into their art.  “How would you describe the sound of Kongos?” Jesse asks himself out loud in their mini documentary video.  “Jungle rock?” (KONGOSMUSIC).  In the documentary, Jesse explains further that they “always have a hard time with this question because it would take ten minutes to describe it … but it’s kind of like folk music with nuts.”  

Johnny’s accordion is not influenced so much by traditional German polka music, but rather by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a Qawwali musician from Pakistan.  Dylan would have never picked up a bass if he hadn’t known that Paul McCartney and Sting also played the instrument (KONGOSMUSIC).  In their song, “I’m Only Joking,” Jesse’s drums are especially based on the drummers of Burundi – a region of Africa – which he described as “an amazing, big thumping sound.”  When asked about these particular drums by the USA Greek Reporter, Dylan said that “‘Jesse…was inspired by a rhythm from a tribe in Africa, where they walk around with these massive drums, so Jesse went into the studio and recorded it with 20 or 30 African drums…and banged out this rhythm.’”

“We grew up [in Johannesburg] for about eight years,” Jesse continues in the documentary.  “It was some of the best years of our life… We have some serious memories from here… all the kind of things that go with Africa that you can’t experience anywhere else.  It’s definitely influenced our music and our life.”

o|o

That night in Kansas City, I could definitely feel the combination of all of Kongos’ influences.  As all four brothers swapped instruments and took turns singing throughout the night, I watched their background unfurl onstage as they danced, their long hair swinging in rhythm alongside each other.  Each of their songs, whether upbeat or not, noticeably had this completely original, grooving sound to them.  It reminded me of the stomping blues or off-kilter traditional music I’ve heard from African house music.  They use a specific on/off, up/down rocking motion in their music by emphasizing the offbeat.  The drum and bass especially have a heavy stomping quality that makes it easy to dance.  The hovering accordion notes give their music an extra oomph as it floats above the heavy beat.  It was especially prominent when they sped up the music to jam in double time during their song, “It’s a Good Life.”

In between songs they would provide a little context for a particular piece or a tad more information on the band.  They undoubtedly understood their sound, their image, who they were, and where they came from.  Since they had all of this together, they could let loose and enjoy their time before us.  They continuously bounced on the balls of their feet throughout the night.  “Our dad was an international musician before we were born,” they explained between songs.  “He taught us everything we know.  We wouldn’t be here without him.”

At one point, they slowed it down and successfully poured emotion into a slow, acoustic guitar-based song called “Traveling On.”  This tune evoked the longing for constant movement from place to place combined with the pain of leaving people behind.  I imagine these lyrics meant so much to these men whose lives are based on traveling away from home constantly.

Near the end of the night, they each offered up a “Thank you Kansas City!” before leaving their instruments in the limelight.  The stage lights went dark once again, but the number of camera flashes increased as the crowd chanted, “Kongos, Kongos, Kongos!”  I smiled and cheered along with the rest of them, wondering what on earth their encore would be.

o|o

After touring for years in South Africa with their first release of the album Lunatic in 2012, Kongos became quite well known.  In 2012, Rolling Stone South Africa awarded their song, “Take Me Back” the number one spot on their rock charts.  But when Kongos took Lunatic to the United States to break into the American mainstream, it didn’t take off at all.  It took a lot of hard work, but once a few small radio stations in Colorado began playing “Come With Me Now,” suddenly several record labels were fighting over the band.  The Kongos brothers signed with Epic Records and re-released Lunatic in 2014, which turned into one of the best moves of their career so far.  

Across the boards, they’ve had international hits with each of the singles off their first album produced by Epic Records.  In the United States, “Come With Me Now” was the fastest Top Ten Debut Single in alternative music as of March 2014 since Lorde’s “Royals,” and proceeded to stay in the Top Ten for over seven weeks.  It finally arrived in the U.K. the following August, where it made quite a splash as well (McCormick).  

“I think that what’s cool about the Kongos and the way they blew up in South Africa is that when you listen to radio, you don’t get told ‘This is a local band, or this is an American band,’” an anchor from the Johannesburg, South Africa 5 fm radio station says in the Kongos’ documentary.  “‘The first time that a song comes on radio, you’re just listening to a song on face-value, literally what it sounds like.  And they became incredibly popular in South Africa I think before a lot of people realized that they’re originally from here.  So the fact that they have South African roots was almost a bonus … I found that every time I’d play one of their songs, I’d get a query, and that doesn’t often happen … There are only [a few] songs at any given time that get that kind of consistent listener response… It speaks volumes about how well their music translated to South African audiences.”

And their music translated to so many American listeners too, once it reached their ears.  “Come With Me Now” has been played on numerous commercials and television show promos like MSNBC, HBO’s Summer Promo in 2014, and during the 2014 World Series.  No one really needs to know where the song came from – it simply just sounds good.

o|o

The brothers returned with beaming faces.  They truly looked happy to be there.  “We love you guys, thank you so much!”  After the cheers died down a bit, the main guitarist said, “We really do love coming here to Kansas City.  The Buzz [the local alternative radio station] was one of the first stations to play our music, and we really can’t thank them, or you enough.”  A few practice chords strummed as if asking the crowd to die down again.  “This song was actually one of our dad’s, but we’re going to play our version of it.”  

I just loved how family-oriented these guys were.  They proudly honored their dad just by standing united before the crowd, before the world, and then even took that extra step to play his song, “Tokoloshe Man.”  This song, they said, was extra special to them.  It was a piece older than they were, written with love by their father.

They closed the night out with another cover, “Blue Monday” by New Order.  The lead singer/bassist for this song tossed his bushy hair over his shoulder again, perfecting the 1980s groove needed for the song.  They even worked in not only their characteristic booming bassy beat, but also a perfect modernized breakdown of the instruments that ended the night on an energized, exciting note.

They stepped away from their mics, waving and smiling, genuinely thanking the crowd again for coming out.  As they disappeared from sight again, the buzz of chatter grew, and I found myself beaming.

o|o

As stated above, “Tokoloshe Man,” released in 1971, was John Kongos’ first big hit.  It is a song based on South African superstition. According to the old Zulu tales, a creature – the Tokoloshe – is described as a small, brown, hairy dwarf, very baboonish in nature. All kinds of people have been reported as victims of this creature; rich, poor, black, or white (Hunks).  It was told that the Tokoloshe would climb up into any person’s bed during the night and kill him or her.  John Kongos, even as a white man born in South Africa, was inspired by these stories he would have heard as a child.  He wrote a song – the song his sons would later play for my ears – that opens with the lyrics “Make your bed up high/Pray to the sky/Close the window, close the door/Makes no difference if you’re rich or poor…” (Kongos).  The point of the song isn’t so much the superstition itself, but that the Tokoloshe will attack anyone, regardless of class, race, or gender.  Everyone is equal in the Tokoloshe’s eyes.  Everyone is the same.  

It is incredible that this song – the one rooted in South African, Zulu culture – is the one that initially gave John Kongos a leg up in the world.  This is the tune that caught the United Kingdom’s attention.  They loved the idea of the Tokoloshe, of foreign superstition, and they loved the different rock sound Kongos provided.  It took some doing, but the United Kingdom eventually embraced John Kongos and his music.  In this way they embraced his different culture as the Tokoloshe visited the U.K. for a while. John went to the U.K., taking a risk, but ultimately pursuing his dream of being a musician.  By writing a song about this fairy tale, Kongos successfully brought a piece of his culture forward to Western ears.  They recognized that, though he was different, John Kongos’s music was relatable and it applied to their lives as much as it did to his.

o|o

July 2014 Radio.com Interview with Johnny Kongos:

“You’re introduced as a South African band yet you’ve lived in Arizona for nearly 16 years. When do you give up that title?”

“I think that time is right now. We’re not a South African band. But at the same time I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re an American band. We’re all American citizens. Our mom was American so when we were born, we were born American citizens, but that was in London and then we lived in South Africa. We feel at home in America and in South Africa. It was kind of a lucky coincidence because we’d not been to South Africa in fifteen years. We sent songs to radio in South Africa and they took off, so then we had two year and five tours of South Africa and all the radio singles there. So then when we came back the story was developed in South Africa so I think people latched onto that. There really is a special place in our hearts for South Africa because it truly is an amazing place.”

o|o

No matter what kind of culture a person belongs to, I believe there is a place for him or her in America.  While our country certainly can have its issues with discrimination, I think that these negative feelings will eventually be overcome.  I do believe that since we are such a richly diverse country, one day we will all be able to respect and have a better understanding for each other.  As we are exposed to other people, we are exposed one by one to other ways of thinking and ideals; hopefully this will allow for an acceptance of our differences.  For example, by researching this band that I once saw perform live, I can see how they understand the world and how they daily celebrate who they are.

I may not yet know my own heritage and what my ancestors’ ideals were, but until I do, I can certainly learn about my neighbors and peers and what their beliefs are.  I can incorporate a respect for others’ cultures into my daily life by cultivating my genuine interest in their backgrounds.  I want to know why people think the way they do; I want to know where they come from and where they’re going.  While learning about those around me, I want to get past the strangeness of their customs and make them into something familiar.   

Honestly I believe that being true to oneself and implementing history into one’s craft is the easiest way to share one’s culture with others.  Kongos proved this to me all within a few hours of being in their presence, and I’m so glad they did.  They brought their positive message and culture in their music to our ears, which is exactly what American society needs to hear; a positive message about how there can be unity in cultural diversity.  Kongos are just as much a part of America as they are of South Africa; and South Africa is just as much a part of their own history as America.  Their rich cultural background and love for music has certainly given them a story to be proud of, and I can say I am honored to know it.

**photo via Ken Phillips Group

Their new album Egomaniac is out now! Watch their new video for “Take It From Me” below.

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