Rey Sapienz/The Congo Techno Ensemble - Na Zala Zala Music Album Reviews

Rey Sapienz/The Congo Techno Ensemble - Na Zala Zala Music Album Reviews
Powered by brittle electronic drums and buzzing synths, the Congolese musician’s debut album is simultaneously bleak and exhilarating.

Two dates figure crucially in Bahati Sapiens Moïse Dhekana’s artistic career. In 2002, in his hometown of Bunia, Democratic Republic of Congo—a city of 900,000, located near Lake Albert—he formed his first band. Rapping over Congolese soukous, he earned his nickname, Rey Sapienz, el Rey Mago—the wise king. He was 12 years old. Ten years later, he traveled to Kampala, Uganda, to collaborate with artists in the city’s burgeoning electronic scene. But when civil war broke out in the DRC, just the latest conflagration in a long-running conflict that between 1996 and 2013 killed an estimated 3.5 million to 5.4 million people, Sapienz chose to remain in Kampala. He already had years of experience leading songwriting workshops in Bunia’s youth centers; in Kampala, he taught himself music production and co-founded Hakuna Kulala, the club-centric sub-label of Nyege Nyege Tapes, a hub for experimental electronic music from across East Africa.

On Sapienz’ Hakuna Kulala EP, released in 2018, he took a more laid-back approach than his labelmate Slikback, who had inaugurated the imprint. Where Slikback’s Lasakaneku EP flirted with a jarring synthesis of trap and grime, Sapienz’ debut EP floated atop gracefully syncopated drums and buoyant soukous guitar riffs. Na Zala Zala, his debut album, is at the opposite extreme from that comparatively blissful EP, following the path of 2019’s dark, eerie Mushoro. It is a heavy, turbulent affair marked by brittle electronic drums, buzzing synths, and an overwhelming chorus of voices that whisper, mutter, growl, bark, and scream, sometimes all at once. (The album is credited to Rey Sapienz and the Congo Techno Ensemble, which also includes rapper Fresh Douggis along with percussionist and singer Papalas Palata, but they sound less like a trio than a small army.) Even for listeners who can’t understand the Lingala and Swahili lyrics, the multitudinous din can be harrowing.

The abrasiveness is apparent from the very first song, “Dancehall Pigme,” in which a broken electro groove throws off sparks in the form of dissonant synth stabs. (Somewhat confusingly, the song is unrelated to another with the same title from his 2019 EP.) The vocals are split between gruff rapping and a sour wail run through a gravelly harmonizer. There’s no melody to speak of, just a succession of tones that rise and fall queasily like a heaving prow in high swells with no land in sight. “Esala Rien” blends its multi-tracked shouts and murmurs into a frightening chorus in which the only consensus is nihilism itself: “It does not matter,” runs the repeated refrain. The drums are sharp as road spikes; the wilting synth riff sounds like disappointment incarnate.

In the context of such merciless beats, the lyrics can scan as bleak, at least in translation. “I’m sick I want to heal,” runs a repeated line in “Posa Na Bika,” against mournful background harmonies; “I have become stupid/I have become useless.” In “Dancehall Pigme,” Sapienz laments having been abandoned by his biological family and asks, “What do I do to get what I deserve?” It’s not all so grim; in “96,” Sapienz, Douggis, and Papalas trade playful verses about the return of clubbing after COVID. You might not hear a sense of hope in the song’s machine-gun percussion and samples of explosions and breaking glass, but it’s impossible to miss the exhilaration in Sapienz’ jagged syncopations. (And is that an intentional reference to Kid Cudi’s “Day N Nite” in the song’s blippy synth melody?)

“Santonge,” a highlight of the album, shows how far Sapienz has come from the sunny sound of his debut. There’s not much more to the beat than dull kick drums and the sound of knives being sharpened; in the place of synthesizer, reverb rushes like a howling wind. As Sapienz chants hoarsely, the background vocalists Lemeulleur and Sekelembele howl and shriek. Pitched halfway between dancehall and black metal, it’s a blood-curdling affair that sounds less like dance music than an exorcism. Like the best heavy music, it’s as thrilling as it is terrifying.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Rey Sapienz/The Congo Techno Ensemble - Na Zala Zala Music Album Reviews Rey Sapienz/The Congo Techno Ensemble - Na Zala Zala Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on July 27, 2021 Rating: 5


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