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Cover Story: Kongos

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Kongos: Rock Royalty

John Kongos – now 68 – moved around a lot when he was younger. The musician/composer/producer was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he put together his own popular early -’60s outfit called Johnny and the G-Men. But by the late ’60s, he’d relocated to Britain, where he continued on with other combos, like Floribunda Rose, then Scrugg, until he finally flew solo with his 1970 debut disc, Confusions About a Goldfish. Constant touring throughout Europe solidified his reputation, and in 1971, for Fly Records, he scored his first chart-topping UK hits – “Tokoloshe Man” and “He’s Gonna Step On You Again,” which in the’90s would find its way into a Happy Mondays single, “Step On.”

Kongos kept releasing albums, plus singles like “Ride the Lightning,” “Great White Lady,” and “Higher Than God’s Hat.” None of them charted. Gradually, he recalibrated his career, and instead concentrated on production in his increasingly-busy home studio in London, where members of Cat Stevens’ and Elton John’s bands would often hang out, chew the fat, and jam. He continued to write songs, though, as well as commercial jingles and TV themes, and he even wound up hosting Def Leppard in 1983, when he aided their producer Mutt Lange in programming the complicated Fairlight synthesizer for the group’s “Pyromania” album. Then he packed up his gear and left for South Africa again, before finally settling in America, in Phoenix, Arizona, the hometown of his wife, Shelley.

There have been various retrospectives and repackagings of the man’s work over the years. But none of his accomplishments, you might say, stack up to what he achieved with Shelley – four equally-talented sons who followed him into the music business, almost as if they had no choice in the matter. And with dad’s blessing, they formed a family band named Kongos  (no ‘The,’ just Kongos) that’s finally breaking in the States with its sophomore Lunatic effort and stomping, celebratory singles like “I’m Only Joking” and “Come With Me Now.” Accordion player Johnny Kongos is the oldest at 32, and guitarist Danny is the youngest at 25. And in between are bassist/vocalist Dylan, 28, and powerhouse drummer, percussionist and official group spokesman Jesse Kongos, 30.

Were the brothers simply handed their instruments at birth? Jesse chortles. “Not quite,” he says. “But funnily enough, my dad put a set of speakers in our pram – I guess you’d call it a stroller. So right when we were infants, he started playing music for us. He was playing us Bach cell suites in our pram while we were riding around the London suburbs! And since then, there have been all these studies about listening to classical music as a child to develop new brain pathways. But this was before all that, so I think he just had faith in playing good music for his kids.”

The drummer isn’t exactly sure what to blame for his instrument selection – nature or nurture. He and his siblings each, in turn, had piano lessons when they were old enough, and that plunged them into their father’s rock and roll world. “And I was attracted to rhythmic piano, like boogie-woogie and blues and stuff,” Jesse recalls, trying to trace the lineage of his Thor-thundering style. “Then when I was a teenager, we had an old drum set lying around from my dad’s studio, and it was kind of incomplete because it was missing a hi-hat and stuff. And when my dad saw that I was playing around on it, he bought me a new drum set in South Africa. And I just loved it. And when I was about 16, I started getting more serious and practicing and listening to jazz drummers and stuff like that.”

The Kongos children missed their father’s earlier outfits. His solo efforts, too. They were all very young when he flew the family back home to Johannesburg. But they just took it for granted, having the run of an instrument-filled house. “For us, it was just normal back then,” Jesse says. “But when you look back on it, you realize what a lucky and amazing childhood it was. I still have memories of his studio, which was in the basement, and going down there and playing in the studio. Or just being around when he had sessions going on, and musicians coming in and out. Just being in that environment felt natural to us from a very young age.”

Jesse Kongos was around when Def Leppard dropped by with Lange, asking pop’s help to program their drums via the daunting Fairlight. He met countless other stars, but he can barely remember their names, since he was four or five at the time, he sighs. And he admits that it was something of a culture shock, suddenly being whisked away on a whim to South Africa. But in retrospect, the move made perfect sense.

“When we were born in London, our parents started to feel like they wanted to get out of London with young kids,” Jesse explains. “Because of the pollution, and just because they wanted an environment more suited to raising young kids. Also, at the time, my dad’s mom was unwell in South Africa, so we went there to be with her. We were only supposed to stay for a year and then make our way to the States, but we kind of got locked into it, we were enjoying it so much. So we started going to school there, and we stayed in South Africa for eight years.”

John Kongos has Greek ancestry. So he and his missus explored a novel idea upon their Johannesburg arrival – how would his sons feel about attending a Greek school, kindergarten through senior year in high school, with a comfortable student body of only about 800? Surprisingly, they loved it. “It was a really nice environment, a great place to go to school,” Jesse swears. “All the classes were small and everybody knew everybody’s family. And the Greeks are really into food, so a lot of the school functions would have amazing Greek food and Greek music and Greek culture. And we had to learn Greek dancing, too. So a lot of that culture got into our blood as we experienced that side of it.”

Greek rhythms began to influence Jesse’s approach. But the brothers listened to such a wide variety of music growing up, he believes his sound was influenced by everything from intricate jazz patterns to tribal, North African, and even Middle Eastern motifs. “So I’ve basically delved into all these crazy rhythms, but not mastered any of them,” he sheepishly admits. “So they all kind of bleed together a little bit. And I’m a big fan of Bob Marley’s band, too – I practice to a lot of his records, just because the groove is so perfect and deep. So that kind of bleeds in a little, as well. We’ve gotten to see the few members of The Wailers that are still touring, and they nailed it – seeing them live is like a master class in rhythm sections, because they just sit perfectly in that pocket and are a joy to watch.”

It all melds into a seamless, undulating flow on “Lunatic,” which was produced by the band and engineered by Jesse, who also wrote five tracks himself, including the sinister clickety-clacker “I’m Only Joking” (Danny penned one, the spider-walking tongue-in-cheek generational indictment “Kids These Days”; Dylan added two, the forlorn finger-picker “Traveling On” and the R&B-funky, handclap-accented”Sex On the Radio”; and Johnny (billed as John J. Kongos) whipped up four – “As We Are,” “Take Me Back,” “This Time I Won’t Forget,” and the irresistible, accordion-underpinned chant “Come With Me Now.”) John, Senior, however, acted as executive producer, and he also contributed backup vocals. The album was recorded at Kongos’ new Phoenix facility, dubbed – of course – Tokoloshe Studios. “Phoenix is quiet, it’s a nice place to chill out,” says Jesses of their new HQ. “And we have an amazing recording studio, so when we com off the road, or we’ve just been traveling for months and months, it’s nice to go back there and decompress and get in the studio. And our dad has been very supportive, and he even coes down to the studio every so often and gives us his feedback and opinion. He’s kind of been a general guiding force.”

But Arizona is right-wing-repressive, Jan Brewer/Tent City territory. Doesn’t that clash with the band’s more worldly, left-leaning sensibilities? Jesse Kongos chuckles softly to himself. “Well, yeah, there is a lot of that,” he cedes. “But overall, when we’re there – at least in the circles we run in – we’re not really exposed to it that much.” His attitude? Live and let live. The Kongos clan isn’t out to light any political fires, per se, although Jesse has some astute end-of-the-world lyrical observations in “I Want To Know”: “And if that cloud forms up above/ No sign anywhere of a dove/ There’ll be no reason left to stay/ We’ll try and live another day….when the time comes, we’ll escape.”

Examine the Kongos concept closely, and it becomes even more magical – the idea that four brothers of varying ages all chose to form a touring and recording unit (they even issued a 2007 Kongos debut, long before “Lunatic” kicked in). Any number of things along the path could have derailed this train, like one member deciding that he preferred college – or a 9-5 career – over playing music. Jesses agrees – things might have gone haywire. “But we dealt with that in the beginning because of the age range,” he elaborates. “Danny, I think he was about 13 when we first started doing gigs. And at that age, it’s harder to focus your interests – you’re more interested in your friends and school and whatever else you’re up to.

“But basically, our family’s philosophy was always this – our parents wanted us to learn music as a subject because they thought that it was valuable. But we started to get to an age where we had to think about our future – if we wanted to go to college, did we want to get a job. And we all pretty much agreed simultaneously that this could be more fun than getting a job or following the traditional path. So we started to get more serious about it, and in 2007 we put out that first album. And it just felt like a natural decision. There was resistance, a little bit, here and there,” Jesse laughs. “But once everyone got a taste of playing out and getting the recognition, it was kind of a no-brainer.”

Why did it take so long to issue the Lunatic follow-up? “Kongos” got some really good reviews upon its release, Jesse says. But it didn’t do much of anything, commercially speaking. So the quartet had come to a fork in the road – they could continue to put our more efforts and cross their fingers, hoping listeners would notice them. Or they could create their own grassroots buzz and build a fan base that way, Do It Yourself style. “So before we put another album out, we just started recording singles and releasing them ourselves for free or for an E-mail address,” says Jesse. “And it wasn’t until about 2010 or 2011 that we started getting some radio play locally, and then South Africa picked up on us, and that really generated enough interest. So we felt like ‘Okay – let’s finish another album and put it out, because some people might actually want it now!’”

Kongos was soon playing concerts and festivals throughout South Africa, like Joburg Day, Oppikoppi, Pretoria’s Park Acoustics, Up The Creek, and One Night In Cape Town!,’ which the band headlined.  They even opened for Linkin Park on that group’s South African leg of its last tour, before finally hitting Europe last year on an extensive juggernaut opening for Dispatch. In fact, the Kongos siblings have traveled so much, and resided in so many different countries, that Jesse has no discernible accent when speaking. A bit of British pops in on some words, a sharp South African edge shades others. And sometimes he sounds like a surfer-dude Californian. “My accent is just totally messed up,” he agrees. “Its half and half, as we say.”

John Kongos is justifiably proud of his offspring. And he’s always generous with show business advice. What was the best tip he ever proffered to his progeny? Jesse thinks about this for a minute. “You know, he passed something on to us, something that was said to him in South Africa, when he was kind of blowing up as a teen star,” he says. “I think the boss of his label said to him ‘Johnny, you must never believe your own publicity.’ And he always taught that to us – it doesn’t matter what people are saying about you or what your own press machine is saying about you.

“You have to hold yourself to your own standards.”

-Tom Lanham

Appearing August 3 at Lollapalooza

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  1. Renee says:

    This is the most complete article I’ve read on Kongos since I became a fan – after being introduced to their wonders by my 20-year old daughter. I enjoyed it very much but have 1 question?

    Are any of the brothers married?

    Thanks for great article!

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