The Kongos – four South African descended brothers now resident in Phoenix, USA – return for a madcap tour across the country with their father, 1960s hit-maker, John Kongos.
“I’m only joking / I don’t believe a thing I’ve said / What are you smoking / I’m just messing with your head / Only a crazy little thing I read” – the infectiously catchy chorus of The Kongos’ hit song that’s swept radio stations across South Africa from 5FM to campus and community stations. Of course, that’s the ever-so-slightly cleaned-up version of a chorus that includes an expletive which has made it onto a few family radio stations.
“It’s going well in Phoenix, but America is a very hard nut to crack,” says Johnny Kongos by phone from the band’s South African roving tour HQ. “It’s very much a saturated market and, as everyone knows, record sales are down. Our hometown, Phoenix, has a growing independent rock scene, and that’s really started to come together this year – not in the way that the South African scene has come together, but it’s starting to slowly move in the right direction. But we really had no idea that things would take off so much in South Africa for us…”
The younger Kongos is speaking of the reception their first single, later release, their debut album and their gigs have enjoyed locally. “We sent some tracks off on a whim, really, to some South African radio stations,” he explains. “We just randomly chose stations that we remembered from the times we’ve been to South Africa, or from when we lived here, and some that we found online. 5FM loved ‘I’m Only Joking’ and, when we picked up the phone and they said they wanted to playlist it; we thought they were joking! It’s been absolute insanity since then – and especially so since it’s really hard to even get onto radio in America.”
The Kongos are four brothers: Johnny (30), who plays accordion and keyboards and handles this interview; Dylan (25), responsible for lead vocal duty and bass; Danny (22), playing guitar; and Jesse (28), sharing lead vocals, and playing drums. All four sing during live performances and, in studio, they play a variety of instruments. A musical career was always a possibility for the brothers, given their father. John Kongos headed “Johnny Kongos and the G-Men” who played Johannesburg’s beat scene in the early 1960s, and wrote the hit “Tokoloshe Man” (find it on YouTube) before leaving for greener pastures abroad. In the UK, he was part of bands like Floribunda Rose and Scrugg and, after going solo, the elder Kongos recorded the hit single “”He’s Gonna Step on You Again” in 1971, which charted in both England and the USA, as well as recording a number of albums, including “Confusions About a Goldfish”.
“From the beginning, music was a compulsory subject in our house,” says Johnny. “You did mathematics and English and whatever else at school, and at home you played music. Being naughty little shits like most kids are, you fight everything, but there’s that delayed gratification that kicks in when you finally get the feedback of actually being able to really play an instrument that you’ve been practising for years. That became ingrained for us and it became pure fun to play, so it was only natural that we’d eventually become a band. He couldn’t be happier about that, especially with us doing well in South Africa now.”
The younger Johnny relates how he recalls old photographs of his father in Durban on the beach, and in parks – as well as in music clubs across the country. “It’s come full circle,” he says. “He comes out on the road with us and helps out with the sound, standing next to the mixing board because he knows our songs so well. Coming back to South Africa is great for us and for him. It’s half a tour and half a vacation.”
Kongos can’t help but burst out laughing at this point. “It has to be one of the most inefficiently organised tours in history. We play once or twice a week, and then have a holiday and visit with friends and see the country a bit. But that’s what we wanted – not just to fly in and slog it out for a week or whatever and then leave.”
It’s interesting how receptive South African ears have been to The Kongos blend of post-folk rock ‘n roll, driven as much by guitar licks and accordion lines as it is by driving rhythms and superbly singable lyrics. There is, also, a clear African and South African influence threaded through the music – the accordion riffs on “It’s A Good Life”, recall the sounds of early Juluka for a Western ear and deeper Zulu maskandi roots for South Africans steeped in that lore.
“Our sound is fairly organic,” says Kongos. “If you go back and map it, there’s probably a direct route from what we heard because of the records that our dad made. Especially songs like ‘He’s Gonna Step On You Again’ and ‘Tokoloshe Man’ – you can hear the influence is immense. But he always had us listening to a wide range of music, from Africa as well as elsewhere. Things like old African documenation that the BBC did in the 1930s with wire recordings from Congo and Burundi. The drums from that turned into the inspiration for ‘I’m Only Joking’. It was a massive cross-cut of music and I think that’s an lucky grounding that we had as musicians, and as a band.”
The Kongos co-headline the Up The Creek festival, alongside aKing, Karen Zoid, Wrestlerish, Taxi Violence, Piet Botha, Machineri, Shadowclub, Sterling EQ, Andra, Peachy Keen, the annual AC/DC Tribute, and more (3 to 5 February, Breede River, outside Swellendam; tickets R374 – R575 from TicketBreak.co.za; R425 to R620 at the gate; Sunday day pass R150). More on UpTheCreek.co.za and on Facebook. Win tickets by SMSing “CREEK” to 33782 (costs R1.50, free SMS don’t apply). Also hear The Kongos at Word of Art on 14 January – and surf Kongos.com for additional gig dates.