A video on YouTube titled Great Moments in History begins, somberly enough, with the strains of Puccini's Madame Butterfly. All the usual throat-swelling suspects are paid a reverent visit Kennedy's inaugural address, Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles at Shea Stadium, Neil Armstrong on the moon, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and the release of Nelson Mandela. After tear ducts and heartstrings have been sufficiently tempered, we climax with (cue flashing album cover and iTunes graphics): January 15, 2007, the release date for the Kongos' debut album!
Such an act of unfettered conceit might be enough to extinguish an established recording artist's career in these days of easily hurt feelings and litigated mental distress. As yet, no one's surrounded the Kongos' Phoenix compound with torches and chains, mainly because, since forming a musical partnership five years ago, these four brothers (John Joseph, 26; Jesse, 24; Dylan, 21; and Daniel, 19) have kept a low profile best described as subterranean. Having emerged from their basement studio after two and a half years of woodshedding, they decided to commemorate their greatest moment to date a self-titled, self-released CD of astonishing beauty and scope coupled with a joke and a smile.
"Danny put that together, but my dad came up with the general thrust of it," John J. says with a laugh, "putting together the world's greatest moments and then be arrogant buggers about it and put ourselves in the end."
The Kongos brothers are anything but arrogant buggers. Their humble nature leads them to joke about things most new bands keep hidden, like the fact that their fan base probably didn't take the day off on January 16 or that most of their friends on MySpace are the same strippers and shameless self-promoters who've befriended everyone else.
Still, anyone who stumbled upon 2004's Kongos EP would have rightly been hounding the group for a complete album like kids on a road trip asking, "Are we there yet?" It's rare to be in on the ground floor of something that doesn't sound like anything else you might've heard before a strange mix of world music instrumentation, Pink Floyd atmospherics and psychedelic-period-Beatles harmonies. And their story unless you want to count The Osmonds and their various smiling spawn groups is one you've never heard, either.
Their father, John Kongos, has a hallowed history as a British rock star, singer-songwriter, producer, and recording engineer. His 1971 single "He's Gonna Step on You Again" earned him a spot in the British Top Five, the US Top 70 and a mention in the book of Guinness World Records for containing the "first known use of a sample," a looped tribal African beat that Gary Glitter, Adam & the Ants, and Bow Wow Wow built whole careers around.
His songs have been recorded by such diverse artists as Olivia Newton-John, the Happy Mondays, the Muppets, and Def Leppard. Kongos even did all the Fairlight programming for DL's breakthrough 1987 pop metal album, Hysteria.
He married an American fashion model named Shelley, and they raised four sons in London and South Africa before moving the whole clan to Shelley's place of origin: Scottsdale, Arizona. The four boys grew up, learned how to operate dad's home recording studio, and became a self-contained group.
"All the boys grew up with music all around them," John adds. "When we pushed them in their prams around South Africa, they always had classical music playing in the background."
Another key parenting decision John made was letting his sons put some sweat equity into the construction of their home studio, which gave them a better understanding of recording and acoustics.
Had the boys rebelled against their dad as kids often do, John's years of gentle coaxing, playing Eric Satie records in the background, and piano lessons might've backfired, and we could be looking at four certified public accountants named Kongos today.
"The group was always something we knew we were going to do," John J. says. "It was just a question of Dylan and Danny still being in high school. Jesse and I are closer in age, so we started Law of Seven, an experimental jazz thing. As they got older and further along with their music, we started Kongos.
"The first song we played together was 'Cajun Moon,' a JJ Cale song. It was really bad, but it gave us a sense of joy coming out of music. After that, we were able to pursue music at a more serious level, in front of people."
Perhaps their constant pushing for perfection has kept them from playing more shows. Having a state-of-the-art recording studio to forge a group sound is a luxury, but for the Kongos, it has set a standard of sound excellence that doing shows with a club's house P.A. can't hope to meet. Many times, Kongos have done ungodly early sets just so they can get a proper sound check.
"The reason the album took so long was we literally redid every song once or twice," Jesse admits.
"At the end of this album, we learned when to stop, just leave things out," John J. adds. "We're not there yet, but I think it's forced us to make more selective editing decisions."
Some fortuitous kitchen-sink ideas include John J.'s use of the accordion (the second most feared instrument in Western music, just after bagpipes). It gives tracks like "The Way" a crazy klezmer-meets-raga lilt, and his blazing solo seems all the more incredible because John J. hadn't ever played the accordion before.
After trying everything on a song called "Nothing," they decided to pay homage to their dad and their homeland by taking a piece of plywood, throwing African shakers and bells on it, making an eight-bar loop of it, and multitracking it to create a simulated African stamping choir.
At long last, all four Kongos are on the same page musically and promise to be in it for the long haul. Rest assured, they will win hearts, change minds and yes, maybe even freak out some folks with their familial similitude and musical symbiosis.
"In South Africa, we went to a Greek school that's very family-oriented," Jesse says. "When we came here, a lot of people thought it was abnormal that we get along, that we're brothers and we're friends."
"But that's not to say we don't fight," Dylan says. "If it's stupid, we fight about it. When we were younger, the sibling rivalry took a more physical form, punching and hitting. As we grew up, everyone has an ego [and] it took a different form. When we come down to the studio, the rivalry disappears. It's more about creating a good product."
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