Kongos Are Huge in South Africa -- Is Phoenix Next?
Don't worry, Arizona hipsters: There still is time to get behind Kongos.
I know how you fickle fans operate. You drop a band and put your faith in someone more obscure the minute a band you formerly championed begins headlining shows and making money, with thousands of fans shouting out every word to every song. Once their record charms its way onto mainstream radio playlists and, Zeus forbid, they get a glowing writeup in Rolling Stone, that's when you bail.
Well, relax. None of that has happened to Kongos in the Valley of the Sun, but rather in that parallel pop universe of South Africa, onetime homeland of Johnny, Jesse, Dylan, and Danny, the four brothers collectively known as Kongos.
In 2012, they have seen all of the above dreams come true. By year's end, they'll have clocked six months in the country in support of their record Lunatic. Three singles from the record have lodged themselves in the top 10 of every important South African music chart, and it charted at number four on the Look & Listen chart in April 2012, ahead of Madonna and Bruce Springsteen's recent efforts (but just behind Adele, David Guetta, and Now That's What I Call Music 60). Kongos have garnered significant coverage from Rolling Stone South Africa (yeah, who knew?), and their song "Take Me Back" reached number one on that publication's rock chart.
Despite the fact that there's no iTunes (or equivalent site), Kongos have amassed a significant number of download sales there, too, after six months of giving MP3 files away via their web site.
Jesse explains, "That's kind of unusual in South Africa, where they're still used to paying for music. We got a lot of responses profusely thanking us for free MP3s when, here, you're running after people saying, 'Please take my MP3s.'"
"South Africans still buy physical CDs and save up to buy them," Johnny grins behind his beard. "They're a little behind the times — it's great!"
But while sales are nice, no singular Kongos conquest in 2012 could match the thrill of playing to festival crowds of up to 12,000 fans, like those at the Hatfield Carnival in Pretoria, where unruly crowds pushed barricades aside and turned it into a free festival.
"It's like their Mardi Gras," Jesse laughs. "By the time we went on, around 7 p.m., everybody was the right amount of drunk. The bands after us were the wrong amount. We still watch the footage of it; it's so surreal. Going from begging people to come to a show to that!"
It's been a while since Kongos had to employ knee-work to get people to shows. They've steadily built up a strong local following, due to the group's charismatic live show and benevolent practice of giving away CDs and free MP3s in exchange for e-mail addresses. But like the svelte girl who looks in the mirror and still sees someone five dress sizes larger, the brothers can vividly recall every character-building show where the number of strings on Dylan's bass exceeded the audience head count.
"The worst show ever was when we played Fullerton, California," Johnny says. "It was a converted strip club with the stripper pole still in the middle of the stage. We played to half a dozen people. And two of those people were our parents!"
That was in 2007, in support of Kongos' self-titled, self-released debut. As fully realized as it seemed at the time, the record told only half the story. Since then, the band has loosened up enough to insert more humorous and playful fare like "Kids These Days," "It's a Good Life," and "I'm Only Joking" into their repertoire, along with quieter material like the folk ballad "Traveling On," a song that pulls back the curtain from what's become the group's trademark big sound.
The massive production and use of tribal beats and anthemic, chanted choruses display a lineage that can be traced back to the pioneering records that their father, John Kongos, made in the early '70s, scoring on worldwide hits like "He's Gonna Step on You Again" and "Tokoloshe Man."
The progression shows, as younger siblings Dylan and Danny have become monsters on their respective bass and lead guitar. "All the gigs we've played at Lost Leaf and Fate, playing three or four sets a night of our material, covers, [and] jazz numbers, that really got our shit together," Jesse says.
When Kongos buckled down to record their second album, the brothers knew they had an audience in South Africa to build on. The last album's "Into the Music" went to number nine on the chart of TUX, a college rock station.
"We heard about that through a friend and saw a few posts, but that was it, nothing else materialized from that, because it was pre-Facebook, or the really early days of Facebook," Dylan recalls. "But now fans could come back to us, and we could connect to them. It's scary because our fan base is wrapped up in Facebook and our way of communicating with them."
Upon its release in South Africa, Lunatic's first single, the stomping, slyly malevolent-sounding "I'm Only Joking," was picked up by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), the state-owned syndicated broadcaster that provides 18 AM and FM radio stations, as well as three television broadcasts, to the general public.
"It is the major station in the country; people do pay attention to SABC," Johnny says. "We sent an e-mail to them, which they actually opened. They heard a song, liked it, and gave it a shot. Then fans went crazy when they first heard 'I'm Only Joking,' and it just went out of control from there. This has probably messed up the rest of our lives, because events can't get any luckier than this."
Similarly, "Come with Me Now" got picked up in August 2011, with "Escape" following in January and spreading the Kongos brand into more adult contemporary and pop mainstream markets.
While Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris, Kongos always will have Pretoria, against which all other good times will be measured — at least for some time to come.
"We also very quickly became spoiled little bitches, because we played our second show there. It was one of the best, because it was in a town called Pretoria, which is really where our main base is," explains Johnny. "It's kind of like the Detroit Rock City of the 1970s; everyone went nuts there. After that, we played shows we'd have been over the moon about how amazing they were, like selling out with 800 people in Capetown. And we were like 'The crowd was good, but it was no Pretoria.'"
Kongos will return to South Africa this fall and embark on their first full-scale U.S. tour upon their return stateside.
Peorias, Arizona and Illinois, are you listening? You're only two letters off from beating Pretoria, Georgia, as the next potential Kongos stronghold. And then cue the hipsters, because as Jesse greedily guarantees, "We will only sell out if it's for money!"
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