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Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs head to the Congo for DRC Music

Orlando Higginbottom recalls his trip to the Congo with Damon Albarn. In five hectic days, a group of producers recorded dozens of locals and crafted the fascinating Kinshasa One Two.

Photograph: Simon Phipps
DRC Music team, Hotel Invest De Presse, Kinshasa, D R Congo

When the ten English and American musicians alighted their plane in Kinshasa, none were surprised to learn their luggage had not made the trip. Bagless, the pop producers—a group including Gorillaz guru Damon Albarn, hip-hop beat-maker Dan the Automator and XL Recordings owner Richard Russell—were ushered into vans and whisked westward into the heart of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s capital. Like most of the others (except Albarn), Orlando Higginbottom, who records under the alias Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, was seeing Africa for the first time, whipping by behind glass. “It was beautiful, amazing and terrifying,” the 25-year-old says.

The Westerners arrived at a one-room structure that, as per local custom, was painted with the names of bands that regularly played there. It wasn’t technically a bar, but there was a guy who’d sell you a drink. The place next door was pocked with bullet holes. Though it was before noon, a group was already playing hard inside. It brought the visitors near to tears. Wisely, someone remembered to record it.

A sample of that performance is the foundation of “Hallo,” the opening track of DRC Music’s Kinshasa One Two, an album curated by Albarn and Oxfam that was created on location in five busy days. The visitors set up in the Halle de la Gombe, a French cultural center in the boulevarded diplomatic district along the bank of the Congo River. A couple of French documentary filmmakers, who had been settled in the region and hunting unheard musicians, wrangled Congolese players and singers for the DRC crew.

“We started by setting up a guideline. We’d only use sounds we recorded out there. No samples we brought. No drum machines,” Higginbottom tells us over the phone, back home in London. The nine producers split off on their own and recorded whatever act struck their interest in the Halle’s studio or its large covered courtyard. On the first day, a percussion troupe, Bokatola System, came in; they would become the rhythmic foundation of most of the tracks. “These five guys played little steel rods they’d stolen from knocked-over buildings,” Higginbottom says. “We walked in with all our fucking laptops and expensive equipment and they’re like, here’s my stick and tin can.” One fellow played a plastic grocery bag, another used washer and dryer tubes. A Pygmy singer, heard on “We Come from the Forest,” had a peculiar occupation. “He’d sit on your house with a bow and arrow and protect it. Amazing voice as well,” Higginbottom recalls.

The DRC group’s own security guard made the cut. A man called Love watched over the foreigners with his friend the Gun, who did not carry a gun. He kept pressing Higginbottom, “Yo, yo, I wanna rap. I sing. I sing.” On the last day, Higginbottom held up a small personal recorder to Love. The stunning off-the-cuff performance is the only a cappella performance on the album. Higginbottom, the son of an Oxford professor of classical music and former choirboy, could not bring himself to alter the track. Elsewhere, the Congolese performances were chopped and spliced into sweaty workouts. “There are some field recordings you just want to leave as is. But that wasn’t the point of the trip. That’s the job of a different bunch,” Higginbottom explains. “It sounds hectic and confused and chaotic, and that’s what it is, that’s what it was.”

Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs hit Beauty Bar Wednesday 2. Kinshasa One Two is released on November 8.

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