A Conversation with Nkisi

Congolese-born, Belgian-raised and now London-based musician Nkisi has built up a reputation based on uncompromising, experimental music. Together with Chino Amobi and Angel-Ho, she founded the collective NON Worldwide in 2015, which provides an artistic home for part of the diaspora on the African continent. The following interview was originally conducted in 2018 for the magazine zweikommasieben ahead of the release of Nkisi's debut album 7 Directions. We are republishing it here ahead of Nkisi's performance at the next Graveyard Shift on December 21. It's about historical African concepts of time, community and the strange feeling of returning home after 30 years abroad.

published on 30. November 2023

It’s the first of September, a bright afternoon, and the seasons are in a warm state of flux on the ride from Hackney down to Forest Hill, a leafy suburban oasis in deep south London. Conor McTernan is on his way to meet Melika Ngombe Kolongo, a Congolese-born, Belgian-raised and now London-based musician who is making a name for herself through releasing relentless experimental dance music under the name Nkisi.

Kolongo has chosen the destination for the afternoon: the Horniman Museum, a curio gallery specializing in anthropology, natural history and musical instruments. The idea was to view a real Nkisi statue, which allegedly lives in the museum’s ornate World Gallery. After scouring the space and its hundreds of artifacts on display, the statue was nowhere to be found. As the Horniman is one of London’s hidden gems, with sprawling gardens, an aquarium and a butterfly house, the disappointment wasn’t too big.

After strolling through the museum, McTernan and Kolongo retreated to a shaded spot on a courtyard terrace for their conversation.

Conor McTernan: You take your artist name from Nkisi statues; could you give me an introduction to them?

Melika Ngombe Kolongo: I’ve always been intrigued by Nkisi. They’re specific sculptures which were used for rituals in the Kingdom of Kongo, [1] which was a pre-colonial civilization. They’re ritual objects. What’s really beautiful about them is that there is this idea that the Nkisi are able to look into our world and allow us to look into the underworld. That’s why the figures often have mirrored eyes and bellies which can be activated. I have one myself which I bought at a market in Kinshasa.

CMT: Traditionally, where would you have found these statues in the Kongo?

MNK: The statues would be with the people who had the skills to use them—so-called Ngangas—they were a kind of shaman. I guess all these Nkisi are in museums for a reason; they were taken away from somewhere when the culture was de-rooted—it doesn’t exist anymore. The one I was hoping for us to see here at the Horniman Museum was shaped like a two-headed dog.

CMT: It is said that they are inhabited by spiritual entities and sometimes used for communicating with the dead.

MNK: Yes. In my dissertation, I’ve written about the concepts of time and conceptualizing Congolese culture. There’s a book about African religion and philosophies that speaks about two concepts of time: Sasa (the present) and Zemani (the past). In this African concept, the future is not really something that is far ahead, but rather part of the present. The present is also the nearby past. It’s non-linear. It’s described as “the graveyard of time.” I love that. You go backwards before you go forwards. You can’t disconnect the past from the present. I think it’s beautiful that you have a bit more agency on what you can do in the present to see and change the future, because the future is not too far away.

CMT: Would you say you are a spiritual person?

MNK: Definitely. The deeper I get, the more spiritual I become. My process has become quite spiritual. I’m asking questions and getting answers, and I don’t know where they come from.

CMT: Can you give an example?

MNK: My family were political refugees and moved to Leuven, Belgium, when I was about eight months old. When I turned 30 I went back with my mother to visit for the first time. I stepped out of the plane, smelled the air and the words “I’m home!” just came out of my mouth. I did a couple of DJs sets while I was there in Kinshasa.

CMT: What about 7 Directions?

MNK: I’ve always been interested in other systems of thought and thinking in my work. 7 Directions is inspired by a Congolese book: African Cosmology of the Bantu-Kongo written by Kimbwandende Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau. And within the book there is an idea called the “seven-direction walk”: you can walk in the horizontal plane and in the vertical plane. The horizontal plane is forwards, backwards, left and right; then the vertical is upwards, downwards and inwards. Walking inwards is the way you can regenerate. The way you deal with your spirituality, your self-knowing and your self-healing. Congolese views are very communal. They have this really beautiful concept of what it is to be an individual in a community. If you as an individual don’t feel good, then it’s not good for the community, too. On the seven tracks of the album, I’m trying to imagine those seven walks rhythmically—it has been really interesting to put ancient and future concepts together on this record. Also, I’m really obsessed with rhythm—I’ve been talking with my friends exclusively about rhythm and babies lately. [Laughs]

CMT: Tell me about your musical upbringing.

MNK: There was always a lot of Congolese music played at home. I have a weird connection with the Congolese guitar riff, it always makes me happy. Congolese people really love Congolese rumba—when I was in Kinshasa it was everywhere.

CMT: When did you start making music?

MNK: Things happen bizarrely in my life. My computer broke down a couple of years ago, so I lost all my stuff. Then I discovered Audiotool—an online application for making music. I started trying out drum machines and playing around with stuff when I moved to London in 2013. My sonic identity at that time felt good, and that’s when I got into writing the material that got released on Doomcore Records. [16 released in 2014 and 21 released in 2015.] One thing lead to another.

CMT: Would you say you’re a fast producer?

MNK: It’s a bit of both. I remember I made the track “Afro Primitiv” [out on the compilation NON Worldwide Compilation Trilogy Volume 2, released in 2018] so quickly. I was really angry that day, like “raaaa,” and then suddenly it was done. Music is really interesting, you can just be jamming, jamming jamming. I remember having loads of songs and tracks in the air—but it’s all about being able to catch them.

CMT: You worked as photographer before. What kind of photographic work were you most into?

MNK: I started off really into documentary photography and photojournalism. I realized how powerful the image was. It has such a brainwash dimension. I then started becoming quite critical of photography and that’s when I transformed and became more into conceptual work and putting myself into my images. I’ve always been interested in the dynamics between truth and fiction.

CMT: Recently you have also been working as a curator—at the Wysing Arts Centre’s Opaque Poetics festival in 2017. How did you find the curatorial process?

MNK: I was really happy with it. I basically provided the festival with a list of artists and people who I’m into, so I was there in the front row the whole time. It made me realize that curation is something I would love to do more. The weather and the setting were wonderful: a cottage in the middle of nowhere outside of London—it was like a little retreat.

CMT: Let’s talk about NON Worldwide. How did you connect with Angel-Ho and Chino Amobi?

MNK: I connected with Chino first. We both played at a party called Endless, alongside Elysia Crampton, in December 2014. He reached out afterwards. I connected with Angel separately, via Facebook first, then we met at Unsound. We all finally met together at a gig at Paradiso in Amsterdam.

CMT: How do you guys go about communicating, sharing ideas, making decisions?

MNK: The beginning of NON was a lot of talking. Now that everyone’s busy we don’t talk as much but we talked so much in the beginning that we’re probably good for another five years! What’s really important for us is the respect in everyone’s ideas.

CMT: NON is about disrupting the flow of power. What do you think of the current landscape of electronic music?

MNK: For me it’s a difficult question. I know what happens in my space and I’m very excited by that amazing discourse and it’s important for me to think about the context I’m putting next to my music. That said, I’m not really worried about what’s happening in the electronic music scene—I’m much more worried about what’s happening in the world. I was extremely upset a few days ago to hear the story of a little boy of 15 years, who was thrown on the rails in an act of racism at a train station 15 minutes from my hometown. I don’t want to be like “music can change the world”—but we’re here to give people a platform with music.

I’m really happy about the fact that with the last NON Worldwide compilation we managed to get a couple thousand bucks together, and my mother is going to the Congo in a few weeks to bring the money to a school. The families there don’t have the means to provide their children with education, so the little bits that we can do can make a real change. Opportunity gives options—and when you have options, you have agency towards freedom.

[1] Circa 1390 to 1914; not to be confused with today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo.