Musical Endeavors Outside The Conservatory: Don Kongo

This column’s recent theme of solo projects continues this week by covering Don Kongo, known to most as junior Kyle Labak. Since about eighth grade, Labak has been creating offbeat, whimsical and catchy music with a strong emphasis on narrative prose. While incredibly unique, he makes music that has a familiar and relatable feel, mostly made possible by its poppy production and stories that pull the listener in.

With such an early start and a surprisingly consistent musical and lyrical voice, Labak’a beginning as Don Kongo was interesting. Two experiences were integral in pushing him to play—his brother getting a digital eight-track recorder and an in-depth discussion regarding the sound and feel of music. After both these events happened during middle school, Labak immediately started recording the music he had been hearing in his head and the fictional stories he had written.

While his overall style and sound have not changed much since then, his lyrics have shifted from purely fictional to more realistic and life-based. For the most part, Labak has let the music grow naturally with him, meaning no sudden changes and a gradual, logical progression.

For him, Don Kongo’s music started as a fictional escape, a way to cope with the stress and duller days of middle school and early high school. “It was my way of bringing a little more light into my life,” Labak explained. “I had the delusion that it would bring light into other people’s lives.” While his music is less of an escape now, he still uses it to exude a “quirky positivity,” as he puts it, for himself and those who listen.

The upbeat nature tof every song is contagious, and it is inevitable the listener will find themselves smiling occasionally, bobbing their head and feeling happy. Labak does a fantastic job of changing the feel, genre, style or other aspects constantly throughout his releases while still tying together each song with a thread of “quirky positivity” and bizarre storytelling.

Take, for example, the transition from “Eros Pulses” to “Dallas” on his most recent album, “The Summer of the Wa.” While the polka-esque “Eros Pulses” has a strange but alluring feel to it, much like songs from Tom Waits’ 80’s trilogy, the following tune is completely different, packed with synths over a fast shuffle. However, the stark contrast makes sense and just pulled me in more.

Also worth noting about Don Kongo is the incredible amount of work put into each album. In all of his releases, Labak composes and records each track—drums, bass, guitars, synths and overdubbed vocals. To not only know how to play each instrument but also to have the knowledge to integrate it into each song is remarkable.

The unfortunate side of this, though, is that Labak will not be able to perform live without a band. However, he has started reaching out to other musicians, planning to put on shows and record with instruments he does not play. He would like to focus on live shows next term in an effort to experience that unfamiliar aspect of musical creation.

Luckily for him, there are plenty of musicians interested in collaborating and taking in his music as their own. As a Chinese and Spanish major with an extreme passion for music, a main reason Labak chose to attend Lawrence University was to immerse himself in an environment of music. With this environment he sometimes feels pressured by the musicians around him but ultimately happy to be able to share his work and have so many different musicians to join forces with.

Every time I see a student carving out so much time to focus on their passion of music, especially when they are not in the Conservatory, I feel inspired and proud. These peers are continuing to express themselves via an art form that can often be hard to channel when not studying it academically. I look forward to seeing Labak progress as a musician and songwriter and have no doubt he will continue to do so.

Don Kongo is currently working on his third album and setting up shows throughout Spring Term, so stay tuned. You can listen to his two most recent albums and one EP here.