As the year comes to a close, Lionel Kizaba will go on his holiday break with a sense of accomplishment. “This year has really been the best year of my life,” he enthuses, pointing out the 30-odd concerts he’s performed, in Québec and elsewhere in the world, over the past 12 months, as well as the Nov. 18, 2022, release of Kizavibe, his new electronic Afropop album — co-written and co-produced with his partner in crime, Gone Deville. 

For the singer-songwriter and drummer from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), 2022 ended as it had more or less begun: with an invitation to the Mundial Montréal/M for Montréal Festival. He explained where the starting line of this creative cycle was: “The Mundial concert in 2021 set the table for the year to come, which I ended with a big concert at the Society for Arts and Technology [SAT] for the album launch,” as an after-party for M for Montréal. 

 “The festival director, Sébastien Nasra, had seen my concert at Mundial, and he said to me, ‘I thought you played African music, but it’s pop!’,” hence the invitation to the following year’s edition of M for Montréal. The director’s observation illustrates just how far pop music from the African continent has come in recent years, by shedding the divisive and outdated “world music” label, and finally being recognized for what it is: damn good, danceable, modern pop that deserves its spot on the world’s biggest stages, as Nigeria’s Burna Boy did last summer at Osheaga, or as fellow Nigerian Wizkid will do on March 18, 2023, at Bell Center. 

Kizaba wades in those very waters, cooking up a stew of pop, rap, and danceable electronic music, spiced with rhythms of his native Congo, chiefly soukous and rumba. “I put a lot of work into this,” says Kizaba. “I wanted to take the Congolese sound to another level by combining it with other musical styles. I wanted to offer diversified musical influences, because I don’t want only Congolese people to attend my shows, I want everyone to attend, all of Québec, the whole world. What I’m proposing is the whole universe!” 

That universe begins in Montréal — literally: it’s the title of the Kizavibe’s sweet opening song, a love letter to his city, he says, “to the vibe here, to the artists I’ve met here, like brother Pierre Kwenders,” a Congolese at heart, also featured on the dancehall duet “Bella”. “Of all the cities I’ve visited, I say Montréal is the best — it has the best vibe, there’s so much music to discover, it has an incredible togetherness. I needed to pay tribute to all that.”  

Kizaba created his 2017 debut album entirely on his own. “For this one, I really wanted to be able to rely on a second pair of ears.” he says. A friend put him in touch with composer and DJ Gone Deville (Pierre Belliveau), who was looking for a percussionist to accompany him at an event he was organizing. They clicked right away. “Pierre told me, ‘Lionel, I’m not letting go of you, I’ll follow you anywhere you go!’ He let me hear some beats he was working on, I chose a few more from his bank and that was the basis of the album,” recorded in Montréal and partly in DRC. 

 Gone Deville is also the technical director for Kizaba’s concerts, and they spent 2022 playing in many different time zones: “After my concert at Mundial Montréal, I was invited to play in a lot of big concerts — in the United States as an opening act for Lionel Richie, we toured Louisiana, Great Britain, Italy, British Columbia. . .” The coming year will also be bookings-rich with the tour resuming on January 12, 2023, including a presence at this year’s edition of the prestigious WOMAD festival in April in Chile. 

“Life comes at you fast” is an adage that has certainly proven true for Toronto singer-songwriter Dylan Sinclair. In the last six years, he’s gone from fledgling high school slam poet to one of Canada’s most promising R&B stars, racking up millions of streams, glowing critical acclaim, and a JUNO nomination for his 2020 effort, Proverb. The accolades were welcome — but also set an impossibly high standard, as the songster set out to write his follow-up.

“I felt a bit of pressure,” says Sinclair of his fast success. “But I think people tend to fall under pressure when they focus on it too much. I’m focused on growing as a person, and as an artist, and on being as consistent as I can be without killing myself over it. I’m not gonna drown in the pressure.”

That determined attitude underpinned Sinclair’s approach to the writing on No Longer in the Suburbs, the amorous, pensive effort that finds the 21-year-old grappling with everything from his newfound fame to burgeoning adulthood, and complicated relationships. Compared to his peers, Sinclair’s sound on Suburbs is markedly nostalgic, bringing to mind such veterans as Jon B and Musiq Soulchild. Sinclair says that’s due to the soundtrack he played during the writing process.

“I was listening to a lot of R&B from the kings, Usher and Chris Brown, non-stop,” says the Filipino-Guyanese crooner. “I listened to albums like Confessions and women’s groups like 702 and SWV. All of the feel-good, Black romance music.” The influences shine through heavily, especially on tracks like the pleading, affectionate “Open,”, or on “Suppress” – where a clear-eyed Sinclair reflects on his romantic relationship with the self-awareness of a young Donell Jones.

Beyond the very obvious old-school thread in Suburbs are other ingredients that distinguish Sinclair from his peers, among them a sincere and consistent tenderness that he credits to his church beginnings. Regardless of the lyrical subject matter, there’s something uniquely mellow and soft-hearted about Sinclair’s approach to this album, a holdover from the praise and worship sessions he fondly remembers form childhood.

“I want to build a world that brings people peace. The goal is to make beautiful music, and the church is filled with beautiful music and singing,” says Sinclair. “I never really gravitated toward [more aggressive] music because I came from a space where there were singalongs, and harmonizing, and real instruments. The [Gospel] influence just creeps into my music somehow, I don’t consciously do it. I do whatever feels good, instinctually. I automatically do my three-part harmonies because that’s what we did at our worship sessions at home. And the melodies I choose are about singing together. It’s so much more beautiful that way.”

“I want to build a world that brings people peace. The goal is to make beautiful music.”

A solid team of collaborators was also a requirement for Sinclair’s process on Suburbs, and his teammates are more than just industry colleagues — they’re his actual friends. “Jordon Manswell, he’s my right-hand guy,” Sinclair says, referring to the Grammy-nominated producer whose credits include Proverb, Daniel Caesar, and Mariah Carey. Musician and producer Alex Ernewein (Caesar, Charlotte Day Wilson) also gets a shout-out, as does Zachary Simmonds, a producer and close friend who happens to be Caesar’s younger brother.

The friendship — and musical partnership — between Sinclair and Simmonds dates back to before either person was born (four days apart at that). Their fathers, Kevin Sinclair and Norwill Simmonds, released a Gospel album back in the early aughts, and the two families have continued to bond in the decades that followed. Now, their children are picking up where the two patriarchs left off.

“Zach and I are the same age. He’s the producer, I’m the songwriter. This has been our story; our come-up together,” says Sinclair. That journey includes making music, of course, but also ample hangouts, and frequent trips out of town for a change of scenery. While they worked on Suburbs, the crew went everywhere from Fort Erie to Montréal, with the aim of getting out and seeing the world. The goal was to live life, then bring those experiences back to the studio to recount them in song. The trips also gave Sinclair a break from the pressures of mounting fame.

“It really is a group effort, and it’s more fun that way. I’ve locked myself in my room to try to work, and it’s not fun. [I need] that work-life balance,” says Sinclair. “I think a lot of people kinda hibernate in the studio and search for anything for inspiration. The music loses its substance. My focus is on making sure we’re living, and doing things, so that the music feels full, and like it’s coming from a real place.”

That same authenticity was important when choosing features for the album. On the deluxe version of Suburbs, hot up-and-comers like Destin Conrad, Jvck James, and Joyce Wrice make appearances; all artists of whom Sinclair was a proper fan, before he could even fathom the collaborations. He says that such full-circle moments – like the transition from listening to Wrice in high school to singing alongside her on the slow jam “Never” – are what keep him inspired.

“My inspiration [fades] quickly,” says Sinclair. “When it comes back, it’s usually from a full-circle moment ­­­– like watching the JUNOs and the next thing you know I get a nod. Same thing with Joyce and working with her. That was a very big moment for me! That makes me want to go back in the studio and work so much more.”

It was at the age of nine, in 1989, that Samuel Laflamme encountered music through cinema. Too young then to go see Batman in the theatres, he quickly grabbed a VHS copy at the video rental place a few weeks later, but alas, only the original English version was available. His parents would narrate parts of the plot so he could follow the superhero’s adventures, but it was the music that grabbed his attention from beginning to end. 

“It’s only much later that I realized the impact it had on my way of perceiving things,” says screen composer Laflamme. “It’s crazy how music can create a whole universe.” Much more interested in his Lego bricks then the piano lessons in which his parents enrolled him, he only developed his interest for screen composing much later. “I would listen to everything that was coming out: John Williams, Alan Silvestri, the music for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park. . . But I was headed to cégep in science,” he recalls.  

It’s at cégep de Drummondville that he drifted towards music, wanting to create massive orchestrations. Once he enrolled at Université de Montréal and studied under Michel Longtin, he was finally “allowed to answer that calling. It was the beginning of electronic music, and I still wanted to do screen composing. I’d opened a small studio on Saint-Laurent Boulevard and it was there that I met the right people at the right time. There was a lot of post-production being done there, and it was the heyday of specialized cable channels. People needed all kinds of sounds. They took a chance on me.” 

It is thanks to his undeniable talent and marked interest in film music that the Institut national de l’image et du son (INIS) extended an offer to teach a class: “I was teaching people who’d done years in the advertising world and were looking to develop their artistic side,” he explains. “In other words, I met a whole bunch of people with a lot of experience and who extended more opportunities later on.” Truly, he found his clan at INIS. His colleagues at Passez-Go are nothing short of a second family for him.

Pour toujours plus un jour, Le chalet, L’académie, Chouchou. It’s always the same gang. We started together with a tiny, budgetless project over a decade ago, and today we work so well together that we understand each other without having to say a word,” he says. The music he composes for his colleagues/friends are tied to the project right from the pre-production stage. “It allows us to have a common vision, a mutual understanding and a bond,” he adds. “Finding artistic visions that are able to merge so effortlessly is extremely precious.” 

Even though his talent shone internationally in 2013, thanks to the music he created for the horror video game Outlast, with these friends he perpetually feels like he’s working without working. Videogames are enjoyable for him, but for different reasons. What he feels really passionate about when composing for television productions is the fact that they’re an integral part of the artistic output taken as a whole. “The commissions aren’t specific, and it’s not like I’m just delivering a project. I’m asked what my vision of the soundscape is, and that input is considered seriously,” he says. His first drama production, last fall’s Québec hit Chouchou, aired on Noovo, allowed him to push the boundaries of this creative approach even further. 

“The whole team was having a Zoom meeting,” he recalls. “We were looking at mood boards and the director of photography said he wanted to use lenses from the ’70s to achieve a more organic perspective, a certain softness to the images. That was the spark for the whole team, including me for the music, the costumes, the set decoration, etc.”

Naturally, the direction team came to his studio to listen to Samuel’s jams, which raised questions and evolved alongside the ideas that were pitched. “I was improvising on the piano and without my knowledge, they sent those demos to the editor,” he remembers, giggling. “The confidence level in that team is right up there.”

Asked to come to the set to feel the energy of the series, he had a chat with the main actress, Evelyne Brochu. “Her character is in a relationship with one of her students who’s a minor, and I asked her if she felt her character was unhappy at home, thus explaining why she does such a thing. She said no, and that’s why it was even more shocking when we realize that before she falls for this momentary but forbidden moment of passion, her life is perfect. That’s how I understood that, musically, I couldn’t compose music that had undertones of anger or discontent when she rides her bike, for example. The emotional undercurrent is much softer. That proximity with the team on set completely changed my outlook.” 

Last fall, Encore Television-Distribution and Passez-Go sold the broadcast rights to the original version of Pour toujours plus un jour to TF1 and TV5 Monde, thus making the series available to several thousand new viewers.

“The end of that series, which delves into death, but mostly serenity about death, truly was the creative spark for Chouchou,” Samuel explains. “In both cases, I think, the music envelops the scenes like an empathetic glance. I spent an enormous amount of time on these pieces, not because they have any kind of virtuosity to them. What takes time is understanding, sleeping on it, digesting the story until you get that ‘Eureka!’ moment.” 

Going forward, all Laflamme hopes for is to work with people who want to work with him. “I’m working on a horror movie with fans of Outlast who insisted I compose their music,” he says. “No matter what the project is that I’m offered, I evaluate the possibilities for pleasure.” 

The composer, a master at marrying each visual moment to the most appropriate sound possible, is convinced that “people who say film music shouldn’t be heard are absolutely wrong.”