“If my album had been released by a Francophone white person, it’d be called electro music. If it had been released by Beyoncé or Kanye West, it’d be called pop or hip-hop,” says Pierre Kwenders, smiling wryly.
The young Congolese national, who arrived in Québec when he was 16, couldn’t be more right.
Following two critically acclaimed EPs – he was especially embraced on college radio and Radio-Canada, where he was consecrated as one of the musical discoveries of 2014-2015 – he launched his first full length album, Le dernier empereur bantou [The Last Bantu Emperor], a thoroughly unclassifiable album.
“One must not be afraid to shake things up.”
His electro rhythms are not really danceable. His African roots show, but in his lyrics rather than through typical world beat arrangements. And despite an ever-present desire to push boundaries, his songs rally listeners without ever sounding like pop songs.
That’s not to say, however, that the album – composed with beatmakers Nom de Plume (the brains behind the beats of Radio Radio), Samito and Poirier – is devoid of a common thread.
With his brassy voice, his incantation-like delivery and the themes he touches upon in French, English, and the Bantu dialects of Lingala and Tshiluba, Kwenders’ work has an unmistakable and unique identity.
“When I work with a producer, I don’t impose any stylistic constraint on them,” he says. “I like surprises and being carried away by sound. Where we’re in the recording studio, Nom de Plume and Samito play tracks for me and as soon as I fall in love with one, we start working on it together. That way, things are less predictable.”
One thing’s for sure, though: Kwenders knows that what he wants to avoid at all cost is to use the clichés of world music.
“I don’t mean that Québec world artists aren’t good, most of them do excellent work, but many creators have a hard time leaving the realm of their upbringing,” he says. “They reproduce what they’ve heard throughout the years without ever trying to move things forward. One must not be afraid to shake things up.”
Thus, his collaboration with Nom de Plume and Jacobus from Radio Radio on the track “Ani Kuni” seems totally natural. Just as Kwenders did, that Acadian rap group has turned its back on purists and camped itself firmly in a vigorous modernism.
“That’s not what united us in the first place, but it’s still true”, says the artist, who met Radio Radio after attended one of their concerts.
“Predictable” is a word to be avoided when describing both the Montrealer’s music and his journey. Raised by his single mother until she moved to Québec to prepare her family’s immigration, José Louis Modabi – alias Pierre Kwenders – had to wait a full year before he could join her on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Today, he cites his mom as his main source of inspiration.
“She taught me what it means to be hard-working, to be a winner,” he says. “All my life, she’s given me her full support, no matter what the undertaking. But it needs to be said that Bantus have extremely strong family values.”
Spanning a large swath of Africa between Cameroon and the Comoros, and from Sudan to South Africa, the immense Bantu Empire was fragmented during the colonial era of the 19th Century.
Now, 200 years later, the title of his album and the costume he wears on stage are not totally unrelated to a certain urge to unite his people once more.
“I want people to know about this empire that we never hear about, compared to the Ottoman and British empires, for example,” says Kwenders. “Wherever they are in the world, the Bantu people have common traits: they are open to culture, they have great values and an unabashed joie de vivre. I hope to touch people with my songs that are about Bantu history and the current situation in Africa. The song ‘Ali Boma Ye’ is a reference to Muhammad Ali’s 1974 fight in Kinshasa. ‘Kuna Na Goma’ is about women who, still to this day, are raped on cotton plantations. ‘Cadavere’ is a denunciation of war and child soldiers. But through all this, I also strive to changes people’s perception of Africa. My song ‘Popolipo’ explains to Westerners that their knowledge of the African continent cannot be limited to what they hear on the news.”
Just like Pierre Kwenders’ album, the Bantu people cannot be reduced to a few clichés.
Turning the Page
“I’ve had to turn the page often throughout my life, but there was one situation that was particularly difficult. I ended up disappointing not one, but two entire families: mine and that of the girl I was supposed to marry, at the time. The big day was drawing near. Everybody was excited and happy, except me. I broke up with her not long before the wedding. I took me a year to get over it. I submerged myself in my studies because I was totally unable to engage in any kind of relationship.”