“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.”

There are no alchemists in the music business. No one has the ability to forge a composition from iron, wave a magic wand over it, and to turn it into gold.

There are composers who seem magical, though; who understand where popular music intersects with their own vision of the musical zeitgeist they hope to create. Every meticulously crafted piece they compose and arrange is destined for success.

For every Max Martin, however, there are many Max Kermans. Kerman, principal songwriter for Arkells, would love to know what elements of songwriting have led the band to their current level of success. Yet for him, as for most songwriters, it’s impossible to isolate the elements that connect with listeners. They’re simply there.

“We were writing for nobody, and that was the thing that connected with people.” – Max Kerman of Arkells

“I know the band has something special, but I think most bands probably think that,” Kerman says. “Our initial success, getting a shot at radio – that always felt a little bit like the luck of the draw.”

Perhaps, but like most successful bands, Arkells have made their own luck. The band members came to Hamilton as students and aspiring musicians, but they left as… well, they never left. They graduated from McMaster University, changed their band name to match the West-end street on which they lived, and came to identify with the city. Shows at smallish clubs like The Casbah became more and more of an event each time, as the city came to identify with Arkells. Their breakthrough single, “The Boss Is Coming,” was inspired by the Constantines, dates back to those Casbah days, and was notably different than most mainstream rock radio hits.

“The bands that we were listening to when we were writing Jackson Square were indie bands,” Kerman recalls. “Constantines, Joel Plaskett, Weakerthans, Cuff the Duke – those bands have all had amazing careers, they’ve always been beloved on the indie scene, but haven’t really been on [mainstream] radio. Maybe the difference between us and those bands is that our pop sensibilities come to the front in a more obvious way.”

In the second half of 2014, Arkells’ third album, High Noon, debuted in the number three position on the Soundscan charts. The album, produced by Tony Hoffer (Phoenix, M83), with some songs recorded by Eric Ratz (Metric), is poppy and well-produced enough to cross over into the mainstream without alienating their early, indie-minded fans.

“We’ve always been lucky in that we just had these songs that came very naturally,” says Kerman. “We were writing for nobody, and that was the thing that connected with people. So [now we] know that if we just do something that feels honest, with the band’s musical sensibilities in there, then hopefully it should be good.”

The internal mechanics of the band’s songwriting process work smoothly, in part because everyone in the group has their own area of concern. “Everybody’s opinionated about a particular thing,” Kerman says, “but often, it’s something about which the others don’t care that much. We complement each other. We all know that the song is the most important thing, so whatever’s good for the song is what needs to be done. So if that means you’ve been playing something you find really boring for a whole verse, you’ve kind of just got to do it.”

Since the release of High Noon, Arkells have successfully navigated around a few bumps in their road. The departure of founding member Dan Griffin, for example, could have thrown them off the rails, but his replacement, keyboardist Anthony Carone, filled that gap suitably, while bringing new dimensions to the band’s dynamic. This past fall, The Arkells drew the largest crowds to date at Hamilton’s Supercrawl festival in September, and played an unprecedented three nights straight at Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall in November.  Still, success is relative, and that fact keeps Arkells on their toes and on the road.

“It still feels like it’s so much a work in progress,” Kerman says. “We get our fair share of attention in Hamilton and Canada, but we spend a lot of time outside Canada and we’re really working hard at growing the audience. A lot of shows remind us of the days playing at the Casbah… and I love those shows.”

Publisher: Arkells Music Inc
Discography: Deadlines EP (2007), Jackson Square (2008), Michigan Left (2011), High Noon (2014)
SOCAN members since 2007 (Dan Griffin), 2008 (Max Kerman, Tim Oxford, Nick Dika), 2009 (Mike DeAngelis), 2010 (Anthony Carone)
Visit www.arkells.ca

Turning the Page
“It was the day we looked around and we realized none of us had jobs anymore,” says Kerman. “We were all sort of working part-time jobs as we were touring, and then one day – I think it was in the van – I looked around and said, ‘Wait a second, I don’t have a part-time job, and none of these guys do either.’ When we come home from a tour we can relax or work on more music. It was pretty amazing to realize the band is our job and it keeps the lights on.”

Bobby Bazini, his girlfriend, his guitar and their dog were ready for their great road trip across the U. S. of A. They were headed from his native Montreal to L.A. to record Bobby’s sophomore album, Where I Belong, but he wanted to drive there so he could fill his head up with wide-open spaces, beauty and truth, stuff that would inform his work in the studio. Whether or not his Kia would make it 2,800 miles remained to be seen, but it didn’t really matter: he was well aware that the next time he travelled to L.A., it would be on a plane.

“It would’ve been a lot more romantic to take this trip in a sporty convertible, but it would also have cost a lot more in gas,” says Bazini, laughing. Since then, he’s been back in the United States to present showcases, give interviews and play opening slots for singer Lily Kershaw. “Breaking the U.S. market takes time. You have to start from scratch, and stop at nothing to make sure people come in contact with your music. Opening for other artists is hard. A lot of the concertgoers haven’t made it to the venue yet, and the ones who are there are talking among themselves because they’re not there to see you… You need to be in top shape and give everything you’ve got to capture people’s attention. After the shows, I go into the crowd of spectators to give out free downloads of my songs.”

“In the end, it’s my name and my face we see on posters. I want the decisions to be in line with who I am.”

The artist makes no bones about it: “The whole seduction game requires great discipline. I don’t have time to play rock star. When I’m on tour, I drink a lot more lemon water with a touch of honey than I do alcohol. I try to go to bed early whenever I can. I don’t want to be onstage and fear that my voice won’t make it ‘til the end of the show.”

Barely 25, Bazini does come across as a high performance race car surrounded by a team of engineers. Chief among them are Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Madeleine Peyroux, Melody Gardot), who produced Where I Belong and signed him to his Strange Cargo imprint before convincing Capitol to launch the album in the U.S. ; his international agent, Rich Isaacson, who’s also behind Mika’s career; Universal Canada; and, last but not least, his close entourage and local management team: Geneviève Gélineau and media personality Mike Gauthier.

Barely three years ago, following the immense success of his debut album, Better In Time, Bazini had to completely rebuild his career and team following a stormy breakup with his previous manager. (See Turning the Page, below.) “When I started my career,” he says, “I had no idea how the business worked, but now, I get involved in all the decisions about my career and marketing strategies. I get involved a lot more and I chose my team according to this philosophy: I want to know where I’m going, and I have a veto on all decisions concerning my likeness and my music,” explains the songwriter who, admittedly, finds this approach a bit difficult at times. “Sometimes, it means I get information that artists don’t always need to know, such as the offers and counter-offers during a contract negotiation, but in the end, it’s my name and my face we see on posters. I want the decisions to be in line with who I am.”

According to Bazini, a good example of this is the fact that not a single producer (besides Larry Klein) was allowed in the studio during the recording of Where I Belong. “Larry sent them the record once it was completed, and that’s I,” says Bazini. “It was like night and day compared to my first album, where management was constantly looking over my shoulder to make sure I was writing hits. This time around, I did what I pleased, such as leaving folk behind and incorporating more soul.”

This new musical direction started to germinate even as Bazini was still touring for Better in Time –  thanks to Larry Klein, who gave him the leeway to do so. “By writing my new songs on an acoustic guitar, I knew they’d take on another dimension once the soul arrangements did their thing. I’ve always loved soul music, and thanks to Larry’s rolodex, I had the incredible chance to play with soul legends, such as Booker T. Jones, who played organ for Otis Redding, percussionist Jack Ashford, who played on many Marvin Gaye records, and, above all, my favourite drummer, Jay Bellerose (Diana Krall, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Bob Dylan, Elton John). I was like a kid in a candy store.”

Quite obviously, his producers had nothing to worry about: the platinum-certified Where I Belong was the biggest selling record in Canada made by a Canadian in 2014 and is nominated at the JUNO Awards in the Album of the Year and Fan Choice Award categories. Even though he answers our questions with the voice of a kid, his album displays a newfound maturity, and his singing voice is as powerful and emotionally-charged as ever.

Turning the page
In 2012, Cesar Boestein, Bobby Bazini’s manager, filed a lawsuit against his protégé, claiming breach of contract and asking for $108 000 in damages. “I won, since he didn’t even show up in court, but after auditing his financial records, turned out it was he who owed me money. He went bankrupt and I lost a lot of money, but it’s all behind me now. I surrounded myself with a new management team, on the same wavelength as me. Our relationships are simple and very human; no one’s playing a game. During my concerts, it’s my manager Mike Gauthier who tunes my guitars backstage and hands them to me. I get a definite impression that we’re all working towards a common goal.”