He’s been living in Montréal for more than half of his existence, but it’s still in Kinshasa that his imagination as a writer is rooted. At the frontier between Congolese rhumba and French-filtered house music, the singer-songwriter Pierre Kwenders has become a master at blurring all kinds of boundaries.
“What I’m proudest of is my history,” he sings on “Ego,” a song he created alongside French beat-maker Clément Bazin, where he straightforwardly admits to being in love with himself, albeit with a healthy dose of humour, and even self-deprecation. He’s part of an elite group of writers who look well beyond heartbreak as a theme. He much favours original, and often surprising, content.
Notwithstanding the apparently unwavering confidence the propels his alter ego, the Congo-born artist began his career relatively late in life. José Louis Modabi (his actual name) was already 16 years old when he took the full measure of his vocation. He’d just moved to Québec at the time.
“I’m from a family of music lovers and ambiance creators, especially on my mother’s side,” says Kwenders. “We love playing guitar, we have a joie de vivre and we like to party. When there’s music and drinks, everyone is happy. It was always part of my life, but it’s only when I came to Canada that I discovered I, too, could make music after I discovered my own voice, thanks to choral singing. That’s when I found the ambition to make a living from it, which I’m doing now.”
He’s still a member of the vocal group that trained him – a Catholic choir whose sound falls somewhere between opera and African gospel – and he hooked up with his colleagues for a recording that should be released in 2021. “I recently sang with them on a song that will be on my next album,” says Kwenders. “It’s a different way of working with one’s voice, but I like challenging myself. I obviously don’t have the voice of a Céline Dion, or a Whitney Houston, but I like having fun with whatever voice I have.”
Congolese Above All
In many ways, Kwenders is a cultural ambassador. He’s gained critical acclaim, and he even managed to get nominated to the Polaris short list in 2018, not to mention the fact that he’s introduced Afrobeat to many households in La Belle Province and the rest of Canada. And that’s on top of his work as a DJ in the Moonshine collective, although that role was put on hold due to the ongoing pandemic.
But his role as a singer hasn’t been affected. His desire to make us move and groove is omnipresent in his music nowadays, especially when he teams up with someone like Clément Bazin. “The music on this EP (Classe Tendresse) is very close to the identity of Pierre Kwenders the DJ,” he says. “I think I’d reached that stage where I needed to unify those two universes, which weren’t that far apart to begin with. I’m trying to solidify the bridge between them.”
Kwenders also plans, in the near future, to develop his presence on the Congolese market. “There was a time when Congo was kind of like the United States of Africa,” he says. “Music is a huge part of the culture there, and there are tons of artists. I’m not saying I can’t find my place there, but it’s not as important as artists who are already there. I tread slowly.”
Forever attached to his country of origin, the co-writer of “Classe Tendresse” even gives a nod to Koffi Olomidé on that tender song. “It’s a song from a wonderful album titled Noblesse oblige that I really recommend to anyone who wants to explore Congolese rhumba,” says Kwenders. “It’s a classic… He and Lokua Kanza are artists that truly inspire me. I hope to make them proud, one way or another.”