Born and raised in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pierre Kwenders moved to Montreal as a teenager with his mother, and his music is the perfect blend of both worlds. Combining the eclecticism and flair of Montreal with the popular rumba from his home country, Pierre Kwenders crafts songs that can instantly change your mood for the better and make dancing contagious.
This amalgamation of styles is best displayed on last year’s MAKANDA at The End of Space, the Beginning of Time, produced by Tendai Maraire of Shabazz Palaces. On his new album, Kwenders blends Congolese rumba with electronic music, funk, R&B, and hip-hop, all while singing and rapping in four languages (Lingala, French, English, Shona).
Kwenders last played Ottawa as part of the 2017 Ottawa Jazz Festival, and after a warm welcoming reception, he is looking forward to returning on January 20th. In anticipation of his upcoming show at the National Arts Centre, we reached Pierre Kwenders at home in Montreal.
Apt613: Your new album combines everything from Congolese rumba to hip-hop to funk to electronic music. I’m curious, how do you describe your music to first-time listeners?
Pierre Kwenders: It’s hard to say because my music is not about being placed in a box; it’s a music that can speak to anybody that listens to it. It can make you feel great, comfort you in sadness, make you smile, get you to dance, and just enjoy life. When you’re a baby and your parents sing you a song to calm you down, you don’t understand what category that song is in, but it helps you relax and I believe what I create can have that kind of effect.
Your music has a lot of roots in your Congolese heritage. I was wondering what do you think it is about the rhythms and sounds from the DRC that fans across the world appreciate without needing much exposure to the style?
To me music has always been an art that has no boundaries. Wherever we come from or wherever we live, when it comes to music we all basically use the same notes, but the way we express it is a little different, and the message that comes out of it is pretty much the same wherever you are.
For me, doing what I do, I’m basically just trying to build a bridge between my African culture and the North American one. I think my concerts are able to make people more open-minded and curious enough to go and find out more about the kind of music that is big where I come from.
Who are some Congolese and African musicians who inspired the new record that your fans in North America should check out?
To start, there’s Papa Wemba, who was a Congolese genius. When he was alive he was known as the King of Congolese rumba and he worked with a ton of artists around the world, including Peter Gabriel. Also there’s Koffi Olomide, who’s still alive and making music. Both of those guys are real Congolese rumba legends who definitely inspired me growing up in the 80s and the 90s.
I was also influenced from listening to a lot of music from West Africa, especially from Côte d’Ivoire, like Douk Saga. He was another genius, and he invented Coupé-Décalé, which is a branch of rumba that was developed in Côte d’Ivoire. He truly inspired me because he had this idea that music exists to make people feel good and dance, which is what I’m trying to do.
Fela Kuti is of course also an inspiration for all of Africa, but Papa Wemba, Olomide, and Douk Saga have had the largest influence on my music.
Is there any music that inspired you when you moved to Montreal as a teenager? You must have been exposed to a lot of new sounds that weren’t popular in the Congo.
Definitely electronic music. I wasn’t aware of it back when I was in the Congo, I was only listening to Congolese rumba or hip-hop. When I moved here I made some friends who got me into the genre and I believe that is my biggest North American inspiration. Mixing the electronic influences with the sounds that I’ve known all my life creates the kind of music that I do.
The new album was produced by Tendai Maraire of Shabazz Palaces. How did you meet him, and what was it like working with him as a producer?
In early 2015 my manager and I were talking about my next album and we were both big fans of Shabazz Palaces, and we thought it would be good to do a collaboration with them on a couple songs. We contacted Tendai and he said he liked my stuff and wanted to work with us. I went to Seattle to meet him, and he already had some beats and ideas that he’d been working on for a collaboration, and I started thinking that maybe we’d do more than a couple of songs together.
The next day we were in the studio recording, and at one point we just looked at each other and we both knew that this collaboration should be a full album. With our busy schedules the album took two years to make, but I’m very happy with the result. Tendai invited a lot of musicians to play on it and he’s responsible for the real organic sound of the record.
Pierre Kwenders plays the National Arts Centre’s Fourth Stage on Saturday, January 20 at 8:30pm. Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased online, by phone at 1-888-991-2787, or in-person at the NAC Box Office. $15 Live Rush tickets are available to anyone between the ages of 13 and 29.