Pierre Kwenders. Photo by George Fok
What images and ideas and sensorial cues come to mind? How quickly does word-association with “Africa” turn ugly? When the media feeds us stories about disease, war, poverty and famine, it’s easy to view an entire continent through a prism of strife. When African-set Hollywood films focus on white heroes, it’s easy to view a people as either helpless or villainous.
We hear far too little about what’s good in Africa, and from Africa. Local singer-songwriter Pierre Kwenders is using his music to reflect more positive elements of the continent where he was born, and its diaspora. More importantly, his music is also a pleasure to listen and dance to, whether or not he is — as stated in his official bio — a spokesman for modern Africa.
“I wouldn’t put it exactly that way,” he says, agreeing that that’s a lot of pressure for one man (just releasing his debut album) to bear. “I’m more like a representative of modern Africa.
“We need to stop thinking of Africa as a poor continent made up of poor countries. Yes there are poor countries, but there’s still a beauty there that goes beyond poverty.
“I speak about the way of life in Africa and the way of life in Quebec, because I’m between two worlds. But my two worlds have become one in a sense, and I’m expressing that throughout my music.”
Born José Louis Modabi in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kwenders emigrated to Canada with his mother in 2001, when he was 16 years old, initially moving to Cartierville in the north-central part of town, then moving to Laval, where he still lives (though he’s planning a move to the island of Montreal very soon).
When I spoke to Kwenders in late September, he was on the verge of finding out which GAMIQ (Gala Alternatif de la Musique Indépendente du Québec) awards he’d been nominated for—turns out it was EP of the Year for Whiskey & Tea, one of two EPs he’s made in the past year and change (the other was African Dream).
His new album, launching on Oct. 14, is Le Dernier Empereur Bantou, its title a nod to Africa’s Bantu kingdoms of the 14th and 15th centuries — usually reduced to a footnote in African history, Kwenders feels that they represent a period of self-rule that bears revisiting.
Also worth a look in the rear-view, via Kwenders’ music or by digging back to its roots, is the Congolese rhumba, South African disco and ’80s pop that influenced him, and continue to inform his modernized Afro-electro music. Papa Wemba, Johnny Clegg and Michael Jackson are some of his touchstones, but the multilingual singer (French, English, Lingala, Kikongo and Chinoba) is also enamoured of classic French singers like Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour.
“If someone asked me to be born in another generation it would probably be the 1950s and ’60s — that was when music was at its best,” he says. “Music is still good today but there’s a feel of the ’50s and ’60s that’s just amazing, in francophone and anglophone music.”
Kwenders first turned heads on the local music scene with a guest appearance on a track from Radio Radio’s Havre de Grâce, the 2012 album by the Acadian, Montreal-based hip hop act — their members have also joined him as part of the DIFA (Doing It for Art) collective and made guest appearances on his songs.
That affiliation — and being signed to a mostly French language-artist label, Bonsound — partly explains why his audience thus far is mostly francophone. He’s played alongside a real range of artists, recently appearing at POP Montreal’s big pre-festival party starring Ottawa’s native soundsystem A Tribe Called Red His new record features rising local (anglo) hip hop crew the Posterz and Belgian rapper Baloji.
Moreover, Kwenders’ music (and Le Dernier Empereur Bantou in particular) has the melodic, rhythmic and sonic appeal that could easily fly beyond several linguistic, cultural and musical barriers, barriers that he’s confident he can break down.
“That’s it! I’m hoping to have a bigger audience, and then everybody will be able to share this journey with me.” ■
Pierre Kwenders plays the Phi Centre (407 St-Pierre) on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 7 p.m., free