For me, Pierre Kwenders is so many of the sounds I know and love, and some of those I didn’t know would fit together. Pierre Kwenders a.k.a. José Louis Modabi, is a Kinshasa-born polyglot who sings in five languages: Lingala, Tshiluba, Kikongo, English and French. The Montreal, Canada-based artist, with his leopard print Mobutu-style chapeau and visually arresting sartorial taste, is the current emperor of the place I reserve for the most creative and fun artists. His is a creativity that is rather fetching, and it’s quite easy to be drawn to that.
To start with there is his journey, an African wanderer, with a star-gazer feel. Very much rooted in what makes Spoek Mathambo, Baloji, Petite Noire, Stromae and others of that ilk of African male artists irresistible. His 2014 album Le Dernier empereur bantou was a shortlisted nominee for the Juno Award for World Music Album of the Year. It’s a limiting space to be placed in, this awful “world music” category, because what does it make the rest of the music not categorised in such a way? Alien music? Especially when it is Pierre Kwenders that has an otherworldly feel at times. His sophomore album Makanda at the End of Space, the Beginning of Time was released earlier this month and it is aural pleasure.
Although there are definite influences from three or four decades prior, the 70s and 80s grooves still speak to an undefined future in an undefined place in contemporary culture. Afrofuturist music that combines elements of various cultures, including Congo, Canada, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and US stylings – it’s basically the Afropolitan dreamspace in motion. What Kwenders does is to mix literary and social references that you might not initially recognise, but once you delve deeper it all makes sense. The moment can be African if you want, but what is it saying about our constructs — social and geo-political? Pierre Kwenders is also a Canadian artist living in and being influenced by, and also influencing Québec.
Kwenders’ collaboration with Tendai Maraire of experimental hip-hop outfit Shabazz Palaces is the stroke of genius this album reflects, because both understand what it is to take the different and to elevate that into art that speaks forward. The production across the album is beautiful and coherent. The collaborations are seamless rather than coming across forced or unnecessary. There are traditional African sounds such as mbira, there is electro-pop, there is jazz and there is a soukous vibe throughout with those guitars reminding you that Congo is ever-present. It’s like you’re listening to all your older Congolese favourites at times. Memories of Franco, Papa Wemba and Tabu Ley Rochereau interspersed with more youthful energies. Welele is the song that most fits these memories and energies, but then so is the Shona-titled Tsvarakadenga. Both, pieces of heaven.
The video for Sexus Plexus Nexus sees Kwenders use 80s music video tropes, with the filmy, blousy voile-draped scenes very Prince, and perhaps also very early Ray Phiri in its aesthetics and vocal schematics. His music has resemblances to other artists because it draws inspiration from them, but his voice and combination of these styles is wholly his own.
Listening to Makanda, the title track, which is urgent Congolese rhythms merging with a hip-hop refrain, you’re aware something beautiful is happening. Makanda means strength, and is, according to the artist, what we need to achieve anything in life.
Zonga will have you thanking the Zimbabwean-ness in you because of Tanyaradzwa’s glorious treacle voice and mbira blended with violin strains.
The Sexus Plexus Nexus vibe is chill, sexy and sax-filled in a pleasing way. According to Pitchfork the song is about carnal relationships and Kwenders says it is also about “where sensuality and delusion blend.” That delusion carries into the video where Pierre wears a Mobutu-style chapeau and carries a cane, also reminiscent of the dictator of former Zaire.
Tuba Tuba is the song where you abandon what you’re doing and move your body. Those rumba guitars are the heart of Kinshasa, and they demand you dance.
Pierre Kwenders fits in along a timeline that says past present and future. Naming his album Makanda at the End of Space, the Beginning of Time was the right feeling in whatever he was doing in creating it. It feels spacey, timeless, futurist yet also very now, circular and unending, and African with hints of other places too. Bisous Pierre Kwenders, this album feels like bolingo.
Check out the sombre and beautiful mood in the video for Woods of Solitude.
His 2014 collaboration with Jacobus on Mardi Gras
This collaboration with Canadian-Mexican artist Boogat is wonderful.