The Montreal musician on his work with Arcade Fire, the vagueness of the “World Music” category and his new album
Posted on April 27, 2022
Many musicians can cite specific times in their childhood when they knew they wanted to be a musician. Pierre Kwenders did not realize that it would come true so literally.
“When I was young, Papa Wemba was everything. I watched his movie about being a struggling musician [1987’s La Vie Est Belle] so many times – it inspired me to become an artist,” Kwenders now says of the iconic Congolese singer, who died in 2016.
Talk on the phone to Exclaim! from Paris, the Montreal musician, DJ and maestro of the Moonshine collective reveals that the 1997 music video for Wemba’s “Sai Sai” also had an indelible impact on his life: “He filmed it in Brussels, and mixed rap and synths with Congolese rumba. If you look at the crowd, they’re almost dressed like the Moonshine crowds today. I never thought I’d embody what I saw in that clip.
Papa Wemba’s legacy and influence are front and center José Louis and the paradox of love, the latest album from Kwenders, will be released on April 29 via Arts & Crafts. Wemba is the namesake of the album’s first single, “Papa Wemba”, with lyrics that pay homage to the distinctive style of the artist also known as the Godfather of the undermining, the Congolese fashion subculture. Where the song’s video finds Kwenders embracing a dreamlike surreality, the album as a whole delves deep into the artist’s life experiences and psyche.
José Louis and the paradox of love (out April 29 on Arts & Crafts) is an extrovert expression of Kwenders’ introspective journey in analyzing how the concepts of love and family have affected his life. Written in multiple cities and countries, the songs in this emotional opus range from celebratory to spiritual, carefully reflecting the artist’s current outlook on the world.
The album’s conceptual basis and sonic direction were informed by a pandemic-enforced hiatus. Kwenders said: “I took the time to redo the vocals and listen to the demos and really slow down and think back to where my career had gone and the path he had guided me on. It was like a completely different album.”
The resulting introspection turned Jose Louis on a journey through Kwenders past, sometimes literally.
The closing track “Church (Likambo)” is a floating hymn that was recorded with the Montreal-based African gospel choir Afrika Intshiyetu, which Kwenders joined shortly after arriving in the city as a teenager. “That’s where the music started for me,” says Kwenders of Afrika Intshiyetu. “It has always been a dream of mine to reconnect with the choir on an album.”
He had sent a demo of the track to his former choirmaster Flo Lundombe Pubuni in 2018, but it took the pandemic to free up time for an epic recording session. “I was recording in a booth and had video access to the big room where they were recording. I could switch from my solo microphone to join them in the room however I wanted, and it was an amazing dynamic.” The Afro-electro ambassador is also accompanied by the choir on the pre-chorus of the majestic “Sahara”.
The choir isn’t the only family Kwenders has reunited with since arriving in Montreal. In 2015, he co-founded the Moonshine collective in order to deepen his musical and cultural identities. Initially beginning as a gathering for musical sleepless nights every full moon, the collective is much more than an underground party unit – they have become real-time ambassadors of Montreal’s ever-evolving Afro-electronic music scene, producing all over the world. (When we spoke to Kwenders in March, he was gearing up for moonshine parties in Paris and Brussels.)
Other elements of the Montreal Kwenders community appear on the album. Known for his eccentric style, Kwenders channels the energy of late-night DJ sets with Arcade Fire’s Win Butler for the opening track “LES (Liberté Égalité Sagacité)”. The song also features legendary Philadelphia DJ-producer King Britt. Said Kwenders, “I really wanted to approach music from a DJ’s perspective, and I couldn’t believe I had the chance to collaborate with artists I esteem so highly.”
He came into contact with Britt through Tendai Maraire of Shabazz Palaces, the son of mbira master and key influence Dumisani Maraire. (The former Maraire’s signature plucked instrument is an integral part of many arrangements on the album.) Of “LES,” says Kwenders, “The original version was an epic 20-minute opus. I was lost on the direction to take, so when I was hanging out with Win in New Orleans, I approached him on a DJ level – rather than a musician level – to ask him what the track was missing.” Butler and his partner Régine Chassagne previously owned a Haitian restaurant in Montreal, the now-closed Agrikol, where Kwenders had a DJ residency, so it all came together pretty naturally. Said Kwenders, “Win started on the synth and Régine added drums – then you know, I’m singing in their living room and I was like, ‘I got it, that’s it!'”
The song’s infectious, danceable energy and frenetic buildup is why Kwenders chose it as the opener. It’s a similar vibe to the one he felt when he attended a performance by Osheaga of supergroup Buraka Som Sistema, when he first heard DJ Branko, who would become a frequent collaborator. “It was raining and Branko was holding him back,” Kwenders recalled. “It was a magical moment, so when I was in Lisbon I made sure to reconnect with him.”
Branko is famous for infusing his signature synth and horns with Afro-Latin rhythms and collaborating with cutting-edge electronic artists around the world. The pair reunited and created “Summer Loves,” which became a huge hit for Kwenders on the live performance YouTube channel Colors. The pair went on to co-produce a pair of Jose Louis titles: “Imparfait”, with the French singer Sônge, and “Heartbeat”, with the Franco-Senegalese artist Anaiis. “The pandemic has allowed us to refocus and find a new musical perspective. Branko really brings out the best in artists; he finds their essence and adds his flavor. Plus, we work so well together. ‘Heartbeat’ is a bit as a sequel to ‘Summer Loves’, says Kwenders.
Kwenders speaks with Exclaim! Gala Dynastie week, an awards ceremony for members of Quebec’s black communities, during which he was nominated for World Music Artist or Group of the Year and Artist or Group of the Year of Distinction international, winning the first. His thoughts reflect a similar mindset to his globally oriented music: “While I’m not a big fan of the World Music category, I’m grateful for all the support. I think it’s categories for styles you really can’t and shouldn’t categorize [together].” Singing and rapping in Lingala, French, English, Tshiluba and Kikongo on the album, and with so many international collaborations, Kwenders crosses the boundaries of language and geography on José Louis and the paradox of love.
It is also Kwenders’ most personal album to date, as evidenced by its title: José Louis is the singer’s birth name. He says, “I’m opening windows to my soul with this album – that’s what the title is about. It’s my real self exploring the larger definition of what love means in my life.”
With a series of shows planned for the summer, and about to resume his globe-trotting ways, Kwenders has only one goal: “I want to reunite with the fans that I have missed so much. Present this new album and see how they will react. , dance and show my paradox of love through my music.”