Pierre Kwenders builds a bridge between Africa and the rest of the world

With some help from Tendai Maraire of Shabazz Palaces, the Montreal musician creates a new path on MAKANDA

PIERRE KWENDERS with DATU, OBOXUM and DJ SEAN SAX at the Rivoli (334 Queen West), September 15, 8 pm. $10-$20. eventbrite.ca.

Pierre Kwenders is on a bit of a high. 

He’s just returned home to Montreal from Brooklyn, where his Moonshine collective hosted a party during Afropunk festival weekend. Kwenders and his manager, Hervé Kalongo, started Moonshine – which throws a party the Saturday after every full moon – almost three years ago for their small group of friends in Montreal, and the event has grown by word-of-mouth. 

“But it still has this friendship and family vibe,” says Kwenders. “It just feels good.” 

That vibe also flows through his intergalactic and spiritual new record, MAKANDA At The End Of Space, The Beginning Of Time (out September 8 on Bonsound and streaming at CBC). 

Kwenders was already hatching plans for it as he was releasing his 2014 debut record, Le Dernier Empereur Bantou. While that record was bold in its combination of Congolese rumba and Afropop and garnered Polaris Music Prize and Juno nominations, Kwenders wanted to push his music even further away from convention. 

“The idea was to create a bridge between Africa and the rest of the world,” he says of MAKANDA, which is performed in the languages of Lingala, French, English and Shona. “An African sound that will be listened to from any point in the world.” 

To help get him there, Kwenders enlisted producer Tendai Maraire from left-field Seattle hip-hop outfit Shabazz Palaces, a group gifted at drawing on African sounds and styles without getting labelled “world music,” a categorization Kwenders says he’s trying to fight in his own music. 

Now based in Seattle, Maraire originally hails from Zimbabwe, where his father made a name for himself playing the mbira, an instrument that sneaks its way into Shabazz Palaces’ own dreamy music.

Kwenders sent Maraire an email offering to collaborate, along with a copy of his first record. Impressed with what he’d heard, Maraire agreed to meet, and Kwenders got on a plane to Seattle.

The result was MAKANDA’s first single, Woods Of Solitude. On it, Kwenders’s growth is evident: the production is fuller and the arrangements more complex, but Kwenders still has plenty of room to be himself. A syncopated drum beat and deep bass synth cover the low end, while chimes, sustained synths and a dreamy guitar line (courtesy of Maraire’s Chimurenga Renaissance bandmate Hussein Kalonji) form an intricate thicket beneath Kwenders’s rapped verses and sung choruses. 

Kwenders was incredibly satisfied with the outcome, and their partnership was solidified. One of the most personal songs he’s written, Woods Of Solitude set the tone for the album that followed. 

“The song’s about self-acceptance and self-discovery and owning your life and choosing your own path instead of following others,” he explains. “I wanted to talk about things that mattered to me, and I felt ready to embrace this life that I’ve chosen for myself.”

The word “makanda” means strength in Tshiluba. Kwenders says that the strength he’s especially paying tribute to is that of women, particularly his mother, aunt and grandmother. 

“Those women of character, they made me who I am today,” he says. “I wouldn’t be in Canada if it weren’t for my aunt asking my mom to move here. I wouldn’t be making music if it weren’t for her.”

He’s in dialogue with his past through his lyrics and the styles he invokes, but his forward-thinking music also stresses how far he’s come. As with Moonshine, Kwenders has built a world for himself, his friends and family based on history, but one that’s ultimately propelled by the new, the unexplored and the unconventional. And he’s opening it up to the world.

“There’s a message throughout the album, within each of the songs,” he says. “There’s something asking you to let yourself go and be happy and live your life and wake up and do your thing and live your dreams.” 

music@nowtoronto.com | @therewasnosound

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