Kwes introduces the African nation

Even on the blood soaked continent of Africa, the DR Congo has suffered more than most. Only recently dragging itself out of a civil war, the war torn nation is beginning to look ahead, with the second general election in its history now looming on the horizon.

Musically, the DR Congo’s pariah status has perhaps helped a unique scene gestate there. Damon Albarn recently teamed up with Oxfam to lead a team of European producers to the country, interacting on a personal level with local musicians. Settling in Kinshasa – a relatively peaceful area in the South – the week long project turned expectations upside down and delivered a fascinating studio document in which DR Congo’s music scene is filtered through Western eyes. With only a few productions under his belt, fast rising London beatsmith Kwes was perhaps a surprise choice for the trip, yet the producer’s African heritage lent his experiences an emotional edge the others perhaps couldn’t reach.

“It was my first time in Africa – I mean, I’ve got parents of Ghanian heritage but I’ve never even been to Ghana. Initial landing and everything was crazy. One thing, though, it wasn’t as hot as I thought it would be but I think that’s because Kinshasa is next to the sea!” he smiles. Looking back, Kwes is clearly a little overwhelmed by the experience. Taking his time to answer each question, the producer seems to roll events around in his mind, searching for a way to cast them in a familiar light.

Setting up in a local arts centre, word quickly spread about the Western team – which led to a sudden influx of Congolese musicians, eager to seek out the producers. “They just came. Literally. I pretty much didn’t know any of the people’s names, they just came down and played” Kwes explains. “We recorded in this hall – we did most of the recording in this kind of arts complex. There’s this massive hall just outside the control room. The musicians just came in there and played, they just played and we came out with our microphones and recorded the audio. Then we made the music from the audio. Some of the producers struck some really close relationships with some of the musicians and they would be brought into the control room to do some extra vocals, some extra recording. The majority of it was done by the musicians just coming in and playing. There was a festival going on that week as well, so people would have come down there anyway. It was just a massive stroke of luck for us in that sense.”

The styles varied hugely. Outside, a makeshift stage saw Congolese rock bands blast out their wares, which primarily drew on 80s and 90s aesthetics. Inside, the Western team met up with traditional musicians, who blazed through sets of raw African funk. Probed about the styles he witnessed, Kwes almost seems lost for words. “It was amazing. It was amazing just watching them. It was crazy taking all of that in because you weren’t there long enough to fully absorb what was going on. Then it was just all happening so quickly – it was amazing, man.”

However the producer did single out one experience. “I think while I was over there – not to be clichéd – but I think I experienced the funk there” he states. “The word ‘funk’ is said to come from an African word which means ‘smell’. That’s a Congolese word – it could be a Ningala word – but it’s definitely derived from a Congolese language. I think we kind of fully experienced the purest form of that, the purest form of what became pop music today.”

Finally finding a Western parallel to hook onto Congolese culture, Kwes began prying open the nation’s delicate musical output. “You can hear it in the rhythms and I think even some aspects of blues music you could hear in the playing. The guitar playing. You could definitely hear it. More so in the percussive elements, the repetition as well – that repetition is central to chart pop. Most chart pop!” he laughs.

Often struggling with violence and internal conflict, DR Congo has strained to maintain trade relations with Western countries. Plunged into poverty, as a result the latest technology is often beyond means of most citizens – which often leads to some brave examples of making do. “Every now and then you come across someone with an iPhone, but most of the time it’s people playing stuff they’ve made from household materials and food packaging. This guy called Kuban made this drum kit primarily out of petrol tanks, baked bean tins and spaghetti hoops tins using them as hi hats and then broken sand grills for cymbals. It was brilliant, man. It sounded really full.”

The musical culture of DR Congo is able to express itself in arts centre such as the one Kwes visited, but also in clubs, bars and out of town shacks. “I suppose when we touched down, maybe about an hour, an hour and a half after we touched down we were driven to this bar, just straight into the slums, straight into this bar and we watched this band. They performed a song and then there was a chorus in one of the songs, and they were singing ‘Hello!’ and that became the first track on the album. So there are bars. They play anywhere” he explains. “The same day, or the day after we were taken into this shack in the middle of nowhere at 11, 12 at night – it was pitch black. We went in there, we were given these beers and these guys just played the nastiest kind of funk, Congolese music – polyrhythms, everything – pure energy, sweating. It was kind of verging on violent but there was a passion there.”

The term ‘passion’ crops up everywhere during the interview. Kwes at times seems overawed by DR Congo, and by the general African experience. An immediate, direct, sensually overwhelming nation the people have left an obvious impact on the young producer. “The people were very hospitable. There was kind of this mixture of people being hospitable and people being really brash – especially through customs as well, it was pretty mental” he chuckles. “I guess a constant running through both of those different personalities is passion. That’s something I encountered amongst a lot of the Congolese people – there’s this passion. An innate passion for life, for just getting on with stuff, with what you have.”

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DRC Music ‘Kinshasa One Two’ is out now.

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