Pierre Kwenders on How Shabazz Palaces Helped Craft His New Progressive Pan-African Album

Pierre Kwenders on How Shabazz Palaces Helped Craft His New Progressive Pan-African Album
Photo: Neil Mota
After earning props in 2014 for his ambitious genre-bending, electronically charged offering, Le Dernier Empereur Bantou, Congo-born, Montreal-based artist Pierre Kwenders (born José Louis Modabi) swings for the experimental fences once again, this time pivoting in a new musical direction.
 
MAKANDA at the End of Space, the Beginning of Time takes things in a more organic and progressive direction, stepping away from a heavy electronic vibe to lean on more analog sounds. Makanda means "strength" and the album pays homage to the women in Kwenders' life — namely his mother, aunt and grandmother — who made him who he is today. "Life is a circle and we have to know where we are from — and where we are going depends on where we are from," he tells Exclaim!
 
"It's always fun to make electronic music but sometimes, it's very limited with what kind of sounds you can get," he says. The album's 11 tracks are described as a mix of "new wave world music, rumba trap and indie afro."
 
It's a fearlessness to evolve that marks the Juno-nominated and Polaris Music Prize longlister Kwenders as one to watch. And while he remains focused on a pan-African musical approach that incorporates Congolese rhumba with hip-hop and electronic styles, Kwenders worked with Seattle-based hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces to develop a more "traditional" spin on postmodern music. MAKANDA at the End of Space, the Beginning of Time was produced primarily by Shabazz Palaces' Tendai Baba Maraire; it also features contributions from SassyBlack (THEEsatisfaction), Ishmael Butler (credited as Palaceer Lazaro), Fly Guy Dai, Kae Sun and Tanyaradzwa.
 
"The whole album was recorded in Seattle. When my first album came out and I was deciding what to do with my next one my manager suggested reaching out to Shabazz Palaces to see if he'd be open to working on a couple of songs. We reached out to Tendai and they said we should come down to Seattle to see what we can do," he says. "The first trip was to only work on a couple songs and the chemistry was right, so we decided to make a whole album. I was in Seattle, we had all these great people like SassyBlack and obviously Ish was there and I wanted him on the album as well. That was really cool. I'm a huge fan of Shabazz Palaces so being able to work with them was just overwhelming."
 
Known for singing and rapping in four languages (Lingala, French, English and Shona), Kwenders felt it was time to extend himself even more, to both grow his audience and his craft. It's always fun to make electronic music but sometimes, it's very limited with what kind of sounds you can get, he notes.
 
For example, some of the songs on the album have a lot of trumpet and saxophone sounds. "Trying to recreate these can be limiting at times. Tendai produced the whole album and said we needed to have real instruments on the whole thing. To make it more real. It's fun to have a little bit of electronics there but to have a little bit of live music, which makes it more real in my opinion."
 
Shifting away from electronic elements offered more flexibility, he says, adding that collaborating with the Seattle crew helped him grow as an artist. "My first album was more of an electronic vibe with some influences of where I'm from here and there. But with this one I really wanted to go deeper with Congolese rhumba and also wanted to have a throwback '80s and early '90s feel. That was the kind of music I grew up back home with my family," he says. "But I'm still creating what I like to do, this pan-African genre of music, which is a mixture of everything — traditional stuff, more contemporary stuff like hip-hop, R&B, funk, and jazz. Just keep having fun with all these sounds."
 
MAKANDA at the End of Space, the Beginning of Time is out September 8 on Bonsound.