Pierre Kwenders Tells His Life Story Through Dance Music

The Montreal musician on working with Arcade Fire, the inaccuracy of the "World Music" category, and his new album

Photo: Daniele Fummo

BY Antoine-Samuel Mauffette AlavoPublished Apr 27, 2022

Many musicians can point to specific moments from childhood when they knew they wanted to be a musician. Pierre Kwenders didn't realize his would come true so literally. 
"When I was young, Papa Wemba was everything. I have watched his movie about being a struggling musician [1987's La Vie Est Belle] so many times — it inspired me to become an artist," says Kwenders now of the iconic Congolese singer, who passed away in 2016.
Speaking on the phone to Exclaim! from Paris, the Montreal-based musician, DJ and Moonshine collective maestro reveals that the 1997 music video for Wemba's "Sai Sai" also made an indelible impact on his life: "He filmed it in Brussels, and blended rap and synths with Congolese rumba. If you look at the crowd, they are almost dressed like the Moonshine crowds today. I never thought I would be embodying what I saw in that clip."
Papa Wemba's legacy and influence is front and centre on José Louis and the Paradox of Love, Kwenders' latest album, out April 29 via Arts & Crafts. Wemba is the namesake of the album's lead single, "Papa Wemba," with lyrics that pay homage to the distinctive style of the artist also known as the godfather of la sape, the Congolese fashion subculture. Where the video for the song finds Kwenders embracing a dreamlike surreality, the album as a whole takes a deep dive into the artist's life experiences and psyche.

José Louis and the Paradox of Love (out April 29 on Arts & Crafts) is an extroverted expression of Kwenders' introspective journey in analyzing how the concepts of love and family have affected his life. Written across multiple cities and countries, the songs on this emotional opus range from festive to spiritual, carefully reflecting the artist's present outlook on the world. 
The album's conceptual basis and sonic direction were informed by a pandemic-imposed hiatus. Kwenders says, "I took time to redo vocals, listen back to demos and really slow down and think back on the progress of my career and the path it had guided me on. It was like a completely different album." 
The resulting introspection turned José Louis into a journey through Kwenders's past, sometimes quite literally.
Closing track "Church (Likambo)" is a floating anthem that was recorded with Montreal-based African gospel choir Afrika Intshiyetu, which Kwenders joined shortly after arriving in the city as a teenager. "This is where music started for me," says Kwenders of Afrika Intshiyetu. "It had 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 I had video access to the large hall where they were recording. I could switch from my solo microphone to joining them in the hall as I wished, and it was an amazing dynamic." The Afro-electro ambassador is also accompanied by the choir on the pre-chorus to the majestic "Sahara."
The choir is not the only family Kwenders found since arriving in Montreal. In 2015, he co-founded the Moonshine collective in order to further explore his musical and cultural identities. Initially starting as a gathering for musical all-nighters every full moon, the collective is much more than an underground party unit — they have become real-time ambassadors for Montreal's ever-evolving Afro-electronic music scene, performing all over the world. (When we spoke to Kwenders in March, he was preparing for Moonshine parties in Paris and Brussels.)

More elements of Kwenders' Montreal community come through on the album. Known for his eccentric style, Kwenders channels the energy of late-night back-to-back DJ sets with Arcade Fire's Win Butler for the opening song "L.E.S. (Liberté Égalité Sagacité)." The song also features legendary Philadelphia DJ-producer King Britt. Says Kwenders, "I really wanted to approach the music from a DJ perspective, and I could not believe I had the chance to collaborate with artists I hold in such regard." 
He connected with Britt through Shabazz Palaces' Tendai Maraire, the son of mbira master and key influence Dumisani Maraire. (The older Maraire's signature plucked instrument is an integral part of many of the album's arrangements.) Of "L.E.S.," Kwenders says, "The original version was an epic 20-minute opus. I was lost on which direction to go with it, so when I was hanging with Win in New Orleans, I approached him on a DJ level — rather than musician level — to ask what the track was missing." Butler and his partner Régine Chassagne previously owned a Haitian restaurant in Montreal, the now-shuttered Agrikol, where Kwenders had a DJ residency, so the whole thing came together quite naturally. Says Kwenders, "Win started on the synth and Régine added some drums — next thing you know, I am singing in their living room and I thought to myself, 'I got it, this is it!'"

The infectious, danceable energy and frenzied buildup of the song are why Kwenders picked it as an opener. It's a similar vibe to what he felt when he attended an Osheaga performance of supergroup Buraka Som Sistema, when he first heard DJ Branko, who was to become a frequent collaborator. "It was raining, and Branko was holding it down," Kwenders remembers. "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 avant-garde electronic artists from around the world. The pair got together and created "Amours d'ete," which became a huge hit for Kwenders on the live performance YouTube channel Colors. The pair later co-produced a pair of José Louis tracks: "Imparfait," featuring French singer Sônge, and "Heartbeat," with French-Senegalese artist Anaiis. "The pandemic allowed us to refocus and find a new musical perspective. Branko truly brings out the best in artists; he finds their essence and adds his flavour. Plus we work so well together. 'Heartbeat' is kind of like a followup to 'Amours d'ete,'" says Kwenders.

Kwenders speaks with Exclaim! the week of the Gala Dynastie, an award ceremony for members of Quebec's Black communities, at which he was nominated for World Music Artist or Group of the Year and Artist or Group of the Year of International Distinction, winning the former. His thoughts reflect a similar mindset as his world-bending music: "Although I am not a big fan of the World Music category, I am grateful for all the support. I think these are categories for styles that you just 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 breaks through the boundaries of language and geography on José Louis and the Paradox of Love

It's also Kwenders's most personal album to date, reflected by its title: José Louis is the singer's birth name. He says, "I am opening windows into my soul with this album — that's what the title is about. It is my true self exploring the broader definition of what love means in my life."

With a series of shows planned for the summer, and on the verge of resuming his globetrotting ways, Kwenders has one objective: "I want to reunite with the fans I have missed dearly. Present this new album and see how they will react to it, dance along, and show my paradox of love through my music."

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