The transcendent and collective joy of Pierre Kwenders and his music

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      On José Louis and the Paradox of Love, Pierre Kwenders’ recent Polaris Music Prize-winning album, there’s a song called “Your Dream.” Kwenders sings gently to his mother in English, Lingala, and Swahili, in an exchange with Congolese singer NGABO, and addresses the pressure of family expectations while remaining self-determined and resolute to his true destiny. His mother’s own voice opens the breezy groove, wishing her son a happy birthday and successful life.

      “It's one of the most difficult songs that I've ever written,” Kwenders admits to the Straight, speaking over Zoom from Montreal, where he lives. It’s also, the musician adds, the most important song on this record, because his mother is the most important person in his life. 

      “She is the queen, the queen of my heart. And if she wasn't there, I wouldn't have been here, in front of you, talking about this and telling you all these stories.”  

      Love, in many of its versions and intricacies, is a common thread that revealed itself as Kwenders assembled the songs, which were written across time and place with international collaborators reaching from Portugal and Chile to Brooklyn and Seattle. Along with motherly love, Paradox also explores passion, forgiveness, self-love, and brotherhood. It’s a thread that weaves together the story of Kwenders’ life, one told as much through its lyrical narrative—which he sings in five different languages—as it is through a gorgeously luminous sonic palette that blends African music, including Congolese rumba, with Western forms of jazz, pop, and R&B. 

      With this, Paradox expresses something transcendent and celebratory. It’s a feeling that Kwenders has intentionally exuded through his work, such as his last record, 2017’s Makanda at the End of Space, the Beginning of Time, and with Moonshine, his underground electronic music collective that promotes diversity and inclusivity in parties thrown around the globe. It’s also immediately felt in conversation with Kwenders, whose own quality is exceedingly warm and soulful. 

      But it’s something that recalls the very source of it all: a young boy who loved to dance, and grew up surrounded by family and music. 

      Kwenders was born José Louis Modabi in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Though he’s an only child, a house filled with people who were also raised by his mom made Kwenders feel like he had many siblings. “I think my mother has always been very caring of others,” Kwenders notes. “I think she is just someone who has a big heart. She loves sharing. If she has one, she wants to divide it by two. And that's one of the first things I think I've learned from her.” 

      Music was a significant presence. “When I say music has been part of my life, it's been part of my life,” Kwenders continues. “My aunties and uncles—especially my uncles—would be just playing guitar and singing songs, writing songs.” 

      And Kwenders would always be dancing. He smiles widely as he reflects on the memory. “Whenever we had a family party or family gathering, when they’d put a song that they know that I like, everybody would be looking around for José Louis, José Louis! That would be my moment.” 

      In 2001, when he was 16, Kwenders and his mother moved to Montreal. The young singer joined Chorale Afrika Intshiyetu, a Catholic vocal choir. Kwenders was turned on to electronic music when a friend sold him an old iPod filled with techno and trance tracks, including some by Tiesto. It piqued Kwenders’ curiosity. Soon after, he met members of Radio Radio, an electronic hip-hop band based in Montreal. “Mardi Gras,” from Kwenders’ debut album, Le Dernier Empereur Bantou, features Jacobus from the group. He took his stage name, Pierre Kwenders, from his grandfather. 

      For Kwenders, community is inexorably connected to music. It always has been. In fact, it’s one of the reasons he co-founded Moonshine—it came from a lack of feeling that sense of it in spaces on nights out in Montreal, and wanting to create something that was elusive of any borders, whether around identity or musical genre. “Montreal has given me the place to build that platform, and I'm grateful to have done that,” Kwenders says. “It's been eight years now that Moonshine has existed. I'm really happy about that.” 

      Community, of course, was also deeply embedded in Kwenders’ vision for Paradox’s musical landscape. There’s “Papa Wemba,” which both takes its name from the legendary Congolese rumba artist, who Kwenders has named one of his biggest inspirations, and tributes his rhythmic and ebullient style. “Heartbeat,” a soulful and shape-shifting swing, featuring French-Senegalese singer anaiis, that reflects love’s ever-changing nature. The smooth and expansive “No No No,” originally produced by Haitian-born and New York-based DJ Michael Brun (and which has just been given the remix treatment with a newly-released EP featuring mixes by Vanyfox, Spilulu, and Majoos). And, it must be mentioned, the stunning music video for funky rumba “Killimanjaro,” where Kwenders’ face is superimposed onto those of iconic Black figures like Jimi Hendrix, Grace Jones, Prince, and Fela Kuti. 

      With so many collaborators, it wasn’t easy to ensure the music sounded cohesive and still told the story Kwenders wanted to tell. “Luckily, we managed to do that,” he laughs. “I managed to make sure that my identity is shown in the work. And I think that's the common denominator here. Not to make it about me, you know, to make it more about—I’m like the maestro, you know? I have an orchestra here. So, let's make it work and let's make great music and let's make it sound harmonically great and let's make it make sense. That's kind of how I feel. I'm just the maestro and I want people to enjoy this.”  

      As such, Paradox’s final track, “Church (Likambo),” holds great significance. It features backing from Chorale Afrika Intshiyetu, the choir of Kwenders’ youth, where he began to find his voice, where he felt the embrace of community. To record together, Kwenders exhales, was “mind blowing.”  

      After he’d written the song, Kwenders sent a recording of himself singing it to the choir’s maestro, who sent back some ideas for vocal arrangements. Kwenders then met with the ensemble in a Montreal studio. “It was magical,” he says. “It was so beautiful.” And he knew it had to be the last song on the album. 

      “Church (Likambo)” offers a sort of full-circle moment for this part of Kwenders’ journey. At the same time, as he continues to expand his musical universe and that of everyone in his orbit, the process of creating Paradox has revealed even more pathways—both inward and outward.

      I'm learning every day as I'm growing,” Kwenders says. “I wouldn't say that I've learned about myself, but more I've learned about the consequences of the choices that I've made in my life. And now I'm trying to do better.” 

      Pierre Kwenders performs at the Fox Cabaret on February 9. Tickets are available via AdmitOne.