If you had the chance to take a trip from The Pan African Space Station to any distant galaxy of your choosing, what piece of music would you take along for the ride. Congolese Canadian artist, Pierre Kwenders seems to have forged the perfect piece of art for this cosmic journey. MAKANDA at The End of Space, the Beginning of Time is an 11 track sonic odyssey fabricated with cosmic sounds forged from a special brew of traditional Congolese rumba to modern funk and jazz and soul that mesmerizes you with bliss from the first clap to the last spin of the record.
The album, released via Bonsound, is Pierre Kwenders’ second major release and sees him round the jagged edges of a sound he has been meticulously perfecting for most of his adult life. With the help of Zimbabwean American producer Tendai Maraire of Shabazz Palaces, the pair paint a lush sound scape that reflects the rich diversity of their influences and interests whilst charting a course back to a collective sonic heritage. By cherry picking various popular African and continental musical forms like Soukous, big band Highlife, space age electro funk and smooth RnB, the tape embraces listeners with a refreshing warmth yet exudes a familiar fragrance, emanating from the rich traditions that birthed it. The sonic signature would have been incomplete without the contributions of Seattle based SassyBlack, Tanyaradzwa and Hussein Kalonji (a member of Chimurenga Renaissance) as well as Ishmael Butler, the second-half of Shabazz Palaces.
The album begins with sudden and eerie synth lines, like something from a William Onyeabor or Francis Bebey experiment, which Pierre gift wraps beautifully with his mellow yet melodic voice on track 1, Bittersweet. The song swells with an uncertain, warbly atmosphere that serves as the conceptual core of the tape. He leads his listener on a celestial exploration between various polarities mirroring his own personal probe of his personality, emotions and heritage. The album title, Makanda, which means courage in Tshiluba, a language spoken in Congo, also highlights the valor with which he embarks on this deeply spiritual journey.
However, you quickly get a sense of the direction the music is taking as the distant and sometimes discordant sounds on the album begin to gel. La La Love featuring Kae Sun and Tanyaradzwa, for instance features sleepy palm wine high life guitar chords laced over temperate drum loops and the ever present disco bulb glittering synth lines that seep from every part of the project. The bubble-gum pop atmosphere is perhaps a challenge against a forbidden love as the song begins to speed up into a racy folk-inspired ballad. And even without understanding the all lyrics, your drawn into the warm and fuzzy orbital of the song.
But nothing sums up the character of this record better than the standout cut, Sexus Plexus Nexus. The seductive groove on this cut rebels against the jagged edges of the other songs on the tape and is much more rounded and velvety, with Pierre waxing the slide down this song with his vocals. The song also uses echoic vocal layering that create alternating atmospheres, from a jazzy feeling of warmth to icy loneliness.
Sexus Plexus Nexus perhaps embodies the perfect metaphor of the album, illustrating how a quest for discovery can be enlighten and frightening due to the uncanny pairing of certain unfamiliar and seemingly incompatible melodies. Other songs like Welele with its pacy drums loops and rap sung verse from Pierre and the whimsical and playful WTFU that sounds like a parody rap song from the early 2000s with the video game soundtrack reverb-heavy synths and playful verse, illustrate and another side of Pierre musical dexterity, in being more up-tempo and less mellow.
The album might appear to be a random spread of vocal samples, synth chords and historical references, but it takes Pierre vocals to guide you to each of the nexus of his sound before you begin to notice the thread that binds the narrative. Makanda is then more than a shared voyage but the building blocks for a collective memory of space and time, place and history, with the starting point being Pierre’s self. As he sheds each layer of himself through song, you begin to acquire a deeper appreciation of his journey on the back of the cadence of the four languages that map out his route on a voyage to break and expand boundaries.
Everything about the record stands out from the visual narrative, referencing to Sapeur-inspired street style in his music video to the playful reference to early 70s vinyl art work on the cover. Pierre Kwenders seems to have gone beyond the randomosity and uncertainty of experimentation to a steel conviction the story he wants to tell. The album, is more about expansion, opening up to an alternate experience, and validating that candid experience of newness rather than find meaning.
Written by Hakeem Adam
Photo credit: Neil Mota via Bonsound