The success is still pouring in for Montreal-based, Afro-electric artist Pierre Kwenders. Having released his debut album, Le Dernier Empereur Bantou, in October of last year, the record has since received a nomination for a Juno Award, a long-list nominee for the 2015 Polaris Music Prize, and—of course—a spot at the Osheaga Music & Arts festival this year. Hailed as a spokesman of modern Africa, the Montrealer of Congolese origin masterfully blends together Congolese rumba and Afro-electro beats, paying tribute to his rich cultural heritage through innovative sounds and rhythms. He continues to forge ahead, proving to be a force to be reckoned with; a standout in the Montreal music scene. I spoke to Pierre Kwenders right before his set at Osheaga 2015 about how he first got into music, what it means to have played the festival, and why he’s making it his mission to put Congolese rumba back on the map.
What does it mean to you to play the Osheaga festival for the first time?
Pierre Kwenders: It’s an honour being here. In my opinion it’s the biggest festival in Montreal, and even one of the biggest in Canada. So I’m really excited, but at the same time feeling a little nervous, you know? There are people from all around the world, so you don’t know how they’re going to react […] it’s a little nerve-racking.
What makes Osheaga unique compared to other festivals?
PK: The energy man, the energy’s just something else. The fact that it’s on an island, you know people are in the mood to party, in the mood to have fun. Everybody’s young here, it’s fresh, and today we have a beautiful day, so all the reason to have fun and party [laughs].
Exactly. Do you have any fond memories of it as a concertgoer?
PK: I saw Buraka Som Sistema. They were playing on the Piknik Electronic stage and it rained that day. For a moment there was no electricity on stage, it was the best show I’ve seen ever because the energy was so high and people kept dancing with the rain.
Can you tell me a bit about your upbringing and how you came to Montreal?
PK: I was 16 when I came to Montreal, straight from Congo. My mom was here a year before me, so I was a teenager back then when I joined my mom. I’ve been here for 14 years now and I’ve never been back. I want to go back so badly but I’m so busy [laughs]. I can’t even find time for myself.
You played at Salsatheque with DJ Windows 98 not too long ago. How was that? What are your thoughts on the Montreal Afro-electronic scene?
PK: It’s coming, it’s coming. I met Win through one of the nights I organized with my manager, called Moonshine. We became good friends and he came a few times to mix with us. He had his own idea also of promoting those sort of vibes,—Afro, Ra Ra thing mixed with electronic music—and I wanted to do it for Kanpe, which is the foundation that he has with his wife, Regine. He asked me to join and I was like “yeah, sure, I’ll do it!” It was a really, really good night.
What made you first get into music?
PK: I grew up with a family full of music lovers. I remember my uncle used to have a band and my mom loves music, she loves to dance, and to sing. I grew up listening to Congolese rumba ever since I was a little kid and even still today. When I came to Canada I joined a choir and I started doing my first solos in the choir [laughs] I was pretty shy. After that I met [Jacobus] from Radio Radio, there was a friendship there and we started working together. I wanted to do something more for myself, something that would represent me best and so I decided to do this project.
A big portion of your music is electronic. What got you into that and how do you find it pairs with some of the Congolese influences in your songs?
PK: I discovered electronic music through Daft Punk. I remember back in the late ‘90s, early 2000’s I was a big fan of Daft Punk. The thing with the electronic music is it makes you dance and that’s one thing we have in the Congolese music is we love to dance. We have so many different dances that we do, traditional and even more modern dances. It’s crazy how much we love to dance. You should go to a Congolese party and you’ll find out [laughs].
Your debut album was released just over a year ago, how has the success been surrounding that?
PK: It’s still coming in. I was nominated for a Juno and long listed for the Polaris. It’s overwhelming, but it gives you confidence. What it says to me is that you’re good in what you’re doing and you just need to keep going. The most important thing is to not get lost in all the success. I’m still making it, I still haven’t made it yet. I’m still working, I have to work harder and I’ll be even better after.
You just released your video for “Sorry”. What made you decide to use recycled footage and can you tell me a little about the footage?
PK: I had this dream of having those Congolese rumba legends singing my song [laughs]. Half of the [legends] in the videos are dead so I said why not take the old footage and make them lip sync on my song. It’s kind of a dream come true and I also wanted to pay homage to them because they’ve inspired me ever since I was a little kid.
Also, I wanted to raise awareness in the same way I did about the Bantou empire by naming my album Le Dernier Empereur Bantou. I wanted to showcase those legends so people can ask about them and they can go and discover Congolese rumba. I remember back in the ‘60s and ‘70s Congolese rumba was the music of Africa. I want that to come back, I want to put Congolese rumba back on the map again.
What influence do you think Montreal has had on your music?
PK: I grew up here. I am who I am today because of this city, I know what I know because of this city, I’m doing the music that I’m doing because of Montreal. So Montreal has a huge, huge part in what I do.
What can we look forward to from you in the future?
PK: This summer we’re touring a lot, and a few dates in September. In October we’re going to Europe for two or three weeks. Maybe start working on the next album [laughs] because I have to deliver for next year.