One World, Many Sounds: An Interview with Pierre Kwenders

Lua Demeny talks with Pierre Kwenders about the stupidity of World Music as a genre, Igloofest, and high fashion.
By    February 5, 2016

pierre kwenders

Congolese-born Montrealer Pierre Kwenders is a key player in the city’s growing Afrofuturist dance scene, having released his debut album, Le Dernier Empereur Bantou, in 2014. During his Igloofest appearance this year, his second stage set was packed and he brought some much needed warmth thanks to his combination of Afrobeats mixed in with more familiar tracks by Busta Rhymes and Rihanna.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Kwenders after his set, to discuss his opinion of the term “World Music,” the circular motion of sound, unification, his eye catching style and just how god damn cold it was. — Lua Demeny

What was it like playing in such an intense setting for the first time?

Pierre Kwenders: It was crazy. It was freakin’ cold, I don’t know how I did it. The public was there, the audience was on fire, people were dancing. I think that’s the only thing that kept me going [laughs]. I was freezing as hell, but it was amazing.

You gathered a massive crowd.

Pierre Kwenders: Pretty much, it was awesome. I really loved the stage that I was on. It was very intimate, compared to the other stage which is a lot bigger and a lot more wide. But the one that I was on, you could see the people, feel them vibing and dancing to the music. It was really cool.

 I was surprised because you didn’t sing and you didn’t play anything from your album. What was the reason for that?

Pierre Kwenders: I really don’t play my music when I DJ unless people ask me. When I DJ, I’m in another vibe. I’m in that vibe where I wanna play music that I really like and I think people will dance and love it as much as I love it. So it’s like I’m sharing what I know and what I like with the people and what inspires me so I don’t see the point of playing my own music. If people like what I do as a DJ and want to discover what I do as a singer then they can do it and it’s very different. I really like to keep the two things apart, I don’t know why but it just happens that I like it that way.

But to be honest, I don’t really like listening to my own music [laughs]. Not that I don’t like the songs that I do but once I do it, I listen to it once, and I go, “Okay this is good” and then I go, “Okay, okay I had enough” [laughs]. Listen to your own voice! It’s weird, it’s weird. You’re there and you play your own music over and over again and I imagine playing my music over and over again during DJ sets and it’s like, “Okay dude, relax man.” Don’t be too cocky, you know? That’s just how I feel.

So were you saying you didn’t think the audience would’ve wanted to hear your music? Where in the world do you think they would want to?

Pierre Kwenders: I think people would like to hear my music but in this type of festival, Igloofest, it’s more of a DJ-vibe. You just want to play music to make people dance which is something that I love to do even when I’m doing my own music, even when I’m on stage and singing. I love to see people dance. So when I’m DJ-ing I try to do the same thing and I try to play music that I think people will love and dance to. This is what I believe I did because I seen people…

No, definitely! Got me dancing!

Pierre Kwenders: [Laughs] People were dancing, you know. I went from Africa to North America, whatever is happening here, with a little African flavor and it’s fun to see people vibe on that.

So, you sing in several languages. You have Congolese influences in your music so you often fall under the category of World Music. At this point in your career, how do you feel about that? Do you agree with that or even want to be in that category?

Pierre Kwenders: Well for me, that category shouldn’t exist. At a certain time, 20 or 30 years ago in the 90s, we had to tag certain types of music coming from elsewhere as World Music but today…I think everything has always been World Music. Today, it’s even more current because you can listen to Kanye West, Beyoncé and you can see many influences from other countries, many influences from Africa, Asia, from anywhere. Those people, they do their music and they don’t call it World Music because they’re used to being in certain categories, could be pop, hip hop, rock, R&B, you can call it whatever you wanna call it but we all get inspired by everything that is around us. We all get inspired by everything that is very far from us.

I’m from Africa but I have to tell you I get inspired by anything. I get inspired by things from here, Canada. I’m not originally born here but I live here and I know things from here and I get inspired by here anyway. I know things from Portugal, other countries in Africa. I don’t really like the fact that people call it World Music because we all live in the same world. We all get inspired by everything. Especially now with the Internet, you can see a lot of stuff. You can learn from other countries, just Google something or look on Youtube and you can learn pretty much everything, which is very good.

To me, the music that I do is not World Music. It’s not World 2.0. People like to call it World 2.0, I don’t know why. It’s not an iPhone, don’t call it World 2.0 [laughs]. it’s not iPhone 6! I mean, if today is World 2.0, next year will be World 3.0 and then World 4, 6 and it never ends you know, it’s pretty much bullshit [laughs]. Just call it music. It’s the same chords, same notes. It sounds different but it’s the same so why should we call something from another country or from Africa or Asia World Music? For example, you can call some music from Africa that is traditional “folk music” because it’s “folk music,” it’s traditional. In my country, there is pop music. Congolese Rumba is pop music for us Congolese in Congo.

I looked in to you a little bit and in one of your interviews, you said you were inspired by a time in Africa, pre-colonization, and you talked about unification. How did that influence your music?

Pierre Kwenders: Most people think Africa is what it is right now, but before that, there were empires and kingdoms. I’m from Congo and there was the Kingdom of Congo which was part of the Bantou Empire. So basically the Congolese people are Bantou. So okay, I’m Congolese today because the country that I lived in is Congo and it was decided by the colonizer that this is Congo but our culture goes beyond that. It was waaaaay back with our ancestors, the Bantu, where the rhythm, the moves, everything that comes with the music that you see in Congolese music right now or any African music, comes from.

Today there is almost no boundaries so we all get inspired by anything that happens away from us. But in the meantime, even though we get inspired by everything that happens in America or Europe or whatever, the source always comes from one place. I don’t know if it’s Africa or somewhere else. Let’s say it was Africa for example, well we pretty much do the same thing. We get inspired by the same thing. When we dance, the moves that we do today… You can see in hip hop videos right now, there’s a lot of dancing like the Dab or whatever.. And you go way back when I was in Africa and those dances, we danced that. We didn’t call it Dab, today people call it Dabbing because it’s trendy on the Internet. They see it on the Internet and go “Ah, that’s dabbing, that’s dabbing!” But I was like “Well, okay..” I was 12 and we were dancing that and it wasn’t called that. You see what I mean?

We live in the same world! You can be black, white, whatever. The thing is, it’s a circle. We live and re-live and re-live the same thing over and over again in different generations. This year is 2016, but I’m sure the dance we did in 1980-something, it was pretty much the same thing but we changed the tempo a little bit and it goes faster and then people were dancing a little faster and then we slowed it down with the reggae, dancehall and then we go faster like jump, jump, jump with techno music. It’s pretty much the same moves that we do over and over again and people just.. Depending on the generation, we call it another world but if you see it… Swing is like salsa, swing is like techno! You’re jumping and dancing and moving your legs. We just change it depending on the generation and the year and you know we just..

We just build on it.

Pierre Kwenders: Exactly, we build on it. We build on the same thing, Nothing ever changes.

Okay, so I wanted to talk to you about your emperor persona? Is that influenced by la Sape? Would you call yourself a sapeur (centered in the Congo, turning the art of dressing in elegant, gentlemanly clothes as a social movement)?

Pierre Kwenders: Wow. You have to ask the real sapeur if I’m considered a sapeur. I couldn’t say I consider myself a sapeur because the sapology is a religion. If you go to Congo, it’s really a religion and they have to embrace you. I’m not gonna say that I’m a sapeur. Well, I like to dress well. I’m Congolese, it’s kind of in my blood [laughs]. So I like to dress well and be well presented in front of the people but you have to ask the real sapeur if I’m one of them.

Right. Fair enough, I was wondering what you were going to come out dressed as because of the winter.

Pierre Kwenders: I just came back from the States last night and I was like, “Okay what am I going to wear tomorrow? It’s Igloofest, it’s cold, it’s near the river. My god, it’s gonna be cold. Whatever, I’m just gonna wear a jumpsuit and that’s it.” I kept it simple and fresh. That’s it.

What did you grow up listening to?

Pierre Kwenders: Wow. When I was little since I grew up in the Congo, I was listening mostly to Congolese rumba, soukous, some ndombolo, that kind of stuff. But also French music, Celine Dion, who I didn’t know was Canadian back then. So Celine Dion, Charles Aznavour. Very French. Growing up in my teenage years, I discovered hip hop like Tupac and Biggie. Those were my references in hip hop and then when I came to Canada when I was 16, I discovered everything else after, all the hip hop legends. I used to sing in a choir so I used to do a lot of classical music, so I really love classical music like Pavarotti, Andrea Boccelli, and those kind of musicians. Those are the kinds of genres that influenced me. No heavy metal though!

No heavy metal! Okay, I’m with you on that one.

Pierre Kwenders: I can’t take that, that’s like the worst thing for me.

So, one last question. Your debut album was released in 2014. What can we expect this year? Anything to be excited about in the new year?

Pierre Kwenders: I’m working on a new project, not an album. Well, I am working on my album which will come maybe at the end of this year or the beginning of 2017. But I’m working on a new project, it’s a duo with one of my friends who’s a singer in a Montreal band called Dear Denizen, we’re doing a duo together. Probably going to listen to something during the spring. It’s gonna be fun. In terms of Pierre Kwenders, I’m probably going to drop a single during the summer to introduce the next album. It’s gonna be something.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!