Pierre Kwenders Discusses 'Le Dernier Empereur Bantou' and His Afro-electro Aesthetic

Pierre Kwenders Discusses 'Le Dernier Empereur Bantou' and His Afro-electro Aesthetic
When you call yourself "the spokesman of modern Africa," it is a lot to live up to. For Pierre Kwenders, it's a challenge he's more than willing to accept. With the release of his first full-length project, Le Dernier Empereur Bantou, out now on Bonsound, the Montreal-based artist (born José Louis Modabi) tells Exclaim! that the album pays homage to his Congolese roots while also working in modern electronic vibes for a progressive, postmodern sound.

"The biggest wish was to share this with as many people as possible. I just need to share it with the people and bring them into my world," Kwenders says.

Born in the Congo, Kwenders came to Canada in 2001 when he was 16 and quickly became immersed in Western musical styles. He uses his multilingualism to great effect on this project, leveraging English and French, along with the Tschiluba, Lingala and Kiskongo languages and dialects. Recorded in a two-year span in locations such as Nova Scotia, Montreal and Washington, DC, the album boasts collaborations with local artists such as Jacobus of Radio Radio, Baloji and rap collective the Posterz.

"Coming to Canada, you come into so many things," he says, adding that he didn't really know much about electronic music before coming to the country. A 2011 meeting with members of electro hip-hop band Radio Radio led to working with Alexandre Arthur Bilodeau (a.k.a. "Nom de Plume") who assisted with production on the album. "For me, I just fell in love with electronic music. I found something that would blend easier with my way of singing and my energy."

This debut album is intended to expose listeners to his experimental sound, he offers, adding that references such as "world music" or "world 2.0" are labels that he looks to avoid. Defining his overall sound, and the sound of the album, is all about incorporating Afro-electro beats, Congolese rhumba and hip-hop, he says. Incorporating his cultural heritage in the music is "very important," Kwenders says of fusing African rhythms with Western sounds. The creative process typically comes down to working with producers like Bilodeau and working out the melodies and overall vibe, he adds. And intricately tied into his sound is a postmodern fashion aesthetic, as seen on the album cover and at his shows.

"It's not something that was calculated. It happened very naturally, which is how I like my sound to be. It's pretty hard for me to say exactly what kind of genre it is. As long is the result is good, I'm happy with it. It's pretty much normal for me to pay tribute to this kind of music. I'm also representing Canada in a way because I've learned so many things here. It just makes sense — my music represents myself. I would be lying if I wasn't doing what I'm doing now."

The collaborations on the album came about in an organic sense, he adds, with tracks like "Mardi Gras" (featuring Radio Radio's Jacobus) and "Popolipo" (featuring producer-performer Samito) stemming from his friendship with and admiration of the respective artists.

A new video for single "Mardi Gras" was recently revealed, with Kwenders adding that Canadian and European touring dates are in the works as well. Ultimately, what Kwenders wants people to take away from the album is to be aware of "where I'm from and where I now live."

"I'm from the Congo, and now I'm Canadian. I have a Canadian passport now. I want people to know both backgrounds that I have. That's the reason I named the album Le Dernier Empereur Bantou — I wanted to raise awareness about the [African] empire that existed years ago but many don't know about it. We hear about the Roman Empire, British Empire, but not [enough about] the glory of Africa."