Siama Matuzungidi was deeply influenced by the soukous music of rural DR Congo (then known as Zaire) during his youth. He grew up in the Bakongo region, immersed in local traditions of music, storytelling and dance. He taught himself to play guitar at age 12, and later joined the band Cavacha in Kinshasa. He then moved on to Uganda and onward to Kenya; his later homes were in Dubai and Japan, and he is now based in Minneapolis.
Siama would go on to play with a range of soukous greats: Tshala Muana, Sam Mangwana, Kanda Bongoman, Samba Mapangala, Moreno, Lovy Longomba and more). In 2014, he received a McKnight Fellowship for Performing Musicians, and launched a solo career. His album ‘Rivers: From the Congo to the Mississippi’ was released in May 2016. Siama joins us in this interview on his extraordinary musical journey, influences and collaborations.
Q: From DRC to Minnesota – that has been a long and winding journey! What has inspired you, and what have been the challenges?
A: Music makes me feel good and I feel like I’m gifted to make people happy when they hear my music. But when I compose a new song it’s hard to know when it’s ready to let people hear it!
Q: Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career?
A: I first taught myself guitar by playing along with big soukous artists like Franco and Tabu Ley on the radio. While I was living in Kenya in the 1980s, George Benson became a big influence and still is. I was so honored he came to our gig while I was living in Japan (with Ibeba System band) and he sat in with the band. Joe Pass made me love guitar more too.
Q: Who are some of the musicians you collaborate with the most, and how did these relationships get formed?
A: I really enjoy collaborating with musicians who play different styles because it makes me think in a different way. It’s a good challenge. One of my favorite collaborators is Nirmala Rajasekar, a veena virtuoso from South India. Her style of playing and singing is so different from mine but fits with my style so well, and she likes to experiment like I do. We first played together when Steve Kaul invited me to share a night at a world music venue. We composed a song on the stage and it felt like magic.
I play a lot with Mikkel Beckmen too. We met during the show with Nirmala. Mikkel plays washboard and other American traditional instruments which fit really well when I play my music on acoustic guitar. We wanted to perform at folk venues so he came up with the name, “Siama’s Afrobilly” for our trio (with Dallas Johnson) because the name describes the bridge between American and Congolese traditional music.
Dallas Johnson is a singer who co-produced my new record and introduced me to many of the musicians who played on it. Dallas and I met in 1995 when we both had just moved to Minneapolis and were in the same band. She has two original jazz CDs available online and now we write songs and perform together. She helped me start my solo career in 2014 and quit her job last summer to work with me full time. We got married in October and we get to do a lot of fun music projects together.
Q: Who are some of the musicians you have collaborated with for your new album?
A: My new record features collaborations with many musicians who play different styles. The core band (Greg Schutte, Tony Axtell and Brian Ziemniak) plays jazz and jazz-funk and the record also features pedal steel player Joe Savage, gospel singer J.D. Steele, cellist Jacqueline Ultan, world percussionist Tim O’Keefe, versatile guitarists Zacc Harris and Steve Kaul, trumpeter Bobby Jay Marks, jazz singer Dallas Johnson, veena virtuoso and singer Nirmala Rajasekar from South Indian Carnatic traditions, and Tibetan master multi-instrumentalist Tenzin Ngawang.
I could have invited a hundred more because there are so many musicians I love playing with. It makes me want to live a long time so I can try everything.
Q: What are some of the challenges in interpreting traditional folk music with modern instruments and style?
A: Traditional music from home was played with thumb piano, likembe and rhythm instruments. When I play traditional style songs with electric instruments the main thing that has to be right is the rhythm and the challenge is to play guitar chords that give a sense of the way traditional instruments sound.
I play around with the notes and picking a lot until it reminds me of home. Growing up, we called traditional music, “old people music” but the more I learn other styles and the more I travel the more I appreciate how much traditional music from DR Congo has influenced music all over the world.
Q: How are you able to do ‘fusion’ of different styles and instruments without ‘confusion?
A: The most important thing is picking musicians who are really talented and open minded. It takes courage and experience and each musician has to really listen and give each other room and be open to the moment.
In the studio, I told the musicians to be free and have fun and find themselves in my music. I didn’t want them to play what they thought I wanted to hear. We recorded all 12 songs in two afternoons. They’d learn the progression of a song, play it through once or twice and we’d record. Almost all of the songs were only second take. Back in Africa we’d record an album in one day, live to two-track. I wanted this record to feel live like that and we didn’t do much overdubbing so there’s more feeling in it.
I give our engineer and co-producer Steve Kaul a lot of credit because with so many really great tracks it was a big challenge to mix the record in a way that featured guest collaborators but kept the songs simple and open. When listening to one of the songs before mixing began, one of the musicians said, “You’re gonna have a job mixing that bowl of noodles!”. Steve was a master at that and he had such great ideas for the songs and the mixes. I owe him a lot.
Q: How long were you working on the album Rivers?
A: We recorded the main tracks in November, added special guests and vocals in January and March and did most of the mixing in April – so six months on and off. We’d do a few days, then take a break, do more, take a break. We did it that way because I wanted it to feel natural and not forced.
Q: What is your next album about?
A: [laughing] I don’t know yet. I’m busy promoting this one now. The feeling will come when it’s ready. Actually, Dallas Johnson and I have started writing some kids’ songs so that will be my next project, maybe during the winter. We love playing music with kids.
Q: The tracks Jungle Zombie, Sisilli, and Maisha Mazuri are fabulous please tell us how you composed them!
A: The 6/8 rhythm in Jungle Zombie is used in almost every traditional song back home. I was playing around with some chords on my guitar and imagining hearing that beat and the sound reminded me of people waking up in the morning and walking through the bush to get food at the farm. That’s why I wrote it in my mother’s language Kikongo when I sing, “Bring me water. bring me food.”
Sisili was the second song I composed in my life. I wrote it for my girlfriend Sisili, just as a love song for her. The melody came first and the words and chord progression came in a natural way. In the studio, Moni Mambo asked if any musicians had a new song so I played Sisili. He loved it and it became a big hit. The bad thing was Sisili’s dad didn’t want her dating a musician so he took her out of town and we never saw each other again.
Our sweet friend Krista moved in with us while she was very sick. I would sit quietly with her and play guitar to help her relax and the chords to Maisha Mazuri came to me during that time. She loved it and always asked me to play it for her. Even though she was facing so much pain she would invite her mom and her friends to hang out with her, meditate with her, make her healthy food and make her laugh. It was so inspiring to see how much she loved life so I wrote the lyrics for her. (“Beautiful life. Drink it up. No one knows about tomorrow but today is for us to live.”)
Q: How would you describe your musical journey?
A: It’s been fun! I’ve met so many people I wouldn’t have met if I wasn’t a musician. I would’ve been stuck in an office and I wouldn’t know why I was so bored and not happy. Music is so fun and inspiring. It makes people get along and enjoy life so much. Music is a great way to make friends with good people.
Q: Where do you see yourself headed in the next 10-15 years?
A: I want to be somewhere by the sea, relaxing without worries and of course I want to play music forever. Most of my life I played music every day but never made much money. I started my solo career in 2014 and things have been going great. I’m hoping this can keep growing so I can travel and collaborate with musicians and make friends around the world.
Q: Which are your favorite musical festivals, and what makes them so special?
A: I love the Winnipeg Folk Festival and the American Folk Festival because the musicians are so talented and you can hear so many styles so it’s inspiring. There are so many great music festivals here in MN during the summer. I’m really looking forward to the Lowertown Guitar Festival in August.
Q: What are some unusual reactions you have got during your live performances?
A: Sometimes people come to me in tears saying my music is a healing cure for their soul.
Q: Do you also teach workshops for students/musicians?
A: Yes, I teach songwriting, guitar and rhythm. I’d like to do more of this because I love helping people learn. They say I make it fun and inviting.
Q: What have been some of your collaborations with musicians from Asia?
A: I already described playing with Nirmala. I also love playing with my Tibetan friend Tenzin Ngawang. He is a master musician and singer who’s so creative and has such a big heart too. He seems shy but then he opens his mouth to sing and he surprises people with his big sound. He plays a dranyen (Tibetan lute) so it’s fun to play with another stringed instrument and fun to compose together because he brings different ideas I wouldn’t think of.
Q: What kinds of social and political messages have been conveyed in your recent albums?
A: My music is mostly a message about love and happiness, not politics. Everybody has a different purpose. Mine is to share love and make people happy.
Q: What is your message to the musicians and artistes of the world in this age of globalisation and also conflict?
A: Let’s create more positive music so negativity doesn’t make us forget the good things in life. Art and music are very important.
Author: Madanmohan Rao
Madanmohan Rao is an author and media consultant from Bangalore, and global correspondent for world music and jazz for World Music Central and Jazzuality. He has written over 15 books on media, management and culture, and is research director for YourStory Media. Madan was formerly World Music Editor at Rave magazine and RJ at WorldSpace, and can be followed on Twitter at @MadanRao.