I went with some friends to see Pierre Kwenders at a small room off Broadway called the David Rubenstein Atrium last night. They regularly program free shows in the atrium, and this was the first I’ve gone to.
Kwenders is from Kinshasa, Congo, and now lives in Montreal. His band, three young Quebecois, play guitar and keyboards, various drums, and dj. It’s this last that was a little problematic. Being able to fire samples of strings and horns and chants distorts the small band vibe. Not that this world music wasn’t lush and gorgeous, it was, but when all that recording came to fore things started to sound more like a Peter Gabriel record than a four-piece band on a small stage playing for a couple hundred people. Live became qualified.
The best songs were popping and angular, with a little space between beats. Kwenders is a crooked and crafty dancer, a strong vocal presence in three languages (French, English and, maybe, Lingala–the predominant Kinshasa language), and a charming host. This was his first show ever in the US, and he got the decidedly mixed crowd (all ages, all colors, many nationalities) on their feet and singing and clapping along. The song that got us to the show was Mardi Gras, on record a Francophone hip hop hipster melange, but lacking the rap parts live seemed more a cajun lament.
Another good one was a raucous reggea-ish tribute to the Rumble in the Jungle called Ali Bomaye! This is a much sparer version than what the band played last night, but in a way the spareness is a tonic, an open window into Kwender’s lovely voice and lyrical songwriting.