In his powerful poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers, Langston Hughes mentions “rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins”. Prolific Congolese soukous aficionado Siama Matuzungidi borrows this theme in his latest album aptly titled Rivers: From the Congo to the Mississippi, where he explores new tributaries of creativity through the rivers in his blood and from his travels all over the world. Recorded with the help of a host of Minnesota-based musicians who source their musical styles from different cultures, Matuzungidi transforms his traditional Congolese dance rhythms into a dynamic, yet completely original sound that maintains the authentic flair that earned him his reputation over a long and prosperous career.
With the help of virtuosos such as gospel vocalist JD Steele, veteran Indian singer and Veena expert Nirmala Rajasekar, classical cellist Jacqueline Ultan, and Tibetan multi-instrumentalist Tenzen Ngawang by his side, Matuzungidi deviates from the soukous sounds that he and contemporaries like Papa Wemba popularised. On this project, he implores his new collaborators to experience the thumping, dance-inducing melodies of soukous as they each uniquely perceive it to be and to contribute in whatever way their musical impulses react.
Barely an hour long, the 11-track album is an expertly composed, well-balanced culmination of influences that display a wide range of musical techniques coming together in breath-taking harmony. Rivers produced by Matuzungidi, Dallas Johnson and Steve Kaul, is not just a representation of a seasoned musician’s dexterity in his own style, but his willingness to learn and borrow from others in a quest to improve the reach of his magic on the guitar.
Siama Matuzungidi is renowned for his guitar skills / Credit: Dallas Johnson
This experimental record begins with Jungle Zombie, an expectant jazz fusion cut that features bebop-like drum loops and trumpets accompanied by a scintillating piano solo. At this point, the album’s intention to combine different ideas and rhythmic styles is clear. The next song Mpevo begins with the strong soulful Carnatic vocals of Indian singer Nirmala Rajasekar layered on calm blues guitar riffs and backed by Matuzungidi’s folk-inspired chorus.
Staying true to its style, the whole album is splattered with a myriad of instruments such as piercing violins and hushed Spanish guitars on the down-tempo ballad Yolanda, to North African sounding percussions on the dark and moody Ndombolo. Carnatic ambassador Rajasekar’s presence is extremely strong on the record as she provides balanced counter vocals and a refreshing burst of her Saraswati Veena instrumentation. Matuzungidi’s renowned guitar style flows effortlessly on the song Bolingo. The dance anthem is a perfect tribute to DR Congo’s music scene with rousing adlibs inciting a thirst for energetic dance moves.
On Maisha Mazuri – one of the standout cuts, meaning life is good in Swahili – Rajasekar’s sombre singing and Veena chords put a chill on the song which warms up by the time the rousing chorus begins. The hollow bass riffs and racy drum loops bind the Veena and electric guitars into an uplifting song Matuzungidi wrote for a friend afflicted with cancer about how indeed, life can be good.
Moving away from a familiar sound was a huge risk for someone as experienced as the maestro, Matuzungidi. However, the experiment went well and produced an LP with a familiar atmosphere for long-time fans. It also gives new listeners a chance to taste a project that meanders through various genres from soukous to jazz to choral while maintaining a stellar consistency by highlighting the successful confluence of diverse influences: from Matuzungidi’s imposing vocal presence from DR Congo, to Rajasekar’s tingling Veena instrumentation and Hindu lyrics, and JD Steele’s gospel aura.
The orchestral finale to the album, Oyayeyo wraps the whole essence of this project together with choral vocals and big band composition similar to Nana Danso Abiam’s Pan-African Orchestra performances. Matuzungidi reflects on a parent’s pride and sadness as his kids leave home, perhaps hinting at the pride he feels as his traditional Congolese music has taken a new life of its own in the hearts of the foreigners he has worked with on the album.
VERDICT: Rivers is a joyous musical experience that does not linger into boredom. The ability to allow soukous to evolve into this new sound makes you appreciate the dynamism of this style which has not received much recognition on a world stage. The album will be released internationally on June 10, and is available here.