The first track of Pierre Kwenders’ new album, José Louis and the Paradox of Love, revolves around a resounding motto: “Liberté, egalité, sagacité!” A clear twist on the shared French and Haitian national motto, it’s also an invocation of Douk Saga, the late Ivorian singer whose 2005 hit “Sagacité” became emblematic of a work-hard, play-hard lifestyle. It’s one of many layered references in Kwenders’ work to the family members and artists who have influenced him, all of which come together to inform his robust sonic palette.
Born in Kinshasa and long based in Montréal, Kwenders is a singer-songwriter well attuned to a wide range of dance and pop sounds that all come together artfully on José Louis. The aforementioned opener “L.E.S.” is a perfect introduction to Kwenders’ style as sparse electronic beats meet warm, vaguely vintage-sounding synths courtesy of Arcade Fire’s Régine Chassagne and expertly produced by King Britt and Tendai Maraire (formerly of Shabazz Palaces and currently a member of project Chimurenga Renaissance). Hard-hitting acoustic percussion encourages the song’s build-up into an existentially poignant banger that lasts nearly ten minutes and launches us into the world of Kwenders’ musical mind at its most expansive. Hussein Kalonji (the other half of Chimurenga Renaissance) adds the twinkling guitar sounds of classic Congolese rumba to the mix, a perfect fit for Kwenders’ plugged-in musical universe.
This sweeping start opens up José Louis in multiple directions, each of which Kwenders explores with care and intent, often letting us witness him on deeply personal levels. “Your Dream” opens and closes with pieces of a heartfelt birthday message from the artist’s mother. In between, Kwenders glides between languages (Lingala, French, English, Tshiluba, and Kikongo all feature in his repertoire) in an emotional telling of his work in finding and living personal truth alongside the talent of artist Ngabo. “No No No” follows, a more chilled-out pop track with sharp rhythms that punctuate smooth vocal layers. The laid-back vibes continue into achingly cool “Imparfait”, where R&B chanteuse Sônge’s delivery flows from breathy background support to frontline power and back again and rumba guitars once again serve as a source of geographically rooted energy.
It’s single “Papa Wemba”, though, that feels like the album’s centerpiece. Named for the “King of Rumba Rock”, it sees Kwenders incorporate even more dynamic sounds. Medearis “MD” Dixon’s saxophone is a particular strength, as nimble as it is mighty. Maraire’s production touch comes into play again, palpable in the track’s crisp rhythmic ostinati and the careful additions of violins and Kalonji’s wailing guitar work.
The second half of the album keeps wandering, keeping up a moderate-to-quick pace and maintaining the sense of variety that makes José Louis a joy to listen to until the end. “Kilimanjaro” brings back the sax to bolster its catchy refrain: “Ce soir tu fais mon Kenya, Kilimanjaro / Petit break au Kenya, Kilimanjaro.” “Coupé” is another extended reference to Douk Saga, Kwenders’ quick lyrics and shimmering beats paying homage to the coupé-décalé style Saga pioneered. The album ends with “Church”, an intricate piece of experimentation that brings winding electronics, classical strings, fuzzy guitars, and the joyful voices of the Africa Intshiyetu Choir together in a jubilant blend.
Pierre Kwenders takes his stage moniker from his grandfather; his album José Louis and the Paradox of Love comes from his birth name. Both exemplify Kwenders’ ability to blur imagined boundaries between past and present as he makes music for the future. José Louis and the Paradox of Love is inventive and heartfelt, a brilliant use of many genre conventions that respects them all but bows to none. Kwenders isn’t simply blazing a narrow trail here but opening up a cosmos.