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An Interview With

Ricardo Lemvo
July 9, 2007

 

 

 

"We combine Cuban music and African music, in particular Congolese music. And it's very infectious, it's fun music, and anybody can dance to it."-Ricardo Lemvo

 

 

Ricardo Lemvo has established himself as a pioneer with his innovative music, combining Latin and African elements from salsa to soukous with an occasional merengue or Afro-Portuguese excursion. This Congo-born artist of Angolan ancestry is the embodiment of the Afro-Latin Diaspora which connects back to Mother Africa via the Cuban clave rhythm. Lemvo is truly multi-cultural and equally at home singing in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Lingala, and Kikongo.

Since forming his Los Angeles-based band Makina Loca in 1990, Lemvo has refined his craft and vision, raising his joyous voice with strength, singing songs that celebrate life, and most importantly, inspiring his audiences to let loose and dance away their worries.

Through the years, Lemvo has performed countless shows and in many prestigious festivals throughout Europe, the Americas, and Australia. Giving him the ultimate form of respect, his songs have been performed and recorded by such Latin luminaries as Colombia's Joe Arroyo, and Orquesta Reve from Cuba.

Lemvo's four CDs, Tata Masamba , Mambo Yo Yo , São Salvador and Ay Valeria! have been enthusiastically acclaimed by both print and broadcast media worldwide. The Beat Magazine named Tata Masamba the CD of the year for 1996. The Miami Herald calls Mambo Yo Yo "a treasure trove for listeners and, especially dancers." São Salvador reached # 2 on the European World Music chart for May 2000, and of Ay Valeria! , The New York Post describes it as "celestial, highly idiosyncratic."

 

(This introduction is taken from his website, www.makinaloca.com.)

 

This interview took place at Primi Piatti, a great Italian eatery in downtown Washington, DC. I want to thank my friends Marlene and Hal Palmer for making this interview possible. Also a thank you to them and my parents for their participation.

 

   

Spencer:

As a child growing up in Congo what inspired you to become a musician?


Mr. Lemvo:

I was eight years old living in a compound with my grandmother and my mother and all the relatives. Next to the compound there was a bar and they had music going all day, all night. In places like Congo there is no noise regulation. No one is going to call the police and complain. It's just part of the landscape.

So anyway, what happened in my case is with all this music coming from next door I somehow memorized most of the songs. And I used to imagine myself singing the songs for a leading band. And it was at that point that I decided that someday I will form my own band.

At the time of course I wouldn't dare tell my mother this was my dream. The professional musician was not considered among good families because most parents wanted their kids to go to school and become a professor, an attorney, etc. So, I didn't tell anybody. I was also going to boarding school, a Catholic boarding school away from the city. And I would sing in a choir and one vacation, I think it was summer vacation, some kids in the neighborhood decided to form a band and I was part of that group. We did more rehearsal than anything else.

This is what you would call a garage band. But my job was to sing American songs by James Brown and Otis Redding. And there were two songs, I was assigned two songs and one of them was Direct Me by Otis Redding and the other one was Papa's Got a Brand New Bag by James Brown. What's interesting is this, at the time I did not speak English. I learned these songs phonetically.

My fascination with language began a long, long time ago. Where I come from, where I was born we speak the official language of French because it was a Belgium colony. In Belgium they speak French and Flemish, but we speak French. Besides French there are many other African languages and I speak Kikongo and Lingala. Lingala is a trade language originally spoken along the Congo river , but today is spoken all over the country. And Lingala is really a mixture of African languages and Portuguese and some French and Arabic.


Spencer:

How many languages do you speak?


Mr. Lemvo:

I speak French, I speak Spanish. I learned Spanish because I was exposed to Portuguese. I was born in Congo , but my family is really from Angola . And Angola was a Portuguese colony for 500 years so I grew up listening to people speak Portuguese. So I speak French, Spanish, Portuguese, Lingala, and Congo .


Spencer:

You forget English, so six languages.


Mr. Lemvo:

I do. In Africa in general it is not uncommon for people to speak more than one language. In the very least most African people in the very least speak two languages, a European language and an African one. And the European could be French, English, Portuguese, Spanish because there is a Spanish colony in Africa and most people don't know this. It's Spanish Guinea.

So those dreams, I kept those dreams to myself and practiced with this garage band.


Spencer:

And when did your parents find out?


Mr. Lemvo:

They never did. My father has lived in the U.S. since 1961. He came to America to go to school. He studied international relations and political science at USC. So I stayed with my brother and my little sister and with my mother and my grandmother, in Congo .

So let's get back to the band. I had these dreams, my mother did not find out and I went back to the boarding school and my career was over. So when I came to the U.S. I did two years of high school in Los Angeles . And when I went to college I decided that the time had arrived for me to form my own band, but I didn't know anybody, I didn't know musicians so I began singing background in a Cuban band as a backup vocalist. Then there was this man who came from Nigeria . He had his own band and I became part of his band. And in one day the entire group quit on him because he was a dictator and we didn't like the way he ran things. We quit and we all formed our band. We said this is going to be a leaderless band, everyone is equal, and that was a big mistake because soon after that the French guitarist began to take control. To make a long story short, they fired me because they felt like I was dragging the band down. I remember how hurt I was. And at the same time I was going to school at the University. I was studying and the band was really a hobby.

After that happened I was relieved to be out of that band. Soon after, a guy who had another band, an African guy from Sierra Leone called me to be a member of his band. So we did one show at a place called The Music Machine in West Los Angeles . There were people in the audience looking for a band to perform their Christmas party. So since I was the singer they assumed I was the leader of the band. They came to talk to me and I said sure we'll do it, but call me tomorrow and I'll talk to the leader of the band and he can sign a contract with you.

The very next day they called me and they said how much are you going to charge? I did not know so I just told them $1,200 and I remember the lady saying, is that all? This was 1983 I think.

I say yes and she said we'll pay you $2,000. The next thing I did is I called the leader of the band and when I told him what happened and he was very angry at me.

He was angry and he said you have no right to make any deals and I said I didn't, that's why I'm calling you so you can talk to them and send them the contract. And then when I thought about that after I hung up the phone I said I don't need this. I called the woman back and I said okay I'm going to send you the contract. And I called some musicians around and we rehearsed for that Christmas party and then the woman called me and asked the name of the band because we need to put the name of the invitation. I didn't know, we didn't have a name.

The first thing that came to my mind was African All-Stars because there was a band in Congo by that name and they were popular. I don't know why I said it, but I said African All-Stars. And after we hung up the phone I said no that's not right. I called her back and said no, I gave you the wrong name. Just say Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca. That's how the band started. And Makina Loka used to be the name of a bar out where I grew up.

Makina Loca, everybody asks me, well that means "crazy machine" in Spanish. True, but Makina the way I spell it with a K, Makina in the Congo language means dances. But the work Loka, L-O-K-A means "to be in a trance." It also means to cast a spell on someone.

So that's how this band started and when we played at that private party there was someone else in the audience who loved the way we sounded and gave me a contract to perform for a movie rap party. It was Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg.

We performed there and again there was someone in the audience who loved how we sounded and wanted us to play at Santa Barbara University. This is how the band started.

At the time, another piece of very important information you must know, we really didn't have a repertoire, we had maybe two or three songs. The piano player happens to be my musical arranger. He arranges all my songs and he now lives in Montreal . He is so talented. I will tell him just start a groove and we would make up songs as we went along.


Spencer:

Improvise?


Mr. Lemvo:

Yeah. And the people who came to see us play, they did not understand the languages. We would sing in Spanish or in African languages, but all they cared about was the movement, the beat.


Spencer:

You might have answered this a little bit, but why did you change career paths from political science to music when you were in America ? What was your inspiration?

Mr. Lemvo:

Well, music is my passion. I realized that this really was what I was born to do. As much as I wanted to go to law school, and when I look back now I have no regrets, no regrets at all.

Spencer:

Your first album, Tata Masamba, released in 1996. Since then you and your band have played all over the world inspiring your audiences to sing, dance, and celebrate. Why do you think your music is so popular?


Mr. Lemvo:

Well, I think because of the blend, you know because we combine Cuban music and African music, in particular Congolese music. And it's very infectious, it's fun music, and anybody can dance to it. And I think that's really the key to success.

Spencer:

As our world gets smaller do you think we will see more fusion in music?


Mr. Lemvo:

Yes. In the world music category you can find Pakistani music, Arabic music and some of these musicians are doing fusions and they will bring in a musician from a different school of music and create, you know, exciting music.


Spencer:

How would you define world music?


Mr. Lemvo:

Well, world music to put it simply is just a commercial term to categorize non-English or non-American music. But it's an erroneous term.


Spencer:

In France, for example, is there such a thing as world music?

 

Mr. Lemvo:

Well, some French music is considered world music. One of my favorite singers in the entire world is Charles Aznavour. He was born in Paris . Aznavour has been compared to Sinatra. His music is really pop, but how would you categorize his music? Actually he has some of his songs translated in English and he sings in English. And he also sings in Portuguese sometimes and Italian, but this is done so he can sell more records in the country where those languages are spoken. Nat King Cole did the same thing. These musicians are put together in this category called world music.

 

Spencer:

Every performer remembers their most memorable performance, what was yours?

 

Mr. Lemvo:

It's not necessarily the best performance but it is the most memorable. In 1999 in New York City at the Lincoln Center by the fountain outside I performed with a Cuban band, Orquestra Aragon , first created in 1939. It was one of those bands I listened to as a child. Think about it. These are people you admire and all of a sudden I'm sharing the stage with them.

 

Spencer:

I understand the track title from your album, Sao Salvador, has significance. Will you share this with us?

 

Mr. Lemvo:

San Salvador is a city in the northern part of Angola . My grandfather comes from that town so that song was my personal tribute to my grandfather and my family for that matter.

 

Spencer:

Your fifth album Isabela was released this year, can you tell me a little bit about it?

 

Mr. Lemvo:

Isabela, besides Tata Masamba , which I think this is my best album, is my second best. And Mambo Yo Yo is a very good and catchy song. But it's not my favorite and I'll tell you why. It's a song that I wrote in less than ten minutes. It's a very simple song and it has two chords. And in my experience simple, basic songs are very catchy. Most people don't care about how intricate a song is. It's only musicologists who care about things like that. People who come to the bar to listen to the band, they don't care. All they care about is give them a good beat, they get drunk and whatever else they do and they go home and they're happy. That's it.

 

Spencer:

And dance.

 

Mr. Lemvo:

Yeah, dance.

 

Spencer:

I know how you got the name of the album, but for those who don't know, what does Isabela mean?

 

Mr. Lemvo:

Isabela is my daughter who calls me dada. I don't know if she's calling me, but she asks for aqua. Yeah, it's a tribute to my daughter. And I recorded that song even way before she was born, in 2005. Was Jennifer pregnant then, I think she was, maybe two months or three months.

 

Spencer:

After listening to the track Kosonga Boogloo , I wish I was around in the '60's when it was so popular. What is boogaloo and what's its history?

 

Mr. Lemvo:

Boogaloo is just a dance style that was created in New York . It is to me a copy, or another version of Cuban music, but played by New York based musicians. They did fusion of Latin music, Cuban in particular with Jazz. You know, it's very brassy and very catchy.

 

Spencer:

Many musicians convey messages in their music. Share with me some of your messages.

 

Mr. Lemvo:

Besides love.

 

Spencer:

Love is very important.

 

Mr. Lemvo:

Love is very important. Love is very, very, very important because sometimes I speak of love, but not necessarily of love of a man to a woman. For example, in the case of Sao Salvador or even Serenata Angolana which I wrote after my first trip to Angola in 2005. It was a very, very spiritual journey for me because that's the home of my grandfather and my roots.

The first line of the song is about sentiment, love, and affection. " I offer you this melody because you are my true love, my true and only love." Now when you hear that you think I'm talking about a woman, but the second verse is, "When I saw you after so many years of separation my heart was filled with joy and all my suffering ended," and then, "Oh Angola my beloved homeland you will always live in my heart."

 

Spencer:

You have a very successful career and a new baby. If you could write the future how would you write it?

 

Mr. Lemvo:

If I could write the future. Well, I would like to perform at the White House for example.

 

Spencer:

Tell me the procedure of how you write the song.

 

Mr. Lemvo:

Since I have no musical training you can put a chart in front of me and it will be just Greek or Chinese. I read no music, I don't even play an instrument. I get melodies in my head and what I do is I put them on cassette. I do da, da, da, da, da and whatever words come and I'll just put it in there so it can stay, that's the record I am keeping. And I have a cassette where I'll put a bunch of melodies and then I'll set it aside for a month maybe.

Then I'll go back and I will listen to it with fresh ears. And if I hear anything that is worth pursuing or developing then I will concentrate on that. Then after I have a certain structure I will call my musical arranger who lives in Montreal . If he lived in Los Angeles the task would be easy because he will bring the guitar and I will hum it to him. What I do is I will call him on the phone and tell him, look I have this song, and he will say okay, can you sing it for me? I will sing it and he will say okay, I'll hang up the phone and leave it on my answering machine. And I'll leave it on his answering machine. This is as low tech as you can get.

 

Spencer:

Do you say the words or do you sing the words, the melody?

 

Mr. Lemvo:

No, I'll sing the melody, but he is a musical arranger. He will know where to place the words.

 

Marlene:

Do you sing the melody or do you sing the words with the melody?

Mr. Lemvo:

Oh, whatever I'm singing could be gibberish because I don't have the lyrics, I don't even have a theme for the song. Just the melody. Most of the time this is how I compose my songs, but there are exceptions. The song I wrote about San Salvador for example. I had the lyrics and the theme before I even had the melody. Once I have the theme, the melody is easy because I know that this is a song, it's really sentimental, and it has to be very soft with violins and saxophone for example.

 

Spencer:

So when do the lyrics come? You've got the melody down.

Mr. Lemvo

Once you have the music, once you have the melody the lyrics are simple. The song I wrote for Angola for example, sentimental that's easy because I have an idea what the lyrics will be. You know, once we have the arrangement I can just work the lyrics around it.

Spencer:

So you write all your own songs?

Mr. Lemvo:

Most of them.

Spencer:

Most of them. That's really an accomplishment. A lot of musicians don't always.


Mindy:

It's just interesting that you don't read music or play an instrument. Obviously you are very intelligent and you have chosen not to. You're brilliant. You speak six, is it six different languages?

Mr. Lemvo:

Yeah.

Spencer:

In your recent album, Isabela, you sing in six languages, including a duet, Elbette, in Turkish.

 

Mr. Lemvo

That song, okay the original version of that song was by a very popular Turkish woman, singer, and it's in the pop style you know. So I did the arrangement in my style, okay, and I introduced some of the percussion, the instrument that I use in my music and the most important arrangement for that song is we give it a tango baseline. And anybody can dance. These are subtle things that most people don't really pay attention to, but that tango baseline will catch anybody who loves music. It will make you dance and it's very simple. And everything else, all the instruments are dancing around it.

When I gave this song to my arranger, in Paris this time, he was a French arranger who arranged this song for me. I gave him the original version. I say I want this to be a bolero, very slow, like a very slow ballad. Because I do not speak the language I want to be very sure when I sing the people will be able to understand me. So he did it that way. And when he sends me the arrangement I listen to it and I found it too slow and I told him to make it faster. Meanwhile I was listening to, you know the slow arrangement and I got so attached to it when they sent me the second arrangement I said no, no, no we're going to keep it this way.

 After recording the song she listened to it and she said you know your accent is not perfect, but any Turk will understand you and the accent is utterly, to use her word, utterly charming. And I said okay we'll keep it the way it is.

 

Mindy:

That's interesting. Have you made a conscious decision to not put English in your music?

 

Mr. Lemvo:

It's not the conscious decision, but I don't trust myself enough or maybe lack of confidence perhaps. I need someone, a lyrist and a coach to guide me if I were to sing an English song .

 

Mindy:

Maybe it would increase the people who would enjoy your music if they felt they could hear some songs in English as well.


Mr. Lemvo:

I think it would.


Mindy:

Especially if you want to perform in the White House I think you have to sing in English too, and I think that should be one of your goals. I think you will have totally no problem. And Marlene can be a coach because she is very good at these things.


Mr. Lemvo:

Okay Marlene.


Mindy:

She loves your music and she could help you with that, but I think you should just consider that.


Spencer:

You're the first musician to sing in so many languages, now if you bring in a little Italian, a little English, a little Greek music.


Marlene:

In one of your other recordings, you did a little tiny bit of a Jewish.


Mr. Lemvo:

That was a song I learned in Israel. We did a show in Israel and I met this South African Jewish woman who moved to Israel and I was just talking to her and she said, "If you really want to capture this audience you must sing a traditional Jewish song." And I thought I don't know which one. So she taught me that song. I recorded it as a joke really. I was just playing around in the recording studio and the engineer recorded it. And I listened to it and I said sure let's keep it. So it's not even listed on the album, but after you listen to the last song it jumps at you. The album is Ay Valeria.


Spencer:

Can you tell me a little about your dream to build a hospital in Congo?


Mr. Lemvo

For the time being it is still a dream. I really don't know how to make it a reality, but I will keep dreaming. It pains me that there are so many people in Congo without acess to proper medical care.


Spencer: Thank you for sharing so much. I enjoyed meeting you.

Mr. Lemvo It was my pleasure.