Ricardo Lemvo’s life story makes for a dramatic tale–one of exile, journeys across continents and career changes, a story that can be told in broad, colorful strokes–but ultimately it comes down to the simple meeting of creativity and charisma. Born in the Congo, Lemvo grew up next to a bar in Kinshasa and nurtured the dream of becoming a singer. He later moved to L.A., where he met his Cuban “alter ego” and arranger, “El Nino” Jesus Perez. Together they are the driving force behind the music of Makina Loca, a unique mix of Latin and African rhythms. In 1996, Makina Loca released their sparkling and mature Tata Masamba debut on Lemvo’s own Mopiato label. Understandably, this caught the ear of Putomayo’s world music factory, and Lemvo’s “crazy machine” produced two stellar albums for the record company–1998’s Mambo Yo yo and 2000’s Sao Salvador.
Left to his own devices, in 2003 Lemvo revitalized his Mopiato label with the release of Ay Valeria! Innovative as usual, this fourth album combines soukous, salsa, merengue and Afro-Portugese rhythms in new and ingenious ways, following in the footsteps of the pioneers of Congolese rumba, as well as the grand traditions of Cuba and Latin New York.
Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca are gearing up for their concert at the North Carolina Museum of Art this week on Saturday, Sept. 11. The Indy caught up with Ricardo recently at a festival in Bangor, Maine, where he was “exhausted but happy” after two weeks touring in Europe.
Indy: How do you find your audiences over in Europe?
Ricardo Lemvo: You know, honestly, audiences everywhere I perform are basically the same as far as their reaction to our music and their enthusiasm. The reaction we got from a small town in England for example, I remember we performed there five years ago on a Tuesday night. The place was packed! And you know, English people are known to be very stiff, but these people were loose! And before the show there was a salsa dance instructor teaching everybody a class, and then after the class the people were ready for some live music.
They were “ready for the P.A.R.T.Y.”?
That is right, “but of course!”
There’s more of a sense of Ricardo unleashed on this album. Does it feel liberating to be releasing your own music again?
It is very liberating to release your own record, or to do your own thing. Yeah, definitely, of all the records that I’ve recorded, my first one and this last one were the most enjoyable. Because I had no constraint, I was very free to do what I wanted. To have a contract with a record company has its pluses and minuses. One of the positive aspects of being on a label is they have all the mechanisms, they have the funds to do advertisement, etc. Yeah, but of course, they’ll put a leash on you. [Laughter] There are certain things you can and cannot do because you are being represented by the label. So it’s liberating to be able to play the type of music I want to record. I’m my own boss.
Where did all the funny dialogue come from on the album?
You know, on every album I try to include a fun song. The idea of doing that Wago the Poodle from Ouagadougou, who loves apple strudel, I did it on a whim. You know, life is too short, I have to be who I am, I have to be me. I like to shock people sometimes.
Does [the name of your record label] Mopiato mean anything?
Mopiato is an old Congolese slang word. To be in a mopiato, it means to be involved in a scheme, not necessarily to scheme for a misdeed.
Indy: I’m interested in the historical connections in Africa with Cuban music. In West Africa people often refer to salsa as “pachanga.”
Pachanga really started in the early ’60s in New York. You know, who popularized pachanga is Johnny Pacheco. He was an interpreter of Cuban music, you see. That is one of the reasons why Johnny Pacheco is so revered in Africa, because he played the Cuban sound the way African people like to hear it.
Now, Cuban music was very popular in Africa and it still is. I always say to people it’s because when African people heard the African music of Cuba, they recognized it as their very own, they heard the African element in that music, and that is why they embraced it. As far back as the ’40s, you can go to any African capital, and it was not uncommon to find an orchestra that played its own brand of Cuban music. I’ve always said that the greatest impact was in the Congo, where I was born, because when you listen to Congolese music of the ’50s and ’60s you will definitely hear Cuban music, or an interpretation of Cuban music, or should I say maybe, the re-Africanization of Cuban music.
The Congolese pioneers were very, very clever. What they did was the following: They substituted the piano lines in Cuban music with guitars, and they did the same thing with the horns. Playing the horn line with the guitar, and the piano line with the guitars.
You cover a song by one of your musical heroes on this album, Sam Mangwana. Can you describe what it sounds like?
The song is a merengue, but not your traditional Dominican merengue, it’s an African merengue. The song is really an indictment of the Portugese colonial system in Africa. In Angola for sure. The song talks about “Tio Antonio,” who worked from dusk to dawn and for little wages. And then when he rebelled against his Portugese boss, well, he was deported to another colony of Portugal far, far away, to punish him. And this happened to many, many people, who were taken from Angola and taken to Sao Tome, or the island of Principe, right in the middle of the Atlantic. And there’s no way for you to get home.
[Your arranger] “El Nino” Jesus [Perez] has the best nickname ever. How did you meet up with him?
“The Baby Jesus?” Yeah. I met Nino in Los Angeles in the mid ’80s. Nino was performing around town, and then I was just trying to get my musical career started. And then we struck up a friendship, and the rest is history.
To be a member of Makina Loca, do you have to be well-schooled in both salsa and soukous, or do you just bring your own specialty to the mix?
You just have to bring your specialty to the mix, but also you have to be able to be a team player, really, and someone who can adapt and adjust. The drummer that I have right now, Raul, he’s Cuban…he’s played with Chucho Valdes, he never played soukous before he joined my band. But give him a few days, and he learned. [Now] he loves it.
Are you already thinking about your next creative move?
We’re still touring with the last album, Ay Valeria!, but my mind is constantly at work. Everything evolves, and I cannot do the same album time and time again. So I’m always constantly thinking of new ideas, or finding new ways of creating new styles, and right now I’m already thinking about the next album, brainstorming, and I haven’t really decided what exactly will be on the next album, but I have an idea. I really don’t know whether that idea will come to life. I don’t know yet!