From Kinshasa to Paris, from rumba to jazz, from Stewart Copeland to the Gnawas of Essaouira … A look back on the septuagenarian pianist’s life, in which he has continually surpassed himself, after the release of his new record, Transcendance.
To each his or her own transcendence. Its definitions are manifold, depending on whether you look at it from the vantage point of religion, of metaphysics, of philosophy or mathematics. But what about music? Does transcendence lie in the difference between two shelving positions in a record shop? This seems to be the case for Ray Lema, whose albums have just migrated, as their author reaches seventy years of age, from the “World Music” box to the one labelled “Jazz.” “I want to be free from commercial dictatorship, to show myself as I am, and therefore to transcend the barriers that have been imposed on me.” His latest album, performed by a jazz sextet including Irving Acao (saxophone), Sylvain Gontard (trumpet), Nicolas Viccaro (drums), Michel Alibo (bass) and Rodrigo Viana (guitar) is aptly entitled Transcendance.
In Ray Lema’s life, everything suggests the urge to surpass oneself, and hence: transcendence. He has had to overcome numerous barriers since 1946, when his mother was forced to disembark from a train in the village of Lufu Toto (Democratic Republic of Congo). This is where he was born, whilst his father remained as a stationmaster in Lusaka (Zambia) until his death when Ray was five. He was then consigned to the care of his mother’s family in Matadi and afterwards Kinshasa, where he entered the small theological school of Mikondo at twelve years of age. “I wanted to become a priest, and that is how I became a musician. I was told ‘you are a musician’ – and so I became one.” Significantly, he was much more talented on the pump organ than his classmates, and gave his first concert interpreting Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata. His activity continually shifted direction – transcending itself. “I am a believer without being religious, he explains. At the seminary (theological school), I would spot contradictions and I ask: ‘Father, if God is omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient, how can he allow Satan to exist?’ He answered: ‘You are too young to understand’. Later on, I renewed my question: ‘You are still too young’. I never went back. Today, I think I have finally understood: there is no good without evil, just as there is no day without night … the world is wonderful when you look at it with humour.”
In Kinshasa, he would fall asleep to the rhythm of the drums, beaten until 4 in the morning to accompany births, weddings and funerals, regardless of ethnicities. But never to the sound of a piano. He played the Beatles, Hendrix and The Who within the confines of his home on a guitar that his older sister had sent over from Brussels: “I was a model student ‘til the end of my Greek and Latin humanities.” But things began to go awry at university, when the effervescence of the Kinshasan nights caught up with him. Whilst he played during balls and acquired a small reputation, he also worked at the Afro-Mongambo, a nightclub where Belgian, American or Spanish expatriates brought records so that the native musicians could learn to play the Western hits – jazz included – that they loved. “One day, a car stopped by me. It was Gérard Kazembe, the singer at Afro-Mongambo. He told me: ‘Are you Ray Lema? My lead guitarist has left me. Can you help out?’ I laid down my books and became a professional musician.”
His appointment as director of the National Ballet of Zaire was another turning point. “In 1973, in order to produce a quality show in the context of Mohamed Ali vs. George Foreman that was to take place a year later in Kinshasa, I was asked to gather 75 musicians representing all the ethnicities of the country. They had similar, yet different rhythms – as if they spoke the same language but with different accents. In order to teach them how to play together, I became master drummer and it was an extraordinary turning point in my life. It taught me how to adapt to Stewart Copeland’s rock style, to the mystery of Bulgarian voices and to the Gwanas from Essaouira – I immediately recognize their accents.”
After the fight, which boosted Mobutu’s notoriety, the Zairean dictatorship continued to think in terms of the big picture, to the point that they demanded an opera from Ray Lema. But when he explained the necessity of writing a libretto, he was told that one already existed in the form of the “little green book,” which is a collection of Mobutu’s quotations that expound the commandments of the Popular Movement of the Revolution. As Ray Lema refused to sing the praises of “the Guide,” he found himself homeless and without a car from one day to the next.
After being invited by the Rockefeller Foundation to play in the United States, he suddenly became gripped by doubt as he was about to board the place back home. “My suitcases were already on, my two co-musicians as well. I told them: ‘I’m coming.’ And I never went.” Indeed, Ray Lema didn’t return to Kinshasa until 2011. In the meantime, the nickname of the Congolese capital had shifted from “Kin la Belle” (Kin the Beautiful) to “Kin la poubelle” (Kin the trash bin). “I wept like a child,” he remembers as he laments the collapse of his vast country, whose population lives in misery whilst he lives as one of the richest men on the planet. “When I used to travel across the provinces for the National Ballet and arrive in Goma (in North-Kivu, East Congo), I saw billboards asking the housekeepers not to throw the bean water away in the street … so as not risk planting a field of beans on the road. Today, people continue to starve to death with the conflicts having caused six million deaths overall in the North of Kivu.”
In the United States, the competition between musicians snuffed out the possibility of solidarity, even between the Zairean musicians that arrived. But Ray Lema was finally able reconnect with his first love, the piano, and the compositions that go with it. Jazz came knocking at the same time: “one day, I read an interview of Miles Davis, who said that jazz was not just music but an attitude. Something clicked into place. If I could play rumba or Pygmy music with the attitude of jazz, then I wanted to go down that path.” It was a path that took him to Brussels, then Paris thanks to Jean-François Bizot, during the period of Actuel magazine and Sono Mondiale, allowing him to cross the border smoothly. Since then, it has been in France that he has combined his eclectic identity with his quest for freedom, exemplified in his duo partnership with the pianist Laurent de Wilde. In regards to his new album, in which two African claves combine on “So that the wheel can turn” to satisfy his appetite for sophistication, he says: “It is the first time that I can record with a jazzy attitude whilst intending to create music that African’s won’t associate with jazz. His final transcendence depends on the realisation of this ambition.
21.11.18 – Ray Lema Transcendance @ La Petite Halle
22.11.18 – Ray Lema & Laurent de Wilde @ La Petite Halle
23.11.18 – Ray Lema Solo + quartet Aquarius @ La Petite Halle