Ilka Schlockermann talks to London-based Congolese singer, songwriter, drummer, dancer and Kasai Masai bandleader Nickens Nkoso.
Kasai Masai are a five-piece band led by Nickens Nkoso, bringing the traditional sound of remote equatorial African villages to London with a contemporary twist. They have established themselves as a popular live act on the African and World music scenes in the UK.
Ilka Schlockermann : What does the name Kasai Masai mean?
Nickens Nkoso : Kasai is a region in Congo which lies in the heart of the rain forest where many tribes such as the Baka still maintain their traditional lifestyles. The Maasai, just like the Baka, are another dignified tribe whose lives still centre around a nomadic existence.
IS : When did you form the band?
NN : Kasai Masai was born in 2003 after I realised that there was still a lot more to share with audiences other than only Rumba and Soukous. Congolese music is so rich!
IS : Tell us about the other members of Kasai Masai.
NN : Before moving to Britain, all Kasai Masai musicians evolved in Africa as part of high profile local bands who toured around the world. Kawele Mutimanwa, our lead guitarist, played in Tanzania with Super Matimila - Remi Ongala, Safari Sound, MK Group and Orchestra Makasi. He also played with Orchestra Virunga during his stay in Kenya. Rama Wa Mapendo, our saxophonist, and Jean Claude Mukubwa, our drummer, also played with Orchestra Virunga. In addition, in Nairobi, Rama played with Seper Mazembe and Les Wanika, while Jean Claude played with Vundumuna. Whilst in Tanzania Rama played with Atomic Jazz and Jean Claude with Les Maquis du Zaire. During a short spell in Zambia, Jean Claude drummed for Fire Family. Claude Bula, our bass player, started his career in DR Congo where he played with Las Vegas, Mizoto and Wela Wela, and later joined Choc Star and Big Star.
IS : Which languages do you sing in?
NN : The lyrics reflect the cultural diversity of the region where more than 400 languages are spoken. The songs on our album present contemporary issues using a number of these tongues, including Swahili, Lingala, Kimongo, Kwango and Mbole.
IS : Are the songs in your repertoire your own compositions or do you also perform traditional songs?
NN : Most of my songs are based on traditional rhythms from different villages along the Congo River. Once my heart has connected with a particular beat, my mind starts singing back to me heartening melodies. When the music is in place I then write my own lyrics taking inspiration from ancestral story-telling passed on from one generation to another through African oral culture. This is my way of keeping our civilisation alive.
IS : How old were you when you got into music and how did it start?
NN : I come from a village called Songo Bomate in the region of Equator, the northern part of Congo, where I was drawn in as a child to both Mongo traditional music and Church style singing. As a teenager, I moved to Kinshasa and discovered the trendy Soukous groove. This music enthused me so much that I was left with no choice but to get involved. I first formed a band with some friends and later on joined Koffi Olomide’s Quartier Latin. But as the war unfortunately exploded in DR Congo, I came to Europe in 1992 to pursue my musical career. After a short stay in Brussels, I decided to settle in London, which I felt weirdly connected to. I must have been a British man in one of my previous lives!
IS : Is it hard being a drummer and front person?
NN : It is not hard, it is different! As a percussionist I gel more with the other members of the band when I am sitting down at my djembe; whereas as a front person, up on my feet, I feel more intimate with the public. This is why sometimes during performances I feel the need to stand up. Delivering a great show is all about finding the right balance as it is important that we all - the musicians, the public and I - have great fun together.
IS : You are also a very good dancer. Describe Congolese dancing to a novice.
NN : Rather than being the richer or the stronger, in the village the Alfa male is the most interesting dancer. A sense of humor and novelty are the main assets! Movements revolve mainly around the hips. There is no right or wrong way of moving as long as your body moves around the rhythm. A certain degree of silliness is also a great value added. So, guys, never take yourselves seriously when you are trying to impress the ladies with your Congolese hip movements!
IS : You have performed the WOMAD world music festival where the audience is mainly white as well as performing at Congolese events. How do your performances differ?
NN : It mainly depends on two things: How you can interact with your public and what they expect from you as a musician. Because they understand the language, you interact with a Congolese audience through the lyrics. As a result they can connect to the songs easily, they also recognize the rhythms and therefore they already know the appropriate dance steps. When they come to our events, Congolese people expect the type of music which is going to give them a good dance all night. For a British audience, the emphasis has to be placed on the music and on the visuals. Our public expects to discover new vibes or to re-live a cherished experience connected to Africa. Because it is an unfamiliar territory for them and they seem really shy when it comes to letting their bodies loose, showing them how the steps go encourages them to dance and join in the fun with you.
IS : Tell us about the best show Kasai Masai have played.
NN : Every show we have played has a special place in our memory. They are all unique, exciting and learning experiences for us. However, going to play in Wales is as adventurous as going on a Safari. For example, in July 2007, we were all set for the Llangollen Festival, but unfortunately it was on the day of the flood and we never managed to get passed Worcester. The next day we had another event to attend in South Wales, the Sheep festival. It was impossible to get through to the rising water, but all of a sudden a man appeared out of nowhere, like an angel, and managed to find us a way into dry land. We were so relieved as we had to sleep in the car the night before on the edge of the river Avon which was bursting! Nevertheless, it is a gig that we did in Bangor, in Hendre Hall, that wins the price for this year! As soon as we hit mid-Wales, it started snowing so heavily that we were advised to turn back. Determined to get to Bangor, we decided to change direction. Once we arrived there we felt welcome like heroes by an audience who were patiently waiting for us. Despite the cold outside, the night was so hot with all these people dancing that we were taken back to Africa. That gig was like an Oscar-winning movie. It had all the ingredients of a great entertainment night: suspense, with the snow getting on the way, pace with an interactive audience and a very happy ending.
IS : What's your favourite thing about working as an African artist in the UK and what are the main challenges?
NN : As an African artist, I feel valued by the British society because people seem open, curious and interested in the sound I am bringing to them. I especially take my hat off to all the passionate promoters who must love our music so much to work this hard to give us more exposure. Nevertheless, even though there are a lot of great African musicians based in the UK, they seem to become invisible as importing acts from abroad appears to be more exclusive.
IS : Tell us about your other projects, such as teaching, being a backing vocalist with other acts etc.
NN : I really like working as a backing vocalist as it gives me the opportunity to step back a little bit more and to see how other musicians might go about their work. I learn a lot from them and I love performing with them as we all are a big family. Dancing for me is like a second nature; alongside singing it is a way to express myself. And it’s fab because as a musician I can build this great passion into my shows. I see teaching drumming and dance as another side of the same coin. Sharing my knowledge and skills with different types of audience brings me a great sense of satisfaction. I love working with children and young people as they are our future and I feel it is important to promote racial harmony straight from the school playgrounds. When I get the opportunity, I also like the feeling of bringing something unusual to the life of an elderly or someone with learning difficulties. Finally, I have also done some exciting corporate sessions consisting in using drumming to boost staff moral and foster team working. I am wondering where all this is going to take me next!
IS : What sort of music do you listen to?
NN : Looking at what I do, everybody will guess Congolese music! Not only that it is my roots, but I am also proud of the impact it has on the rest of Africa. But, because I work in this field, I always have to analyse our music up to its fine details. However, on a more personal level I really love reggae. With reggae, I can let myself go and enjoy the final groove as it is meant to be! My favourite artist is Bob Marley, as I feel the messages he was trying to put through are still of relevance today in the 21st century.
IS : What is your favourite African album right now?
NN : 'Respect' by Lucky Dube. I love the way he has managed to fusion African grooves together with Reggae. When I listen to this album I feel deeply connected to it. And sadly now that Lucky has gone, it makes me feel even more emotional listening to it, it has now become a jewel for me.
IS : What is your all-time favourite African CD?
NN : For me Franco is the godfather of Congolese music, so I always go back to his work in order to find inspiration. 'The Rough Guide to Franco' is a really good compilation and a reference as it depicts the artist evolution straight from the beginning up toward the end of his career.
IS : What is your all-time favourite African song?
NN : I love ‘Mabele’ from OK Jazz. I have left Kinshasa for a while now, and sometimes I do feel homesick. This song comforts me and brings me right back to the home of my childhood at the beginning of a cool dusk, with OK Jazz as a peaceful atmospheric music.
IS : What is your all-time favourite African act?
NN : Times and times again, when I watch him on DVD, I must say that Fela Kuti really impresses me. With Afrobeat, he has managed to bring back together the two black cultures from either side of the Atlantic which have been evolving separately for a while. With Fela my identity as a Black man out there in the world feels complete.
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