Congolese-born, Minneapolis, MN-based guitarist, singer/songwriter and composer Siama Matuzungidi has had a lengthy, decades long prolific career that began in earnest when he left his home in rural Democratic Republic of the Congo, then Zaire with a guitar strapped to his back. He then travelled to Kinshasa and Uganda before eventually landing in Nairobi, Kenya. And during those travels a young Matuzungidi was a studio musician, songwriter and or cowriter with some of soukous’ biggest and brightest names including Kanda Bongo Man, Sam Mangwana, Moni Mambo with Shika Shika, Lovy Longomba, Tshala Muana and Samba Mapangala with Virunga; in fact, Matuzungidi has played on more than 100 singles, including some of soukous’ most beloved radio hits while developing a reputation for material based around tales of love, desire and betrayal paired with catchy hooks and a wry and ironic sense of humor — although on many of those songs he wasn’t officially credited.
As a result of his prolific songwriting and incredible guitar work, Matuzungidi became considered one of soukous’ legends — and in a highly competitive genre in which writing catchy song just wasn’t enough to stay relevant. During the genre’s golden age during the 70s and 8os, it took more than writing a catchy song to keep listeners ears and fans buying albums, and the genre’s songwriters and musicians began writing songs with a deeper complexity and nuance, so you’d hear intricate hooks, complex scales an more. And interestingly enough, that period of experimentation may arguably have prepared and influenced the Congolese soukous legend’s future interest in experimenting with his sound.
Now as the story goes, after spending time performing in Japan and Dubai, Matuzungidi relocated to Minneapolis, the soukous legend quickly realized that he was in for a rather big professional and personal change — “for the first time there wasn’t anyone to play soukous with. I was worried I might have to stop playing but another voice told me to try new things,” Matuzungidi explains in press notes. So the Congolese singer/songwriter and guitarist decided to invite a number of local and locally-based emigre musicians to collaborate with him including Carnatic Indian singer and veena virtuoso Nirmala Rajasekar, renowned gospel singer JD Steele, master Tibetan multi-instrumentalist Tenzen Ngawang, classical cellist Jacqueline Ultan and Joe Savage on pedal steel. As Matuzungidi continues “I invited musicians to share what they feel when they hear my music. I didn’t tell them what to play. I just encouraged them to express themselves in their own way. The music still sounds like home but they’ve added so many cool ideas to it.”
And as a result Matuzungidi’s recently released full-length Rivers is a bit of a modern and highly global take on traditional Congolese music. I have the unique privilege of premiering Rivers‘ opening single, the upbeat 6/8 “Jungle Zombie” which pairs a twisting and looping guitar line with bright blasts of horn, playful polyrhythm and a jazz-leaning bridge in a loose composition that allows room for each of the musicians a few brilliant moments to show off in a brilliant solos, along with call and response vocals. Reportedly, the song is loosely inspired by and is meant to channel the imagery of Matuzungidi and his family walking through the bush to get to their farm, where they grew their own food. Interestingly, as the press notes mention the song’s lyrics translated from Lingala simply say “Bring me water. Bring me food . . ” But the main thing is that the song is so joyous, so fun that you can’t help but want to dance along.