“I love Javier Solis! I´ve even sung with mariachis” exclaims Ricardo Lemvo in his smooth, velvety voice, speaking via telephone from his L.A. home. This revelation is one of many unusual twists in our conversation. To hear a musician named “Ricardo” who lives in California express great enthusiasm for the iconic Mexican rancheras singer would not be that surprising, except that Lemvo is of Angolan ancestry, hails from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the music he creates is actually rooted somewhere between Cuba and the Congo and back.
Lemvo composes and sings with “Makina Loka”, the band he founded in 1990, and his melodies are tinged with rhythms and textures that were born upon the Atlantic Ocean´s waves, as peoples and their music moved back and forth between the Caribbean and the coast of Africa. To tell their story from its beginning, we have to start with Afrocuban genres such as the rumba, which emerged in the cultures of African descendants in Cuba. Centuries later, Cuban music with its African roots creolized with the other cultures of the island, returned on 78 rpm discs to one of its continents of origin, becoming wildly popular throughout Africa. In the fifties, in particular, Cuban sounds and dances like the cha-cha-cha and the mambo took root in the Congo and that country developed its own new genre called the Congolese rumba. Now, Lemvo has transformed that genre anew, mixing in and layering pan-African styles like soukous, kizomba, and semba upon a structure of pan-Latin styles – salsa, cumbia, bachata. The results are an irresistible super African-AfroLatin beat.
The languages Lemvo sings in are as diverse as his beat – English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Lingala, and Kikongo. His ease in navigating a wide range of multicultural and multilinguistic references shows even in the name he chose for the band – “Makina Loka” is a translator´s pun – that is, if the translator speaks Kikongo, Portuguese and Spanish. In Kikongo, it means to “dance under a spell”, and in the other two languages it is a slightly mispelled “crazy machine”, and highlights well how Lemvo´s music speaks easily to both Africa and Latinos.
Lemvo´s family, one of highly educated Congolese, actually includes a famous translator. He proudly asks me to “google” Nlemvo Dundulu, so I can see the bio and picture of his beloved paternal grandfather, the first Protestant Christian in the Congo, and a Baptist who translated the Bible from English into the Kikongo language.
However, neither languages nor music were part of Lemvo´s formal training. In fact, he comments, he cannot read music nor does he play an instrument, and he composes songs entirely by ear – singing and taping songs as they come to him in inspiration, and then if they survive further scrutiny and he deems them worthy, he has them arranged by other musicians. And as to studies, Lemvo has a degree in Political Science. He would have been a lawyer if music had not captivated him first.
Six CD´s later, music lovers and dancers world-round sway and swing happily under his crazy machine´s musical spell and celebrate that decision – because to quote one of Lemvo´s own songs, titled “Africa, Havana, Paris,
…“I got the heat of rhythm, sí señor!
,,, if your soul is broken,
I´ll fix it in a minute!
Soundculture Chicago presents Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loka in concert March 6 at the Mayne Stage.