The story begins in Liège, circa 1979. Denis Mpunga, then a free-spirited musician touring extensively with his Central African percussion outfit Gomma Percussions, meets Pauk Stas, a local, mad-hatted producer with more than just an inclination for sounds from beyond. The two begin jamming together, Mpunga bringing his Congolese roots to the sessions with Paul Stats, better known as Paul K, injecting in them his electronic experimentations. What resulted was one of the most unexpected, fascinating and exotic sounds never to have been released. Until a certain reissue-crazy label from Amsterdam, Music From Memory, hearing a track on an obscure Spanish compilation, got its hands on the original 8-track recordings and, to the delight of leftfield electronic freaks the world over, finally released the Criola sessions as an EP earlier this year.
Let’s start with the beginning. You moved to Belgium when you were 13. How did you end up in Liège?
I’m the youngest of ten children. Our family comes from the Kasai province, a region in the centre of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the time, it was quite common for the eldest brother to take younger ones under his wing, especially if there was a big age difference. My fourth brother was amongst the first intellectuals to get a scholarship to come study in Belgium after the independence in 1962. He did an MBA in Liège and then went back to the University of Lumumbashi to work as a professor’s assistant. That’s when he became my guardian. After a couple of years, he decided to come back to Belgium to do his PhD and that’s how I ended up in Liège at the age of 13. It was November 1971. I remember it well because it was so cold!
Wasn’t it difficult to leave your country at such a young age?
No, because I wanted to discover new places and new realities. I knew the African reality very well. The sun sets at 6pm every day. It’s hot. You’re obliged to take a nap even if you don’t want to. And you can’t make any noise during that time because otherwise you’ll wake the parents up. I discovered Europe on TV, remember seeing snow falling in movies and finding that fascinating.
So your brother comes back for his PhD and you come along with him. Did you study here too?
Yes, I went to school here. The idea was for him to complete his PhD in five years and then we’d both go back home. In the 70s, the situation in the Congo was still quite stable. Mobutu was at the time still carrying out our national hero Lumumba’s best ideas. During his first few years, the state was still granting very decent scholarships to allow students to come to Europe and pursue serious studies, the understanding being that you had to be able to give back to the country once you went back home.
Not like music?
Not like music, no. Music is something you could just do back home without a degree! It’s a hobby. But you needed a “real” job next to that and pretty much had three options: studying business, law or medicine. That’s how you were conditioned back then and you didn’t really question any of it. Truth is, I never imagined – at that age – that I’d ever be doing a job that was remotely “artistic”. It didn’t make sense. Anyway, once my brother was done, he went back to the Congo to work there. I was 18, had just finished my secondary studies and so it was agreed that I would stay on in Liège in order to study at the University. I was living on my own which, coming from a family of ten children where community spirit always came first, was strange. My brother asked me what I wanted to do and, even though the options were limited, I was still technically given the choice. So I decided to study cinematography. I’m not sure I knew what that actually meant, but I definitely liked the idea of learning how to direct movies.
Were you already into music back then?
I used to listen to music a lot and I remember discovering the United States through James Brown when I was 13. That was my American Dream – James Brown. One of the great strengths of the United States was that they understood early on that culture is the driving force of a civilisation. Many countries still don’t get that. Anyway, I got my first guitar which I bought when I was 17 and here’s my brother thinking it’s just a hobby. But when I told him I wanted to study cinematography, it was a no-go. He said he might be ok with me studying computer science, but that cinema was not going to happen. So I had to follow what he said, but I can tell you it was tough. I really don’t have a logical brain and dropped out pretty quickly, moving on to psychology, something that really tickled my interest. Looking into the human behaviour fascinated me, but I clearly didn’t see myself working as a therapist. From there on, I started lying to my parents. The problem was that, in order to send me money every year, they needed an academic certificate and that’s how they found out I had dropped out. It’s around that time that I started making experimental percussive music with a friend, using found objects we’d collect here and there, and that was the start of the Gomma Percussions.
How old were you at the time?
I was 19 when Fabrizio Borrini and I started Gomma Percussions. We met Jean-Luc Slock shortly after. He was a bit older than us and was very interested in African percussions. He had done an internship in Germany with Mustapha Tettey Addy, who had built very interesting instruments but didn’t have anyone to play them. So he heard about us two raving lunatics banging on pots and pans and brought us instruments for us to play on.
Did you already consider yourself a musician at this stage?
Yes, absolutely. We used to practise in the basement of Trou Perette, a venue that used to host many concerts in Liège. We’d often play in the courtyard and people started showing an interest in what we were doing. Imagine our surprise when a bar actually paid us good money to come and play! Between the late 70s and early 80s, no one knew about African percussion music and so we enjoyed instant success.
So you played mostly live? I was only able to find a seven-inch record…
Yes, that was our main focus. We didn’t record much. We just wanted to play. We got bored in the studio, our thing was interacting with an audience.
I’m just crushing a chicken bone because the marrow tastes good.
Can you tell me about the Liège scene in those days?
There were a couple of places that were important culturally. There was the Cirque Divers (now KulturA) in the Roture neighbourhood. It was an alternative place where you could see experimental plays, jazz and circus performances, it was very vibrant. There was the Trou Perette too, which has now become the Pot au Lait.
There was also a big punk and rock scene in Liège at the time. But you gravitated around the more experimental scenes?
There was a lot of experimenting going on at the time, often in abandoned houses or factories, like the squat called Tous A Zanzibar. Liège was very dynamic back then. The city has a lot of history. Artists fled here during World War II, it really was at the crossroads between Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, and the city became the breeding ground of Belgian jazz. African percussion music, though, was totally unheard of.
And you built your instruments yourself?
Yes, because no store stocked what we needed. Then Jean-Luc went to Senegal in 1982, where he met two musicians of the Bougarabou ballet, which was a traditional ballet. They came back here with him and stayed for a year, pretty much training us during their stay.
How did you meet Patrick Stas, with whom you recorded Criola?
Patrick was introduced to me through a friend. I met him at a point in my life when I was making music that was typically West African, even though I come from Central Africa, which was interesting. Patrick asked me about traditional Congolese music, which was not at all what I was doing with Gomma. I realised I had never really paid attention to the music heritage of my own roots. He introduced me to Zazou Bikaye, and from then on I felt this urge to unearth the music of my childhood. He said he had some recording equipment at his home and invited me over to blend African rhythms with electronic music.
How did you manage to explore the Congolese music of your childhood whilst being in Liège?
I used to go back home every two or three years. Sometimes I’d go all the way back to the village. And once the project with Patrick Stas was on, I started paying very close attention to the musicians and their performances. I’d analyse the music in a whole new way. My father had given me a harp that he owned. It was in bad shape but I restrung it and started playing around with it, in a way that I had never done as a child. That’s when I also realised that there were many ethnomusicologists that had made several recordings of Central African music which were available at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. Patrick was really into it and had introduced me to all these artists like Zazou Bikaye and Konono N°1, who were using this music from Central Africa and blending it with electronics. It really opened my mind.
In essence, it was a Liégeois who reconciled you with your roots from a musical point of view?
Oh yes totally! But with that electronic twist. When you listen closely to some types of Central African music, the tone is never as clean-cut as it is in West African music. And it was the same with electronic music. When analogue synthesisers came up, there was a similarity. There really was a link between electronic and African music, and they fused very organically.
So how did the collaboration with Patrick come about?
At first we were just making each other listen to things and artists we liked. In 1984, we recorded a few things at his home, but never in a formal way. The process was more important than the end result. It was very intuitive. While I was playing, he’d be throwing some pipes together and whatnot without ever really knowing where it would lead. I’d bring over all these strange instruments to his house, which doubled up as a studio. Fortunately his wife was very sympathetic, because we had completely taken over their living room.
So you recorded a few jam sessions but without the aim of ever releasing the material?
That wasn’t the goal, no. But Patrick would get requests for compilations and so we’d sometimes be featured on those. In fact, Criola was released on a Spanish compilation and that’s how Music From Memory, the label that eventually released the record, found us. Two years ago, I got this Facebook message asking about Criola. I hadn’t seen Patrick in 15 years and had to track him down to see if he still had the master tapes. He found some 8-track tapes and that’s how it got released.
How do you remember these sessions?
I was touring a lot with Gomma. Whenever we’d have a break, I’d phone Patrick. He was free all week long but had to work intensively in a restaurant come the weekend. So on Monday and Tuesday, he’d rest a bit, but as of Wednesday we’d get down to work. The sessions were truly free, and my friends from Gomma Percussions just couldn’t wrap their head around what I was doing. They were classically trained musicians and here we were doing completely unorthodox things like playing 17,5-bar segments. Only now do they see the reach of what we were working on back then. It was almost like conducting musical research. We were creating new processes, like pairing a djembe with delay effects. A lot of experimentations were discarded because they were simply inaudible, but sometimes something stood out. We were fully aware that we weren’t the greatest musicians out there, but we were going at it with our hearts and everything we’ve created is authentic in that sense.
So if it weren’t for this Spanish compilation, this music would have completely been forgotten?
Oh yes, absolutely. Another element was the resurgence of vinyl. Suddenly you’ve got 25-year-olds who specialise in these kind of releases. When we went to the release party in Amsterdam, I was expecting to meet 40 and 50-year-olds… Quite the opposite! It was mostly 20-somethings who had re-discovered this music.
What’s amazing is how timeless it is. It could have been recorded today.
If you say so, I guess. But we didn’t have the slightest concept of that at the time.
What were you listening to at the time?
Hmm. I’ve always been very eclectic and have a tendency to be very receptive to what the music inspires within me, as opposed to its technical nature. So I’ve always listened to everything, provided it moves me one way or another.
There was nothing from that time that stood out?
As we were quite passionate about percussions, we listened to a lot of that. Les Tambours du Bronx, who played on oil barrels, for example. I listened to a lot of jazz too, but didn’t follow any particular artist. The thing is, our band was doing well in the 80s, which meant we were performing a lot and didn’t really have a chance to see a lot of other musicians perform. That’s why festivals were great.
Could you tell me about the visual that was used for the record?
It’s the picture we had sent for the Spanish compilation on which Criola had initially been released. When Music From Memory asked for a visual, we felt it was important to remain coherent and use the same one. There’s an ostrich that’s running behind me – it’s a very fast animal – along with an Ethiopian runner who was a record breaker at the time. That was meant to illustrate the speed of culture. And there was the element of being proud to show off one’s teeth – I can bite into an apple, I can chew through bones, that kind of thing. People weren’t worried about being politically correct in the past. And there was nothing wrong about that image; it was about pride. If I can break those chicken bones with my teeth then I’ll do it! That doesn’t make me a savage. If that’s what you see then maybe you’re the one who’s got a problem. I’m just crunching a chicken bone because the marrow tastes good! I wrote a long note explaining all of that because the label wanted a different picture. I told them: “Your label’s called Music From Memory. You’ve got to accept the memory of this record and what it is.” It’s like removing the traces of slavery in the United States. Why do that? It existed. That artwork really was a big joke. As a matter of fact, that picture of me was taken at a barbecue with friends. I remember seeing lots of pieces that were being thrown and it seemed absurd to waste food as they still had a lot of meat on them. So I just wanted to show my friends “Look! This is how it’s done.” Patrick’s wife, who was a graphic designer, had the idea to assemble the picture into this weird collage.
And since then, you’ve had a career as an actor, director and composer. You were nominated for a Magritte Award, composed the score for the Dardenne brothers’ La Promesse. Is there a certain philosophy that link your work as a musician with your career as an actor?
Good question. I can only really look back in hindsight now and yes, to a certain extent, I feel that there are many links and elements that didn’t occur by chance. During the first part of my life, I worked in a more instinctive way. Today, I feel as though I’ve got a project, a dream that I’m refining. If something was ever predestined, I believe it is our sensitivity. I wasn’t attracted to working with Patrick Stas by chance. It fits in with a certain way of questioning things. Even though it’s not completely conscious, it allows me to move towards something. When I look at everything I’ve done and achieved, there has always been a sear for the definition and essence of “living as a citizen of the world”. For a long time, I thought that my roots had remained in Africa. Now I realise that actually, your roots are a part of you and you take them along wherever you go. As you meet people and experience life and the world, you create new roots, and those also move along with you. Becoming a citizen of the world simply means going beyond your origins, which are a starting point, but not an end. is element interests me. It’s all about trying to find meaning and purpose in life.
We were fully aware that we weren’t the greatest musicians out there, but we were going at it with our hearts.
Does that help you in selecting the projects you get involved with?
Absolutely, it helps. Something that is spoken about a lot in the United States – as in the rest of the world – concerns the stereotypical roles that are often given to ethnic actors. What’s important isn’t whether the role is stereotyped or not. What’s important is to look at how that role can be made into something that’s interesting. It allows you to tell the audience: “I’m telling you a story that is about a stereotype, but there is freedom within the image I will choose to project, and there is meaning to be found, even if this is a minor role.” It all contributes to viewing things differently. The most difficult thing to change in mankind is its preconceptions.
But then isn’t accepting these clichéd roles going to allow these preconceptions to endure?
Indeed. That being said, it depends on the script and the way it is written. Some stereotypes leave you little choice. I sometimes get told during castings: “Oh, I thought you’d have a thicker African accent.” To which I simply say: “I’ve got the accent I’ve got. You want an ‘African’ accent? Which part of Africa exactly?” I mean, it’s just the same if I went, “Oh gosh, I thought you’d have a more European accent!” What’s in an accent? If you’ve got a director who’s thought the story through and says, “An accent from the south of Senegal could be useful,” then it’s a whole other ballgame.
Looking back, are there specific moments you’re most proud of?
There was a project I worked on between 2007 and 2009, which was supported by the Varia, the theatre in Ixelles where I was an artist in residency for almost ten years. I was working with sexual abuse victims at a women’s shelter in Burundi. We set up a therapy group, as it is a culture in which one doesn’t speak about these things. These women came and spoke about what they had endured. Those who were willing to were filmed and we worked with a writer. It was a very special moment for me, to see that the theatre medium could serve another purpose than simply artistic satisfaction or entertainment. And that it could change the lives of these women. They were treated as pariahs in their communities because a woman who has suffered sexual abuse is, in their eyes, suddenly worthless. They were able to turn their failure into success, bought plots of land and built their own houses thanks to the theatre. That was an unforgettable experience.Denis Mpunga and Paul K’s Criola is out now on Music From Memory.