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Congolese singer Ricardo Lemvo bridges styles, cultures

“I like to maintain my style, a fusion of Cuban, Congolese, and Angolan sounds,” says Ricardo Lemvo. “But I’ve been experimenting.”

Jeffrey Braverman

“I like to maintain my style, a fusion of Cuban, Congolese, and Angolan sounds,” says Ricardo Lemvo. “But I’ve been experimenting.”

In the mid-1930s, with record sales bogged down by the Great Depression, the famous British label His Master’s Voice hit on a tactic: Reissue tracks on 78-rpm records for the African market, which was just awakening.

The decision had far-ranging effects. The first batch of records in what was known as the G.V. Series were by Cuban bands. When they hit West and Central Africa, from Senegal to Congo, they sparked local emulators, setting in motion an important trend in African popular music.

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By the mid-1960s, when singer Ricardo Lemvo was a child in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, the airwaves brimmed with Cuban sounds by the likes of Orquesta Aragón or La Sonora Matancera, and their Congolese heirs, including the classic bands of Franco, Tabu Ley Rochereau, and Le Grand Kallé.

It was another iteration in the centuries-old exchange of rhythm and culture that began with the Middle Passage, when slaves brought their sounds to Cuba and Haiti.

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Today, the great bandleaders of the 1960s are gone. But the role of what scholars call the Black Atlantic, binding both sides of the ocean in dynamic exchange, is as strong as ever. And Lemvo — from his base in Los Angeles — has made it his mission not only to celebrate the Cuba-Congo connection, but to broaden the scope to the sounds of Angola, Cape Verde, and beyond.


“Ricardo is the only one, right now, looking at the totality of what this is,” says scholar-musician Ned Sublette, an authority on Cuban music and its African roots and branches. “The entire time I’ve known him, he’s been looking at the big picture.”

Lemvo and his band Makina Loca, a nine-person crew with roots in Cuba, Congo, Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, and the United States, play Johnny D’s Sept. 17.

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Their seventh album, “La Rumba SoYo,” came out last year. Its songs move deftly among son, salsa, soukous, semba, and kizomba. Lemvo sings in Portuguese, Spanish, Lingala, and Kikongo, sometimes on the same track.

“I like to maintain my style, a fusion of Cuban, Congolese, and Angolan sounds,” Lemvo says on the phone from LA. “But I’ve been experimenting.” His newest material draws on bachata from the Dominican Republic, and morna from Cape Verde.

Lemvo’s family roots are in northern Angola. When he was small, Angola was still a Portuguese colony, and many Angolans lived across the border in Congo. Lemvo credits his vocation to the bar next to his parents’ house in Kinshasa, which blasted Congolese and Cuban rumba, and also New York salsa from the Fania label, at all hours.

“When I decided to take a leap of faith and pursue a musical career, the goal was to blend the styles I heard as a child to create my own sound,” he says.

That came much later. In the 1980s Lemvo sang part time in local bands. He got a political science degree, and considered law school. He worked in the finance department of a hospital, and then for the LA Police Department, as a jailer and court interpreter. He knew some Cuban players, and had written some songs.

When the Congolese soukous band Quatre Etoiles came to town and had some time off, a local radio DJ, C. C. Smith, pushed Lemvo to ask them to back him in the studio on a couple of songs. “I had to take advantage; they were the crème de la crème,” Lemvo says. “That is what gave me the impulsion to record my first album.”

In 2001, one of Congo’s top guitarists, Nseka “Huit Kilos,” who played for years with Rochereau, joined the band. The LA scene later churned up other collaborators, such as Cape Verdean singer Maria de Barros.

A long civil war in Angola ended in 2005. The country’s oil-fueled growth has seen a rebirth of its music scene. Kizomba, a romantic style with roots in rumba, and the more aggressive kuduro have filtered onto the world scene. Lemvo now travels often to Angola; Makina Loca has performed there three times. “People in Angola have embraced me, and I appreciate their support,” Lemvo says.

Three songs on “La Rumba SoYo” were co-written with Angolan songwriters, Lemvo says. And the album’s name contains a pun: As connoisseurs of Cuban music will recognize, it references “El de la rumba so yo,” a Sonora Matancera standard in which the singer proclaims his connection — his oneness, really — with the rumba.

But Soyo is also the name of an ancient coastal city in Angola. It sits on the estuary of the Congo River, and was one of the biggest outbound ports in the Atlantic slave trade. Today it is a center of the oil industry. The album’s opening track, “Santo António do Zaire,” celebrates the city, using its colonial name.

Sublette says Lemvo matches his keen grasp of history with the panache to pull off the music that results. “With his style and charisma, it never seems like a mere exercise,” Sublette says. “The loop across the ocean is all through his music.”

Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca

At Johnny D’s, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. Tickets $25. 617-876-4275, www.worldmusic.org

Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at siddharthamitter@gmail.com.
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