MICHEL MARTIN, host:
A sold out crowd gathered at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre to soak up the music of the Congolese-born recording artist, Ricardo Lemvo, and his nine-piece band, Makina Loca. Lemvo and company were in the Washington D.C. area recently to warm up a chilly night.
Mr. RICARDO LEMVO (Lead Singer, Makina Loca): I feel love in the house. Thank you very much.
MARTIN: The infectious beat kept the crowd on their feet.
(Soundbite of song "Pap Na Bana")
Mr. RICARDO LEMVO: (Singing in Foreign Language)
MARTIN: That's Ricardo Lemvo performing live in suburban Washington last week. The song is called "Papa Na Bana," and if you're not quite sure what you're hearing, but you like it anyway, you're not alone. He is known as a multilingual, multitalented performer with a sultry sound infused with the flavors and languages of Africa, the Caribbean, and South America. His latest album is called "Isabela." He's currently on tour, but he took a break long enough to talk with us from NPR West. Ricardo Lemvo, welcome.
Mr. LEMVO: Why thank you, it's an honor to be here with you.
MARTIN: Well thank you, that's very kind of you. Now as I understand it, you were 15 when you came to the U.S. from the Congo, and you actually got a degree in political science. So what was the plan? Were you planning to be a lawyer or?
Mr. LEMVO: Yes, indeed.
MARTIN: A politician, heaven forbid?
Mr. LEMVO: My plan was to go to law school, but those plans were derailed by my love for music. I decided to follow my heart.
MARTIN: How did you figure out that music was your passion?
Mr. LEMVO: Well I was eight or nine years old, and we were living at the time in Kinshasa, the Congo. And we lived next to a bar, and we were bombarded day and night by not only Cuban music, but Congolese music, and also American rhythm and blues. So I somehow memorized all the songs that I heard from the bar next door, and I used to daydream that I was leading a band. And it was at that moment that I decided that one day I will have my own band.
MARTIN: That's amazing! You must have quite a memory.
Mr. LEMVO: Yes, I do.
MARTIN: Did you learn to play instruments, read music?
Mr. LEMVO: Actually, no. I do not play an instrument. I don't even read music.
MARTIN: How is this possible that you write so many...
Mr. LEMVO: My songs are - many, many times I have the melody in my head, and I will sing the melody into a cassette and go over it. And if I decide that it's something worth pursuing, and I will develop it further.
MARTIN: Your music has the - what's the word I'm looking for? It's infused with the tones, with the sounds, legacies, of all of these different cultures, and I'm just wondering how you arrived at that. It's a very distinctive sound.
Mr. LEMVO: My music is a blend of pan-African styles - central African rhythms. I blended those rhythms together, and that is how Makina Loca was born.
(Soundbite of song)
MAKINA LOCA: (Singing in Foreign Language)
MARTIN: You've got five albums.
Mr. LEMVO: Yes.
MARTIN: Your latest is called "Isabela."
Mr. LEMVO: "Isabela."
MARTIN: And is there any particular meaning to that title?
Mr. LEMVO: Yes, yes, there is. There, is actually. Isabela is the name of my 19-month-old daughter.
MARTIN: Oh, congratulations!
Mr. LEMVO: Thank you. Thank you. I wrote the song a year before she was born, and we decided, my wife and I, decided that this was to be the name of our child if that child was a girl. And it just so happened that she is a girl, and we decided to dedicate this album to her.
MARTIN: Well, I think we should hear a little bit of "Isabela." "Isabela" is one of the cuts from the album. I think we should hear a little bit.
(Soundbite of song "Isabela")
Mr. LEMVO: (Singing in Foreign Language)
MARTIN: What are you saying?
Mr. LEMVO: Isabela, Isabela, whapiyo, amorea bio (ph). Isabela, Isabela, where are you, my darling? I love you. I love you very much.
(Soundbite of song "Isabela")
Mr. LEMVO: (Singing in Foreign Language)
MARTIN: What language are you speaking?
Mr. LEMVO: That's Lingala. Lingala is spoken in Congo, Kinshasa, Congo Brazzaville, and some parts of Angola, the northern part.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Ricardo Lemvo, the multilingual, multitalented performer. His latest album is "Isabela." I have to mention there are at least six languages represented on this album, Portuguese, Kikongo, Spanish, Lingala, Swahili, and Turkish.
Mr. LEMVO: And Turkish.
MARTIN: First of all, I just - I really need to know how is it possible that you have mastered all of these languages? Can you actually speak all of these languages, or do you just sing in them?
Mr. LEMVO: In Africa, most people speak at least two languages. One of them is an African language, and the other one is a European language depending on what country they're from. In my case, I speak French because I was born in Congo, but I also speak Portuguese because my family is from Angola. I speak Kikongo because Kikongo is also a language of Angola and Congo. Now, I do not speak Turkish, and there's an interesting story about that Turkish song. It's an old popular Turkish song, and the title of the song is "Elbette." Elbette literally means certainly. As soon as I heard that song, I fell in love with it without understanding any of the lyrics.
If I can just tell you some of the lines in the song? The very first line is if the sun sets every night and rises every day, if the flowers die and die to bloom again, if the deepest wounds heal, if the greatest pains are forgotten, tell me what does one fear in life? Certainly, sometime I will bloom, and sometime I will die.
You see for me, this song has a message of hope. It's an inspiring song for me. It just tells me that no matter what difficulty we have or may have in life, there is always a better tomorrow.
MARTIN: Let's hear a little bit.
Mr. LEMVO: OK.
MARTIN: Let's hear a little bit of "Elbette."
(Soundbite of song "Elbette")
MAKINA LOCA: (Singing in Turkish)
MARTIN: And of course, that's a duet.
Mr. LEMVO: Yes.
MARTIN: And who is your partner there?
Mr. LEMVO: It's a friend of mine who actually lives in Washington, D.C. She's a mezzo soprano. Her name is Janam Guzey (ph).
MARTIN: So you perform mostly with a band, right?
Mr. LEMVO: Yes. Makina Loca is a nine-piece band, and we performed all over North America, all over Europe, and Africa in Angola. We performed in Angola, actually.
MARTIN: How do your audiences respond to you in different places? I'm just curious if you get a different reception in Angola than you do in Australia.
Mr. LEMVO: Most of my audience do not understand the lyrics. But I believe that they get it. You know, I'm reminded of a quote attributed to Gil Scott-Heron. One time he played a big festival in - somewhere in Europe, and they ask him, well do you know this audience was going crazy, and they don't understand what you're saying. And do you know what he responded? He said they got the message because everyone understands drums.
(Soungbite of laughter)
MARTIN: I hear you.
Mr. LEMVO: So they do get it.
MARTIN: Do you have any thoughts about - there's a very interesting thing, and you live in the U.S., and so you know what I'm talking about. This whole discussion around language and identity - is an issue that has become somewhat sensitive in the U.S. It hasn't always been. But what language we use. English is a national language, but there are other people who speak, particularly, Spanish these days, and there's some toing and froing over what language we should use predominantly sort of in the culture.
Given the history of, you know, colonialism in Africa and the fact that the reason that many Africans speak European languages is because of the colonial powers, right? Who occupy these sort of countries - I just wondered if you ever have any feelings about the language you choose to sing in and whether your audiences do?
Mr. LEMVO: When I write my songs, I really don't decide that I will write this song, particular song, in Portuguese for example, or in Spanish, or in Kikongo. It just flows. And I feel that living here in America, it's very important that residents of this country master the English language. But having said that, I also think that it is necessary for people to learn at least a second language.
MARTIN: You know my self-esteem is really taking a beating in this conversation. I thought I was kind of smart, but I'm feeling a little slow now. So tell me about your tour. Where are you going, and how long you're going to be on tour?
Mr. LEMVO: We are going to Europe in June, and we're also going to the Caribbean, French Caribbean. We're going to Martinique and Guadalupe. And then, we're going back to Africa sometime in the summer.
MARTIN: So what song - is there a song from the latest album, "Isabela," that you'd like to leave us with - that we should say goodbye on?
Mr. LEMVO: Well, "Prima Donna." "Prime Donna" is...
MARTIN: I'm sorry, you're not talking about me are you?
Mr. LEMVO: No, no, I'm not talking about you, no. Actually, it's a dilemma. This man falls in love with this snooty woman, the Prima Donna. And although she's beautiful, and she smells good, and she's smart, but the poor gentleman asks himself whether he should continue with this relationship. And he asked the gods of Africa to help him make a decision.
MARTIN: OK. Ricardo Lemvo's latest album is "Isabela." He lives in Los Angeles and performs with Makina Loca. He's currently on tour, and he was kind enough to join me from NPR West in Culver City. Ricardo Lemvo, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. LEMVO: Thank you very, very much for having me on the show today.
(Soundbite of song "Prima Donna")
MAKINA LOCA: (Singing in foreign language)
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.