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World Music Matters

Ray Lema goes 100 per cent jazz for VSNP

Audio 10:09
P. Vallée

Franco-Congolese pianist and composer Ray Lema has had a long, eclectic career. He's made more than 15 albums and composed for film and theatre.


The classically trained Lema has explored jazz, world and classical music but admits this has sometimes left his fans confused.

And in a commercially-driven music business, it's made him difficult to market.

"When we wanted to put the albums onto itunes, we always went into the traditional category, because I was born in Africa," he says.

For his latest album VSNP (Very Special New Production), he's adopted a 100 per cent jazz attitude.

The album is in part a tribute to Herbie Hancock's VSOP (Very Special Old Production). He describes discovering that album in Kinshasha back in 1977 as "a blow".

"He changed the way I thought about music," Lema exclaims. "For two weeks I couldn't bring myself to touch the piano. I was a young musician, I felt I was useless."

Thankfully, he continued and 35 years later felt able to plunge into an exclusively jazz universe.

Lema has kept Hancock's quintet line-up: trumpet, saxophone, bass, drums and piano. Bassist Etienne Mbappé plays a particularly important role in this African-inspired jazz formation.

In central Africa, unlike in west Africa, the lowest drum gives the base-line, Lema tells us. So he needed a bassist that could play that role and be an adept jazz player. Mbappé carries it off to perfection and Lema says he built all the tracks around him.

As well as presenting the new album in concert - most recently playing to a packed house at Paris's New Morning jazz club - Lema cares a lot about encouraging musicians on the African continent.

After a four-year break, he hopes to return to giving masterclasses at the African Music University in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, towards the end of the year.

"In Africa, instrumentalists are considered as workers", he says. "You don't even have the right to sit at the same table as the vedettes (the singers)."

Lema wants that to change. "I just dream of a day when instrumentalists can feel respected. It's just a matter of respect."


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