Ray Lema ups the groove on new album Transcendance

Audio 11:59
Classically-trained Ray Lema, with his trusted piano.
Classically-trained Ray Lema, with his trusted piano. © Franck Loriou

In a career spanning more than five decades, Franco-Congolese pianist and composer Ray Lema has explored everything from Afrobeat to classical to jazz and collaborated with musicians from Cuba, Congo, Brazil and China. On his new album Transcendance he quits the jazz and world categories to follow "his loves". As he told RFI: “I’m old enough to send the music-sellers packing. I feel I can do what I want.”


Lema came to Paris in 1982 shortly after falling foul of Zaire's then-president Mobutu. He’s found a loyal following here, made more than a dozen albums and most recently worked with French pianist Laurent DeWilde on the remarkable Riddles.

The new album, Transcendance, was inspired by a need to unlace the straight-jackets imposed by the retail music industry.

“So far I’ve always been moved around by music sellers,” he told RFI. “First I was in world music then they said ‘Ray you’re too sophisticated, you should do jazz’. So I said OK. Now I think maybe it’s time for me to make an album where I just put all my loves on the table.”

Lema’s loves include Brazilian and Gnawa bands and the Nigerian king of Afrobeat Fela Kuti, to whom he pays tribute on the title track Transcendance.

When Fela was in prison in 1984-85 Lema was heading up a band and they sang about the need for the Nigerian activist’s release. At a chance meeting some years later, Fela made time to thank the Congolese musician.

“I owe him a lot I have to say, I met him personally and the way he moved into music and his message and his musical philosophy… everything appeals to me.”

Lema in spiritual mode on new album Transcendence
Lema in spiritual mode on new album Transcendence ©Franck Loriou

The album cover shows Lema, a youthful 72, bare-chested à la Fela. But it’s pure coincidence.

“I was changing clothes and the photographer took that shot. It was the one he preferred. So I said why not!”

Nonetheless, the semi-nudity seems appropriate on an album where he reveals something essential about himself: a musician who defends social justice and freedom to go where your emotions take you.

Congo Rhapsody

Lema was born in Bas-Congo, in the west of DRC, and returned home only in 2011 after a three-decade absence. But Congolese blood runs through his veins and remains part of his musical heritage. The piece Congo Rhapsody is based on a rhythm from the Banbouma ethnic group into which he was born.

“In this piece I tried to make a contrast between the melody and the rhythm. The rhythm is very fast and the melody is very slow, just four notes, it’s just to make the complexity of the rhythm stand out.”

Like the majority of pieces on the album, Congo Rhapsody is instrumental and Lema admits he’s always struggled to get recognition back home where “only vocalists, not instrumentalists, are valued”.

But this time, the piece has struck a note.

“For the first time I have Congolese calling me for an instrumental [piece of] music. Until today, they don’t know how to listen to just instrumental pieces. I’m receiving a lot of calls telling me ‘oh wow this piece is really Congolese’. I don’t know if it’s a reward or not but it’s so great for me.”

Kivu’s Blues

Lema’s most recent albums have each included a piece paying tribute to the people of Kivu. In 2014 he performed Les oubliés de Kivu (Kivu's forgotten people) on RFI's La Bande Passante (see video). He knows the region well: as music director of the ZaÏre National Ballet in the early 70s he travelled widely in the Equatorial forest in Kivu, in Bas-Congo, Katanga and the regions of Kasaï in search of the best traditional percussionists.

Since then, Kivu has become one of the DRC’s most troubled regions. On the track Kivu’s Blues he laments the huge loss of life during two decades of conflict, not just in north and south Kivu but in DRC overall. He denounces what he sees as the world’s indifference.

“The message I want to get across is that this year there was a journalist killed [Jamal Khashoggi] and the whole world was so moved by that and in Congo, right now, we’re over six million dead and it doesn’t move anybody. That’s what I’m trying to understand. I hope that someday someone’s gonna tell me what it means for the world to have Congolese die.”

Lema's current line-up: Sylvain Gontard, Irving Acao, Ray Lema, Rodrigo Viana, Nicolas Viccaro, Michel Alibo.
Lema's current line-up: Sylvain Gontard, Irving Acao, Ray Lema, Rodrigo Viana, Nicolas Viccaro, Michel Alibo. © Emmanuel Bovet

Ray Lema in concert 23 November, Petite Hall de la Villette, 211 Avenue Jean Jaurès, 75019 Paris

Transcendance is out on One Drop Records

Ray Lema’s site,  follow him on facebook


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