Congolise jazz musician Rey Lema has many interests. He is first an artist, but he prefers talking about politics, about the failure of leaders in Africa.
“There is an African proverb that says if you don’t know where you come from, you can’t know where you’re going,” he said recently during his visit to Nairobi.
“The general history of Africa explains where we come from.”
But, he says, we seem to have no idea where we are going.
Listening to him go on and on about African leaders and musicians makes you understand why he was appointed the music director of the National Ballet of Zaire in 1974. His job was to recruit and manage traditional musicians who would accompany the dancers of the National Ballet. “The opportunity was a gift from God. As music director, I discovered 68 musicians from all over Congo.”
But he prefers talking politics. “African leaders are being misled by leaders from the western countries. It is ironic for a foreigner to come to Africa to tell Africans about their problems and even give solutions.”
His famous song, Ata Ndele, talks about great pan-African leaders like Thomas Sankara, Kwame Nkrumah and Nelson Mandela. “Ata Ndele means sooner or later. Soon Africa is going to need to wake up,” he says. “We’ve had some great men on the continent who have had some great dreams. But our presidents don’t dream any more, Africa no longer dreams”.
Ray was born in 1946 in the west of DR Congo. He always wanted to become a priest, so at 11 he enrolled in the minor seminary of the White Fathers in 1957.
At the seminary, the fathers noticed his passion for music, so a Belgian father taught him to play the organ and piano. His seminarian studies were accompanied by Gregorian chants, Mozart and Chopin.
At the age of 14, he left the seminary and later joined the University of Kinshasa in 1960, where he studied chemistry. But he soon left the university to join a band in Kinshasa, led by Gerald Kazembe in 1961.
With the band’s exposure, he met several stars like Tabu Ley Rochereau and Kabassele. “I played a little for Tabu Ley. Professionally, I am a guitar player and pianist.”
STARTED BY PLAYING CLASSICAL MUSIC
“I started by playing classical music, but that did not pay in Congo, so I started playing Congolese music.”
In May 1997, Congo’s dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was overthrown. He would later settle in Morocco, but the musicians whose livelihood he had destroyed moved to more modest surroundings in Paris and Brussels.
Ray had left for USA in 1979 after a disagreement with Mobutu. “Our musicians are naturally talented. They do not go to any music schools. But I went to university. I had principles; I refused to join other musicians at that time in composing songs in praise of Mobutu. Because of that, I lost everything.
“Before you analyse Mobutu, you need knowledge. People in Africa call their president the ‘father’ of the nation. No president is my father.”
His trip to the USA was an invitation by Rockefeller Foundation and was meant to last one week. However, he only went back to Congo after 32 years. Luckily for, him his move to USA marked the beginning of a brilliant international career. He has released 20 albums to date.
He has collaborated with Manu Dibango, Stewart Copeland, the Bulgarian Voices, the Chamber of Orchestra Sundsvall of Sweden, Chico César and many others.
“I am very optimistic when I see young gifted Africans. I believe if we give our kids the opportunity to learn, we shall be great.”
However, according to Ray, “the young people need to differentiate between cultural music and showbiz music. You can never hear an American confuse between showbiz music and cultural music.
“For example if you go and say Michael Jackson was a great musician, they will say no, he was a great performer. Quincy Jones was a great musician. Every country should have both pop and cultural music, but nowadays we just have pop music. The government should support traditional musicians.”
For Ray, music education in Africa remains a priority. He frequently holds workshops for young musicians. He also produces many African artists.
Ray is a family man. “I don’t really have a home. The home I have known over the years are hotels. I have four children — two boys and two girls. The last is a musician, too.”