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Music is my Ammunition
“The songs of my ancestors ricochet through the wind, and the smoke is rising from the words I and I sing Music is my ammunition, Fire Down Babylon.”
AFRO FIESTA, MUSIC IS MY AMMUNITION
These opening words cut to the heart and soul of Congolese musicians, Mermans Mosengo and Jason Tamba as they sing on the opening track to their new album, ‘Music is my Ammunition’.
Mermans Mosengo and Jason Tamba both left their native country of the Congo more than fifteen years ago in search of a better life. They met for the first time in South Africa, where they formed
the band Afro Fiesta. Their music mixes different influences such as Roots Reggae, Makossa, and Congolese rumba. They use music to educate and inspire the world to find positive solutions for
the Congo and all of humanity.
Mermans Mosengo arrived in South Africa from Congo in 1998, where he joined the Young Bakuba Band as a drummer and bass guitar player. After a year in the band he found that his independence and musical style were being limited and so he branched out on his own as a solo artist in 1999.
He was soon in high demand doing solo gigs at various Cape Town venues, however, he decided
that he preferred a band set-up and assembled what is now the highly regarded multi-cultural band, Afro Fiesta.
Born in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jason had been playing guitar since age seven, when he made his own instrument out of wood and four strings. Teaching himself guitar for a decade, he began to study classical guitar at age 20, finally earning a degree in classical guitar. After playing at churches, local venues and in Papa Wemba’s traditional group Percussion Molokai, Jason decided to travel to South Africa and expose himself to more opportunities. It was there that he joined the group, Afro Fiesta, as a guitarist.
The group’s first self-titled album, released in 2005, is full of songs that are a fusion of various styles including Afro-jazz, Kwasa-Kwasa, Makosa, and hints of Latin music. Widely considered innovators in the entertainment industry, Afro Fiesta has performed at numerous music festivals including Jazz on the Rocks, Joy of Jazz, OBZ Festival, Light Festival and Africa Day Celebrations.
Without further ado, Irie Magazine is proud to present this exclusive interview with Afro Fiesta!
IRIE. You left your native country of the Congo during the war more than 15 years in search for a better life. What was life like for you guys growing up in the Congo?
Jason: Life was not that tough when I was growing up compared to the years of war that followed in the Congo. Our parents had proper jobs and I received a good education!
For me, life became harder after my father died. It was the same year I was finishing High School and I was forced to leave the countryside and search for a better life in Kinshasa the Capital. Kinshasa was already crazy at that time. I am talking about 1990. I knew I had to leave the Congo and find more opportunities.
Mermans: I left my country in 1994. Growing up in Kinshasa was more like a community kind of life style. After school I would throw my bag in the bedroom and pick up my soccer ball and join my friends to play soccer.
Music was everywhere and I began playing and singing full time after High School. When times got tough, music was my ammunition.
IRIE. Jason… You started playing guitar at the age of seven using a guitar that you made out of wood that featured only four strings. What was your inspiration to do this? I applaud you, my friend!
Jason: My friends and I were inspired by our elders! There was a man named Matondo Nzingu Junior who was really my inspiration. He taught us to play the C, F and G keys, on his only guitar that everybody used to learn with.
I could not afford to buy a guitar at that age and I started making a one-string guitar. I would take a piece of wood with a string attached to two nails. I was around seven at that time.
In 1980 we went for a holiday to my grand parents and they had a carpenter close to the house. He would let me use his equipment, and that is where I started making my four string guitar. I don’t have any pictures of it but it was known by everybody who knew me in Lukala (my Village).
IRIE. Jason.. You taught yourself to play guitar for more than a decade and then decided to study classical guitar at the age of 20, where you earned a degree in classical guitar. Why was it important for you to study classical guitar?
Jason: I felt so limited teaching myself to play the guitar. I wanted to know more about the instrument and music in general. My studies at school were not only based on the guitar. We had many courses, like the history of classical music, music therapy, sheet reading, harmony and so on….
My father wanted me to study music and told me if I wanted to make my life out of doing it I had
better learn as much as possible!!
IRIE. Mermans… is it true that you learned to play the guitar in secret because you did not want your parents to find out?
Mermans: Yeah, I made sure my parents didn’t know. My father, who was an accordion player and died too soon in 1990, never saw me playing guitar, he never knew!!!! My mom is the one who wrestled me for 4 years breaking my guitars.
IRIE. Did you see music as a way out of the Congo?
Jason: Yes, music was the only way out of the Congo because this was the only thing that made me feel so happy and the only thing I could rely on!! Music is my life. Once it took me, I couldn’t get out of it anymore!
Mermans: Yeah music was the reason I left Congo. I wanted the whole world to listen to the music and to hear the message about life in the Congo, which I could not deliver while living there.
IRIE. Who were your musical influences growing up?
Jason: I was exposed to all the kinds of music. At home, we listened to traditional music, pop and classical music, which played on a magnetic recorder and an old vinyl player brought from France by my Dad. I would listen to all types of music and soon I was able to perform anything that played on the radio! Everything that my parents listened to, I loved it all. My older brother introduced me to Bob Marley and other pop music like, Tracy Chapman, Billy Ocean and Linda Ronstadt.
Mermans: Bob Marley and Peter Tosh were my influence.
IRIE. You met for the first time in South Africa, having left your native country in search of a better life? What united you to form Afro Fiesta?
Jason: Afro Fiesta was founded by Mermans. I was a one-man band at the time until we met in South Africa in 2004. He actually took me as a bass player in the band before the rhythmic guitar and vocals.
Mermans: I arrived in South Africa in June 1998 and joined a band called young bakuba as a bass player. We didn’t feel music the same way as they played traditional Congolese Rumba and I was more interested in mixing styles like reggae and salsa. Soon after I left the band and started Afro Fiesta on my own. I played music everywhere on the streets, in restaurants and the beach and the band grew over time. Jason Tamba joined the band in 2004. Mo Faya!!
IRIE. How did you come up with the name Afro Fiesta and what is its meaning to you?
Afro Fiesta: Fiesta means Party the African way… connected to our ancestors and our roots.
IRIE. Your music is a genius mix of roots reggae, Makossa and Congolese rumba. Am I correct to say that?
Jason: Yes it’s a mix of all that. I mostly play a mix of reggae and Rumba named “ Raggarumba”. For example, “Mokumba” featured on the new album is a mixture of Reggae and Congolese Rumba. We also add some blues to the mix.
Mermans: Yes it’s a mix of roots reggae makosa and Congolese rumba.
IRIE. You released your self-titled debut album in 2005, an album that fused various styles including Afro-jazz, Kwasa-Kwasa and Makossa with hints of latin music. What was that feeling like for you as independent musicians?
Jason: In 2004 I had joined the band and I played rhythmic guitar in our first album which was released in 2005.
Mermans: To us it felt natural… these are the styles we grew up listening to in Kinshasa.
IRIE. You use your music to educate and inspire the world to find positive solutions for all of humanity. What do you hope fans get out of your music?
Jason: Yes, fans do get a positive message. The objective message must have dignity and respect. The subjective message must be positive and change the lives of people.
Mermans: When the fans listen to our music they will feel hope. The struggle continues, “a lutta continua a Victoria e serta” fighting alone will get you tired but fighting in a group will get you into a rhythm. I want my people to know we are together in the fight for the Congo.
IRIE. What has been your greatest reward to date playing together as Afro Fiesta?
Jason: Playing in Afro Fiesta has given me a chance to travel and play music around the world with Playing For Change. By sticking together we can reach bigger objectives.
Mermans: Well you just said my greatest reward is playing as Afro Fiesta!!!!! It started as a thought and it became a reality when not just me but a bunch of guys are living the idea together.
IRIE. As members of the PFC band, you have performed with the likes of Ziggy Marley, Toots Hibbert (Toots & The Maytals), Keith Richards and Los Lobos to name a few. What has that experience been like for you guys?
Jason: Playing with all those big musician has given me a big lesson and taught me to love one and other as artists. This is very hard to find in Congo.
All the artists don’t often share the same stage. With PFC, we are all a family.
Mermans: Yeah to play with those big names in music to me tells me to keep doing it, you have to believe in something and go for it. With music, anything is possible.
IRIE. Tell us about the experience of recording your new album in Los Angeles with legendary bass player Reggie McBride and Damian Marley band members, Courtney and Sean Diedrick?
Mermans: I met them all through Playing For Change and we played most of the music live in the studio. They have such a great rhythm and energy and so the music felt right. I thank them for all they gave to this album, ‘Music is my Ammunition’.
Jason: It was my first time in a major recording studio recording with such professional and experienced musicians who could so easily understand and communicate our ideas.
IRIE. Is there anything you would like to share with the IRIE audience?
Mermans: TO ALL DA IRIE PEOPLE OUT THERE LETS GET TOGETHER AND FEEL ALRIGHT!!!!!!! ONE LOVE
IRIE. Give thanks! Your music and your life journey is an inspiration to us all!