Music has more than its share of forgotten stars and underappreciated figures. There have been happy endings for some, such as the backup singers in the Oscar-winning “20 Feet From Stardom” documentary or even the members of the multi-platinum Buena Vista Social Club, but most aren’t so lucky.
Guitarist Siama Matuzungidi left his home in a Jesuit seminary (where his father was a chef) in the rural western part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1971 at age 17. He passed through Uganda, Kenya, Japan and Dubai before coming to Minnesota with little fanfare as the husband of a Peace Corps volunteer — he was finally cleared in part after Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., wrote to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi on Siama’s behalf.
“She never told me it was cold here, and I was too excited to read about it,” Siama recalled with a laugh. “We arrived here in April of 1995, and I thought it was quite nice. Then the winter of 1996 was a bad one and I was like, ‘Oh, my!’ ”
Siama, as he’s professionally known, recorded hundreds of soukous songs — a style of upbeat guitar-driven Afro-pop heard in bars and clubs across Central and East Africa — in Nairobi and even penned some radio hits in the music’s golden era of the 1970s and ’80s. But he didn’t lead the bands, and songwriting credit often went to the bandleaders even if they didn’t write the songs.
Nonetheless, Siama’s nimble guitar work was strong enough to be recognized and celebrated by hard-core soukous fans from around the world and even some Kenyan immigrants here in Minnesota.
“People would meet him and remember his songs or a favorite club where he played and they would cry and call him a legend,” says Dallas Johnson, a local singer and songwriter who is his collaborator and wife. “He never told me because he was too humble. He didn’t have a discography of his works, so I spent dozens of hours online trying to pull it all together. It was just phenomenal what I found with the help of some record collectors who specialized in the music.”
After years of playing in bands in Minnesota such as Shangoya as well as current groups Marimba Africa, Afrobilly, Socaholix and Cyril Paul, Siama’s music and world have broadened.
The proof is in the upcoming release of his first album as a leader. Titled “Rivers — From the Congo to the Mississippi,” the album features the 62-year-old guitarist/singer/songwriter leading a Minnesota-based rainbow coalition that includes local gospel and R&B icon J.D. Steele, Carnatic veena player Nirmala Rajasekar, Tenzin Ngawang on dranyen (Tibetan lute), classical cellist Jacqueline Ultan, pedal steel guitarist Joe Savage as well as a core jazz band.
“I absolutely believe that music is the one universal language here on Earth,” Siama said, sitting in the home he shares with Johnson in Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood. “More so since I came here. You play any little thing and people get an idea from that. They hear something and respond.”
In the soukous groove
Those players will be on hand at the Cedar Cultural Center on Tuesday for an album release party (outside of the Twin Cities, the CD will be available June 10).
While Siama keeps a busy local schedule by appearing in different projects at such venues as the Cabooze, the Ordway’s Flint Hills Children’s Festival, Midtown Global Market and Wilebski’s Blues Saloon in June and July, this is the first time music from “Rivers” will be played in front of a public audience.
The album has bouncing soukous tunes such as “Bolingo” and “Mombasa” that will get the Cedar’s dance floor moving. But the fusion of soukous with Siama’s guests is remarkably effective, as well. The haunting “Maisha Mazuri,” for example, includes the bedrock soukous groove with a jazz piano solo, a veena and vocal solo from Rajasekar, plus a gospel choir, while “Malembe” sounds like the perfect middle ground between country-western swing and African pop.
“I have spent the last 11 years visiting and working with musicians and students in Africa, particularly East Africa,” said J.D. Steele. “Siama’s music embodies the styles from coast to coast on the continent.”
Funding the dream
This album is also the outgrowth of a pivotal moment in 2014 when Siama won a McKnight fellowship for performing artists — a no-strings-attached $25,000 award.
In what turned out to be the first step toward creating his new album, Siama took a chance and stepped away from the up-tempo dance style of classic soukous in favor of a more acoustic and multicultural approach. Despite the fact that the set featured new songs and arrangements created during one brief rehearsal by a band that had never played together, the combination worked seamlessly for the audition process.
“For midcareer artists living and working here in Minnesota, like Siama, the fellowships provide a unique opportunity to take time to deepen their practice or to advance work on a new project,” said Arleta Little, director of the McKnight Artist Fellowships Program. “Siama’s new CD is a great example of this.”
At the McKnight awards ceremony, Siama could hardly believe what he heard, as dignitaries spoke of the importance of the arts in a community. Now the spotlight was on him and it felt warm and welcoming in his adopted home.
“I kept thinking about where I came from,” he recalled with pride. “There, you are not recognized unless you are rich. Nobody is going to give you credit for what you did. I’d never heard anybody say good stuff about me, saying how much I was needed. I realized that I had something to offer to this society.”
Tad Hendrickson is a Minneapolis-based writer.