It's the talk of Paris' hep musical set, Peter Gabriel set up a new record label for it and Ray Lema is one of its greatest exponents - Simon Trask discovers hitech ethnic music is about to make its mark on popular culture.
The musical love affair between Britain and the United States has been long and sordid, and it's left other musics out in the cold - until now. Ray Lema is one musician bringing African hi-tech to the world.
RECORD COMPANIES KEEP telling us musicians that the people who buy records go from 15-20 years of age, so if you want to be a great musician you have to play only for those people. I find that really terrible, because we're talking about culture; music is not only fun and big money. Does that mean our culture is ruled today by our children? In Africa it's not like that. Yes, we have music for kids, but that doesn't mean those young people are going to rule the tribe. No way."
At 43 years of age, Zairean-born musician Ray Lema, who is probably best known in the UK for his work on Stewart Copeland's 1985 album The Rhythmatist, has had a long and eventful career in music. Don't think, however, that he is simply content to rest on his laurels and recycle past musical glories. Resident in Paris since mid 1982, he is one of the leading figures in that city's "African hi-tech" musical scene, and as well as being a singer, keyboard player, guitarist, percussionist and composer, he is much in demand there as a producer and arranger.
His own music is an eclectic but natural mix of African, Caribbean and American musical styles -in the latter case, the funk and fusion music he was exposed to while staying in America in the early '80s. Discussing musical influences can be a tricky business, however. For instance, the zouk influence in Lema's music: zouk is an infectious hi-tech dance music from the French Antilles which grew out of cadence music, which in turn was influenced by the Orchestra Rico Jazz from Zaire (who spent several years in the French Antilles during the seventies) and by Antillean musicians who spent time in Paris and Brussels. And nowadays zouk, in the hands of its leading exponents Kassav, is popular in Paris.
The French capital has had a thriving African music scene for the past ten years, ever since harsh economic conditions in Africa prompted an influx of Africans into Paris from such former French colonies as Zaire and Senegal. Today a constant interchange of musicians between Paris and Africa (and in particular Zaire) ensures that close cultural links are maintained. Similar connections exist between France and its former Caribbean colonies Martinique and Guadeloupe, helping to make Paris, with its eclectic mix of soukous, rai, zouk and many other musics, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. As such it's naturally attractive to African musicians like Lema who feel constricted by the parochial musical outlook of their own countries, while a base in Paris is a must for any African musician wishing to establish an international career.
But, perhaps most importantly, the sophisticated hi-tech instrumentation and recording techniques available to African musicians in Paris have allowed them to forge a dynamic new popular music which is attuned to the dancefloor and to modern sonic sensibilities while retaining all the melodic, rhythmic and textural brilliance of African music.
Yet with this wealth of music just across the Channel, in the UK we stubbornly cling to our close relationship with America while maintaining an island outlook on the rest of Europe. Perhaps it's hardly surprising, then, that on the day of my interview with Lema, a concert he was due to play supporting Manu Dibango at London's Royal Festival Hall had to be cancelled when the saxophonist (a long-time Paris resident) was refused an entry visa. This despite the fact that he has played to packed houses in the UK before, and happens to be one of the most respected and best-known of African musicians.
WITH THE SUBJECT of European unity very much on our minds as we sat in the offices of Island Records (the irony of it), I wondered what a rather disappointed Ray Lema thought about the British attitude to the music of the continent.
"We feel more and more on the continent that the British people have to open up quickly, because when you live in Paris today and you hear all the pop music coming from England and America, you know that for 20 years these two countries have been feeding the whole world. Showbusiness is an Anglo-Saxon structure. So you were in the position of givers, but after 20 years you're not left with much to give, you know. We've been learning and receiving, and suddenly sometimes it's so boring to listen to that music"
This isn't sour grapes. Lema is far too gracious and perceptiwe a man for such pettiness. In fact, he is surprised that we should have such a cultural fixation on America at the expense of our European musical heritage.
"It's crazy that today you panic in front of America. Musically I feel that America has been fed a lot by Africa and a lot by England. For many years I had two big books of Anglican church music that were given to me by one of my uncles. When you check the pop market today, it's incredible how that music has influenced pop music in terms of melody. England has produced the greatest melodies in pop music; that's how we feel in Africa, and that's why England is very important, because you have created extraordinary melodies that anybody in the world can relate to. A guy from Zaire can sing a melody from Great Britain and just receive it as a melody. That's the greatness of England: you are fantastic melodists."
Lema began his musical life at the age of 11 when he started training for the priesthood. After it had been decided that he displayed musical talent, he found himself playing a Hammond B3 organ in church every day for the next five years. It's an instrument he remembers with great affection.
"At that time I was famous in all the churches around Kinshasa, because they said I had the touch to make people pray. I would like to finish my life like that. In fact, although I don't go around screaming in the name of God, my music is still religious music."
"Stewart Copeland understands the essence of African music - he understands everything - he's not black, he's not white, he's a new breed."
His time spent as church organist taught him the art of harmonisation, as he learnt to harmonise the Gregorian chants that were an essential part of the religious services. But playing the organ wasn't the only musical training he received at the Seminary. He was also educated in the European classical music tradition, and made his concert debut playing Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata'.
Lema eventually left the Seminary to take a chemistry degree at the University of Lovanium in Kinshasa, but found himself tempted into a musical career by the Zairean capital's club nightlife, playing guitar in numerous soukous bands from the end of 1969 until 1973. At the time his musical heroes were guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, all of whose playing he studied closely.
Unfortunately, his liking for Western music led to him being called "black white" by his fellow Zaireans. Eventually this got on his nerves so much that he decided to stop playing Western music and try to find out what it meant to be a black Zairean. Armed with a small tape recorder, he began to wander around Zaire recording traditional music, and because of this he was noticed by the Zairean government. The result was his appointment in 1974 to the prestigious post of Musical Director of the National Ballet of Zaire. This as at the time of President Mobutu's "authenticity" campaign, and the musician found himself with all the resources he needed to trek around Zaire researching some 250 different ethnic groups, each of which had its own variation on traditional Zairean music. If there was one big lesson he learnt from this experience, it was the concept of music as a social energy which could be used to bind a community together.
In 1978 Lema became the first Zairean to receive the prestigious French Maracas d'Or award, for his work with his group Ya Tupas, and in the following year he was invited by the Rockefeller Foundation to tour America with his band. He ended up staying in Washington DC for several years, playing keyboards in a couple of local funk bands as well as working as a session musician and performing his own music with American musicians. In 1982 he left for Paris - out of frustration with the inability of those musicians to play African music - and has lived there ever since.
"The musicians in America are great musicians", he admits, "but they're too American, they're just not open enough to the world."
Now where have I heard that before? Lema's reasons for not returning to Zaire were twofold, as he explains.
"First, I didn't see what more I could learn there. Everybody was considering me a genius, and that's very dangerous. I preferred to be a student somewhere else. Second, in Zaire today they really only go for rhumba, their own music, and I think that they have enough musicians to play that music. You hear Zairean music everywhere in Africa, it's very strong, so the Zaireans feel: why should they change anything?"
Lema subsequently returned Stateside in 1983 to tour with his own band, and while there went into the studio with legendary New Orleans musician and producer Allen Toussaint, to record the first album under his own name, Koteja-Koluto.
"It was really a live thing with my band", he recalls. "I played a Yamaha CP8O and a Hammond B3 on that."
However, it was his next album, the appropriately-titled Kinshasa-Washington DC- Paris, recorded in Paris in 1984, which really broke his name in the French capital.
"That record was like a business card I made for musicians in Paris. I made it mostly with Zairean friends, because when I arrived there nobody really knew about Ray Lema. But after that record I was fine, the Paris musicians knew about me; they'd say 'That guy is pretty crazy'!"
"When you check the pop market today, it's incredible how Anglican church music has influenced pop music in terms of melody."
If you leave your business cards lying around, you never know who might pick them up and get in touch with you. One musician who got in touch with Lema was ex-Police drummer and Fairlight enthusiast Stewart Copeland, and the result was that the Zairean musician composed and played on three of the ten tracks on Copeland's The Rhythmatist album (see interview with Stewart Copeland, E&MM, August '85). At the same time he was working on his own album Medecin with respected French producer Martin Meissonier at London's Paradise studios. It was a deliberate move on his part to see what two very different producers could draw out of him. And which album did he prefer in the end?
"To tell you the truth, maybe it's because I worked more as friends with Stewart Copeland, but I feel closer to the sound we got on his record. Medecin was more a discovery of technology. You know, technology is really a temptation, especially when you don't own the machines. I didn't know all the toys in Paradise studios, and it was hard to resist; they looked so flashy in the studio."
More recently he has produced and played on Ray Lema Presents: Bwana Zoulou Gang in 1987, a brilliant showcase of Parisian-African talent, and now his latest album Nangadeef (the title is Wolof for 'Hello, how are you?'), which he regards as a kind of "message" welcoming his fellow Zaireans and other African musicians to Paris, but reminding them that ultimately they must return to Africa with what they have learnt.
LEMA DEVELOPED A fascination for the recording process when he was living in America. He bought himself a Teac A8 eight-track tape machine, then whenever he did a studio session and saw some new tricks he would run back home and try them out on the A8. Now that his home studio is well established in Paris, his most recent move has been to invest in a Tascam MSR16 16-track tape machine, while he's currently looking for a second-hand professional desk.
"I would like to have 32 inputs so that I could feed all my MIDI stuff through it and still have the tape inputs. If I can get that setup then you're going to notice the difference. As for effects, I have some Boss mini effects and a Roland reverb at the moment, but now that I'm going for a good mixing board I'm checking for some much better stuff; I'd like to have a Lexicon and a REV5."
At present, monitoring in the Lema studio is taken care of b a pair of Yamaha NS10s, but he's not happy with the bass end on them (it's not powerful enough) and is currently considering replacing them with Electro-Voice Sentries. One consideration he's bearing in mind is the need to master at low volume.
"That's one thing I checked when I came to the West: people here listen to music quietly, whereas in Africa we blast everything out. So I use low volume just to check for Westerners!"
Lema's encounter with synth technology began with a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 in Washington DC in 1980.
"I like spending a lot of time in music stores" he explains, "and at that time I kept hearing the Prophet. It sounded dirtier than the Roland and Yamaha synths, and that was what appealed to me. One day I felt that I should buy one, because I was using a Fender Rhodes but it was getting too much for me. There was really no point in carrying a Rhodes all the time just to feel that it was my own; I was getting tired! Almost all the studios in Washington had one, anyway."
Today, Lema is a confirmed Sequential fan, and still owns the Prophet 5 (long since MIDI'd) that he bought in Washington DC. He also talks enthusiastically about the Prophet T8 (in particular the merits of its keyboard for "real musicians") and the Prophet VS, neither of which he owns at present. It seems that both instruments are in common use in Paris studios, where their very popularity has made them hard to find secondhand. When I showed Lema some copies of MT (in fact he already knew the magazine from previous visits to the UK) it wasn't long before he was scouring the Free Ads in search of aforesaid elusive instruments. Anyone out there want to sell a T8 or a VS?
"Classical music is a system, African music is a system, jazz music is a system... and somewhere these three things are looking for each other."
Following on from the Prophet 5, Lema bought a Korg Delta and a Roland Juno 6, both of which he subsequently sold, and a Yamaha DX7II. Nowadays, in addition to the Prophet 5 and the DX7II, the Lema home studio contains a Korg EX800 synth expander, E-mu Emax and Akai S700 samplers, Yamaha RX5 drum machine, two Yamaha TX81Zs and a Moog Source. For sequencing he uses an Atari 1040ST running C-Lab's Notator software ("I think it's software that can appeal to all real musicians; it's just fantastic") and records everything in real time, sometimes recording a whole song into a single pattern, at other times using the sequencer's Song Arrange mode to organise a series of shorter patterns.
And what about the samplers? Somehow I didn't think Lema was into sampling rhythm loops or the speeches of Francois Mitterand.
"I use the Emax and the S700 mostly for drum sounds, together with the RX5. The advantage with the RX5 is that you can really twist the sound. Once you've done that you can sample it into the Emax, then with the Emax you can twist it some more, and come up with something that sounds like nothing else."
'Orchestra of the Forest', a duet for programmed RX5 drum machine and live percussionist on Nangadeef, came about as a sort of prelude to a project that Lema has in mind.
"I'm intending to produce my percussionist, and that track was just a tryout I gave to him. In that direction I have a lot of traditional rhythms that I'm programming on the RX5, but it takes time because the software inside has been made for Western timing, and it's very hard to find ways around that."
While Lema generally prefers to program rhythms into Notator from the DX7II's keyboard, for some things the RX5's onboard programming is a necessary evil.
"There are some tricks you can do when you're programming straight onto the RX5, like playing a series of notes from one pad hit, that you can't use if you're programming rhythms from the computer. So I have to program straight onto the rhythm box to get those effects and then drive the whole thing from the Atari."
Many musicians retreat into a self-imposed isolation once they've surrounded themselves with hi-tech gear. For Lema, however, there's no such danger.
"Since I'm a musician I like to play. I like to compose with all this technology, but I've been a bandleader for almost 20 years and I love good musicians. After I compose a line I always think 'Who can play this line live?'. I never work in isolation, never. There are always a lot of musicians passing through my place, and they comment on what I'm doing. It's not good to be by yourself, because you start feeding yourself with yourself."
LEMA SEES A new breed of musician emerging around the world, who feel equally at home with a wide range of musics.
"Take the example of Stewart Copeland. That guy really understands the essence of African music. When we played together he showed me that he understands everything. He's no longer a white guy. He's not black, he's not white, he's just a new ... let's call it a new breed of people. They can understand anything, you just have to explain it to them.
"But beside these people you have what I call 'traditional' musicians. These people specialise in one kind of music only, and they're not able to play anything else. They're boring to us, the new breed. Musicians should be able to mix up classical and jazz inside themselves first, then Beethoven can go along with Miles Davis. That makes us really happy now in Paris, that kind of mix.
Nowadays Lema is still attracting unfavourable attention for his musical eclecticism, but now it's from those Western music critics who wish to safeguard the "purity" of African music. The musician is impatient with such a blinkered outlook.
"I had an article here in England where a guy said 'that Ray Lema is pretty strange because if we take away his voice from his album, the music sounds like Western music'. You know, that is so silly I just laughed. Nobody's giving up anything, or exploiting anything. We're just moving, because I feel today that music is just one, it's rhythm and harmony. That means that those two things should meet seriously, and people should stop talking nonsense about African fashion and pop fashion. As soon as white musicians touch that rhythmic culture they're playing black, and we don't complain as black people, we don't say 'Wow! White people now are trying to...' No, it's just normal. You need this ingredient as we need that ingredient, so we should be fair and shut up, and just play.
"My feeling is that we're waiting for a meeting of the different musical systems. It's impossible to get rid of classical music, because it's a system, not a fashion. Classical music is a system, African music is a system, jazz music is a system ... and somewhere these three things are looking for each other. Classical and African are the two parent systems and jazz is the child."
Lema defines the most essential distinction between African and classical systems as the linear, melodic conception of the former and the vertical, harmonic conception of the latter. But he also singles out the Baroque composer JS Bach as "the first white guy that made a jump to the black conception. He had a way of organising his melody lines so that the chord was no longer a frozen instant but was in the dynamic of melody. But you could freeze any moment in Bach's music and analyse it and it was solid harmonically. So I would say that Bach is really important to all of us."
"YOU KNOW, I started with classical music so I recognise that I have that in me. But now I'm just trying to find a balance between what I feel is African and all the loves that I have, because I love classical music, I love jazz music, I love reggae music ... I don't see why I should deny all those loves. I want to keep them in me, but find a line where I feel I'm still African but my friend can feel that I like him too, because today I have friends all over the world, in reggae music, in zouk music, in pop music... Why should I play something that can't appeal to my friend who's a pop star, for example? Just to prove to him that I'm African? I find that silly. I have to speak a language that he can understand, that's how I feel now."
Which is not to say that Lema is forsaking the musical past of his home country. Far from it.
"I'm the only active musician who had a chance to know about those traditional musics. Zaire is five times the size of France, so it's a huge country, and there aren't the roads like here. So really, to know about Zaire, my God, it's not a piece of cake. But I was paid by the government to do that, and I just tell myself that I've got to use what I learnt, because many of the musicians that I met out in the country, they're all dying, fast. Someday that music is just going to vanish, and I really don't want that."
Lema is insistent that African musicians working in the West must ultimately put back into Africa whatever skills and knowledge they have learnt abroad. But for the present his own priority is to address what he calls his "problems with Zaireans", and it is only through living and working in Paris, with its cosmopolitan atmosphere, sophisticated technical resources and thriving African musical scene that he has been able to pursue this aim. He is trying to reconcile the old and the new, tradition and technology, through trying to preserve traditional music not by capitulating to it but by bringing it into the present.
When the European nations colonised and enslaved the African people they set in motion forces which are still reverberating through the Western world today. We are all slaves of the past, of the forces of world history, and to break the shackles which bind us we must understand and come to terms with that history. The past and the future are inextricably linked.
For Lema, music is a means of reconciling the past with the future. Yet he is concerned that in trying to speak a language all his friends can understand, he should not ignore the language of his family.
"I would like to produce towards Africa, and for that type of production I'm going to pay attention only to remarks coming from Africa. That's one thing I would like to start this year. I'm always having to make m music a little less sophisticated rhythmically for Europeans, otherwise they get confused. But for Africa I'm just going to go full-range. because it's their stuff.
"It's still going to be hi-tech, though. Hi-tech traditional music."
Well, here's one European who can't wait to hear it.