Congolese king of electric guitar

Irish-based prodigy Niwel Tsumbu tells Nicki ffrench Davis about his change of direction on new album, S’all Vibration

Niwel Tsumbu is a native of Kinchasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He picked up guitar at the age of 16. In the 12 years since, he has performed with the Buena Vista Social Club, Nigel Kennedy and Michael O Suilleabhain, and shared a stage with Baaba Maal.

Tsumbu settled in Cork in 2004. and has released three albums. His latest, S’all Vibration, has been two yeras in the making. “It started as a technique,” says Tsumbu. “I was practising, trying to get it right. I was working on one song and that’s when I decided I should build an album around it.”

Tsumbu knew already that he wanted it to be an electric album. “When I recorded my first album, the duo with percussionist Eamonn Cagney, I was already thinking that the third would be electric.

“Then, recording the second album, Song of the Nations, I was doubting it. An electric album would be harder to record. I’d have to organise a studio, whereas with the acoustic albums we could just go to a house and record. I knew it was going to be a lot of work, but what made me do it is that everyone along the way wanted to help, all the engineers, the guys in the studios. I could just concentrate on the music.”

Tsumbu recorded with a five-piece band and numerous guest musicians at two studios in Temple Lane in Dublin and also the internationally renowned Grouse Lodge in Co Westmeath. “Sound Studio at Temple Lane was good for recording the bass and drum kit, and we used Apollo which has great sound for percussion. Then we discovered Grouse Lodge was available and it turned out those guys really liked the music I’m doing and they were very supportive. It’s a really nice place. I stayed in the same room that Michael Jackson had.”

The title track S’all Vibration is the album’s only solo track, an exploration that is at once introspective and other-worldly. “I’d been working on this technique. The left hand is just sustaining the note and the right hand playing really rhythmically. It makes the guitar sound different, very percussive but organic, like a likembe, which Irish people would call an African thumb piano.”

Heartbeat, a stand-out track, started with the rhythm. “I was jamming with our drummer, the amazing Diego Ramirez, and he was playing this rhythm and it started with that groove. The lyrics came before the chords: ‘This is the heartbeat beating in from within, pulsing to the sound of the sphere’.”A documentary, Congo-River, about the river which flows through his homeland, inspired Nsiama. “I never knew about the river’s story, most people don’t, not even in Congo. The film was about what it brings to the people of the country. I wrote it backwards. I knew how the song would end but it took a long time to find the beginning. It’s sort of like playing Tetris. I had the movement and texture for more than a year, you need to have patience. Then one day, bang!”

While the album is largely a celebration of Tsumbu’s passion for electric guitar, there is one acoustic track. “I was inspired to write Freezing Cold when I came back from Congo last year in January. It had been really sunny in Congo, too hot even for a t-shirt and when I came back — snow, rain, cold, more rain. What actually happened is I enjoyed it so much, the contrast inspired me.”

Tsumbu says his music is very intricate. “I’m lucky I’m already playing with musicians who are top class and have an idea what I do rhythmically. From recording them we all have a picture of the songs, now playing live we’ll be having fun with them.”

Tour dates:

Friday, October 21, Button Factory, Dublin; Saturday, October 22, Half Moon Theatre, Cork; Thursday, October 27, Spirit Store, Dundalk

Picture: Eddie O’Hare

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