By Ajong Mbapndah L
Talk about musicians who have with great consistency flown the African flag high through music and Ray Lema will rank among the top. Born in Zaire which is today the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ray Lema has toured the globe with his brand of music which in his own words channels a link between traditional African Music and his modern pianist training. Despite the success and fame that he enjoys, Ray Lema has shunned the trappings of stardom as he seeks to be a better musician every day. Lema, who has collaborated with some of the biggest names in African music across generations says music is a function of one’s education and for a culture as rich as Africa, the focus should not remain on the showbiz element of music. Despite the challenges, Ray Lema says he is optimistic about the future of Africa especially with the younger generation which has more tools at their disposal to help is seeking solutions.
Ray Lema, we understand in your younger years, your aspiration was to be a Catholic Priest and you actually went to a seminary, what made you change your mind and when did you realize that music was your true calling?
I found my calling at the seminary when I went to be a priest and then I left because I was not quite comfortable with some concepts of the catholic religion.
How challenging was it for you to forge a name for yourself in music and may we know some highlights of your career?
I wasn’t in the challenge of “getting known” I was more in the challenge of being a better musician and I still am. I started as a classical pianist and then I became a rock guitar player, then I became the musical director of the National Ballet of Congo (DRC) and after I left Congo I’ve been on the roads, and if you go check my website, you can read about my biography.
Much of your music is different from the traditional Congolese and African Music, you have made it big with that, but what made you go for a different brand of music other than what most other than what most Africans of your time went for?
I think a matter of training I’ve been trained first as a classical musician and then being the director of a national ballet I had to listen and play with so many traditional musicians that the Congolese rumba didn’t really appeal to me. Today I try to make a direct link between African traditional music and my modern pianist training.
How many albums does Ray Lema have as of this moment and which of them registered the greatest success?
I’ve never been into the “star system” so it’s not a priority for me to go check which album is the most successful. But as I said before, I just feel I’m getting better as a musician. As for the number of albums same, just check on the website.
What is your appraisal of African music today and its younger generation, some have complained that there is too much vulgarity and it is lacking in message, your take on that sir.
Music is a reflection of one’s education and if we invest in educating our people we shouldn’t have that complain. The problem is actually that in modern African music we have only the show business side, and it’s not enough for cultures as rich as African cultures to be represented only by showbiz.
There are others who think too that music from earlier stars like Franco,Tabu Ley, Manu Dibango,Miriam Makeba,Franklin Boukaka , Le Grand Kalle,Fela etc had a patriotic zest and helped in promoting a strong African identity and promoting unity, do you agree?
All the musicians that you named didn’t have to sell an image through musical video clip. They were busy selling just their music, and their music was very close to the people, so it’s true that they had a stronger identity that what I hear today, because when I watch today’s video clips, they don’t really reflect musical careers, they just reflect an obedience to marketing rules.
May we know the relationship you have with some of those artists cited and may also know some of the younger generation of musicians you appreciate and frequently interact with?
I met personally and played with most of the musicians you cited. Most of them are gone, except for Manu Dibango with whom I have played extensively.
Among the younger, I play mostly with instrumentalist like Etienne Mbappe, Pépé Feli, Lokua Kanza, Bil Aka Kora, Fredy Massamba, Ballou Canta, les Tambours de Brazza with Emile Biayenda, Francky Moulet … there are a lot …
In terms of money, in terms of income, would you say music pays more today than it was a few decades back? This question is asked with issues of piracy and its negative effects in mind, how do we fight piracy so the artist can enjoy the fruits of his work?
Talking about money first, I should say Yes and no! Some “stars” today make the amount of money that could not have been dreamt of years before. And that’s where you have to make a difference between “stars” and musicians especially in Africa. Those who make money with music are the singers. The instrumentalist playing behind already have a hard time just surviving!
Talking about piracy, the first problem, talking about Africa is the weakness of the distribution system, then still in some countries the copyright is non existent or inefficient.
Piracy, with internet is a worldwide problem. Different solutions are being studied to reward the composers, but still I have to say that no satisfying solution has been found.
The continent recently celebrated fifty years of the African Union, considering that great names like you excelled in the earlier years of independence, what is your view on how the continent is evolving?
You’re misinformed! because in the 60’s I was still a teenager !!! I’m not that old !!!
In spite of all the problems we are facing in Africa, I deeply believe in my continent and more especially in the new generations coming who have more tools for analyzing our situation.
You are originally from the Congo and that country with its amazing resourcing and wonderful culture has not known peace for a long time now, how do you feel about that and in what way can music and famous musicians like you help in making things better?
Those amazing resources are the main Congolese problem because some big corporations from all over the world make their profit by keeping this situation unchanged and as a musician , I still feel very small in front of those corporations who will never give up peacefully their lucrative business. What has been happening for years in Congo is intimately linked to the global economic system, which is now totally out of control and you can see that the crisis is worldwide, so I can only hope that there will be a global change before it’s too late.
Any special projects that you are working on right now?
Yes ! my jazz quintet , with Etienne Mbappe on bass with whom I have a long time complicity.
I’m also working on new compositions to play with a string quartet , a new piano solo … tons of projects !!!
What do you consider as the legacy of Ray Lema, what would you want Africa and the world to always remember you for?
Being a universal musician deeply rooted in his African tradition !
Mr Ray Lema, thanks very much for your availability and for granting this interview, sometimes it is very difficult to get access to stars of your caliber.
Anytime. Now you know the way !Thank you,