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Defao: How I got my groove back

That smooth seas do not make fine sailors is a near perfect description of the life of popular Congolese musician General Defao Matumona.

Unlike many other Lingala musicians of his age, Defao has managed to repackage himself to command the same respect as younger singers who joined the music world and incorporated other styles into rumba, giving it a deep contrast with what it was in the 1980s or 1990s.

In the spirit of making himself relevant to all generations, his newest album, Time is Money, features Kenyan rapper Prezzo, whose style has been described as a fusion of hip hop, street kapuka and genge.

Defao is known for his big hits of yesteryear Sala Noki and Amour Scolaire. He says now he understands collaborations in music differently.

“You see now Prezzo’s fans will know of my existence as they listen to him, and my fans will know of him… that is what music is. You share to grow yourself as an artiste and the people who pay their money and spare their time to listen to you. You owe them that.”

He has tasked his promoter, only known to the Saturday Nation as Rajabu, to arrange a meeting with Nonini and Jua Cali.

The 10-track album, Defao says, encompasses everything that he is, as a person and the ghosts he has been able to confront as an artiste.

The December 24, 2014, Defao performance at Ranalo Restaurant in downtown Nairobi was a testimony to what he had said in an emotional interview with the Saturday Nation the day before.

His stage presence, vocal prowess that spans perhaps a couple octaves and, most visibly, his choreography, kept the crowd on its feet, and that did not surprise Defao.

TACT AND FINESSE

“Age has made everything better because I have seen music morph into what it is now in the face of Africans, Europeans, Americans and all of these are fused into the music I have today,” he said.

Defao’s talent has given him the privilege to travel to 18 countries, some outside Africa, and he has not set his bars too modestly for this year.

“Not very many African musicians have been to Asia and Australia, and that is where I am going.”

His tact and finesse could be explained by the daily routine of three continuous hours, two thirds dedicated to dancing and the other to his singing.

General Defao (centre) and his dancers entertain patrons during a past show at Club Lambada in Mtwapa
General Defao (centre) and his dancers entertain patrons during a past show at Club Lambada in Mtwapa

“As a band leader, it is my duty to make the crowd genuinely vibrant, not the people I play with, and no matter how old you are or the number of times you have performed, you cannot reach a point where you no longer worry about that and work towards it,” he says.

He cannot afford to underperform because of the team he assembled for the album and the gigs related to that album.

He has five Congolese musicians, including Lofombo Gode, an arranger, composer and instrumentalist known for his collaboration with Pepe Kalle in the 1990s.

Many music enthusiasts will remember Lofombo, who came to Kenya in 1992 as a bass guitarist with Pepe Kalle’s Grand Empire Bakuba band to campaign for the then ruling party, Kanu.

In Defao’s team is also vocalist Manda Chant, who had a stint with Wenge Musica and with the original Orch Wenge Musica, a famed group  believed to be one of the best to come out of Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1980s.

Then there is rapper Celeo of Wenge Musica Maison fame as well as Sam Chintu, formerly of Koffi Olomide’s Quartier Latin International.

ROUGH PATCH

Throughout the conversation, Defao acknowledges that he once hit a rough patch during his career and stay in Kenya — which included a brush with the law — but blocks questions about his difficult times with an emphatic statement:

“That was 14 years ago. I moved on and taking me back there is just retrogressive… the story of how I have become the musician that I am today regardless of what happened in the past inspires me, too, not just people who listen and can understand what I sing about.”

In the last couple of years of his stay in Kenya, musical critics had remarked that Defao had taken a low profile, or was, perhaps, “spent’,  insinuations that Defao responds to calmly.

“I had just gone to France, but I felt the music was not appreciated there,” he says.

Like other Congolese musicians, Defao’s observation is not from nothing. Most musicians from Congo DR have been locked out of their lucrative performing bases in Europe by activists who have made a habit of picketing their concerts and who view them as being too affiliated to the government back at home.

Most of the musicians have had to return to Africa looking for alternative bases, with Kenya being a favourite.

In Kenya, Defao found his footing. Defao describes Kenyans as a “reachable and welcoming” lot.

“I feel respected here, like some sort of very important person,” he says, jokingly.

According to Defao, Kenya has many talented musicians who can reap the fruits of their labour if they are willing to go the extra mile.

“I wish they could learn to use bands when performing. Having pre-recorded music does not allow you to connect with your audience because when there is a scratch, you have to stop and that is annoying,” he adds.