UNCHARTED is Chart Attack's showcase of independent Canadian artists we think you should hear. This time, the boundary-busting collaboration of Pierre Kwenders and Ngabonziza Kiroko: the mind-bending ABAKOS.
Over the past three years, Pierre Kwenders and Ngabonziza Kiroko have been busy making names for themselves in Montreal’s music scene. For the Juno and Polaris-nominated Kwenders, that work centres around the fusion of afrobeat, rumba and electro, while as Dear Denizen, Kiroko’s musical expressions lean towards rock, making his own space somewhere between indie rock and post-punk.
Each has developed his own strong, definitive voice in their respective solo work, but as ABAKOS, the two are learning how to make those voices work together. The collaboration is still in its infancy, but on their New Constellation EP, which dropped last week, the ideas and sounds arrive fully formed. Rather than sounding half like Kwenders and half like Kiroko, ABAKOS is a whole new language, one that they're both fully fluent in. Each has given themselves to this new project, using it as an opportunity to challenge themselves and to step outside their respective comfort zones.
ABAKOS says their name is a take on “Abacost,” an abbreviation of “à bas le costume,” translating to “down with the suit,” a political slogan that called to divorce Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (then called Zaire) culture from its colonial past. The Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) was also a political party that called for the decolonization of the Congolese people in the 1960s.
The duo's sounds are similarly divorced from convention, as the group have their sights set on the future. “New Constellation” was the first offering, a spacey, bassy adventure, while “Money To Burn” followed, skittering and lurching like a bill counter in overdrive. The New Constellation EP also adds the slow-burning "Thieves." It's just three songs, but it points at great things.
We spoke with Pierre Kwenders and Ngabonziza Kiroko about the incentive to work together, how their futuristic sound relates to the themes of their songwriting, and the surprising results of their first time collaboration.
ABAKOS' New Constellation is out now via Moonshine. Catch their EP release tonight (October 5) in Montreal.
Chart Attack: How long have you two known each other?
It’s [about] self-discovery, living in this newfound place of pride. Considering we come from Africa and we’re immigrants, I thought that was a resonant message to have, but I think it’s relatable no matter who you are.
How did “hey, how you doing” translate into working with one another?
Pierre Kwenders: I had the idea in my mind for about a year or so. I wanted to do a feature or something, but then my manager suggested, “why not just do a duo?” So we talked to Ngabo and at first he was like “well, I don’t know.”
Kiroko: Yeah, I was super squeamish at first. But then they marinated me with a lot of nice future prospects. So then I was like, "why the fuck not?" [Laughs]
You both come from your own individual projects, where you write your own material and have 100% control, so how did the songwriting process work in this collaboration? Was it an easy transition?
Kiroko: It was easy. I started demoing some of the songs, and then I’d get him to come over and record. It was very natural.
“New Constellation” involves waking up in a new place as a kind lovers’ fantasy and “Money To Burn” says if I had money to burn, it would be on you. Both these songs involve a bit of fantasy. How important is the fantastical to ABAKOS?
Kiroko: Definitely fantasy and hope [are important]. “New Constellation” is the first demo that I started working on with the idea of it being for this project. So it’s really packed with all sorts of messages: self-discovery, living in this newfound place of pride. Considering we come from Africa and we’re immigrants, I thought that was a resonant message to have, but I think it’s a relatable message no matter who you are.
Kwenders: I don’t think it’s for one specific audience. It’s for everyone. In most of our songs, we talk all the time about love, which doesn’t have a race or gender. It’s universal.
Kiroko: Really? I thought love was only a Congolese thing…
It there something characteristically Congolese that you bring to your sound?
Kiroko: I think by just being Congolese, as we were both born there — people tell me this even with my own project, even when I’m singing in English, that it sounds Congolese. It sounds naturalized, without even necessarily calculating to have your identity show in your work. It just transpires naturally.
Kwenders: There’s a bit of Congolese influence in the music in the sense that the shape of the songs are not very conventional. Some of the songs we don’t really have a hook. There are lines that repeat but they’re not a hook in the same way. It’s not about having a hook that people will remember, it’s about the feel. So people listening can feel what we’re talking about.
Your sound has been described as “future soul.” How much are you considering musical form and meaning?
Kiroko: Because it’s a project we’re doing in addition to our other projects, for us it’s really about having fun, exploring, which really lends itself to that futuristic sound. I think our melodic phrasing is very African in a way, and often gets compared to blues or soul just because we’re Black. Future soul is cool though, I think it carries the feeling of it.
You’re both multilingual. Did you always know this project would be in English?
Kwenders: In my own project, I already sing in so many languages. I sing in English, French, Lingala, other Congolese languages. So for this project I really wanted it to be in English. It takes me a little bit out of my comfort zone, because I’m not used to singing a whole song in English. I normally mix it with a lot of other languages, and that makes me who I am in my own project. Ngabo is much better at speaking English than I am, so I was like "yeah! Challenge me!"
Kiroko: It was a kind of happy accident, because I learned to write songs mostly in English, so I was like, yeah, sure, let’s do this. Just to have him, his presence in these songs — even though Dear Denizen is in English, it’s still going to have a different feel. Different attitude. We wanted to have it reach as many people as possible. If something felt right in French or another language, we’d do it. We’re not putting ourselves in an English box. If something really interesting comes and it feels right, we’ll do it. I don’t see why not.
Was there anything that came out of this collaboration that surprised either of you?
Kwenders: People say that we have identical voices. Not exactly the same, but when you hear the songs, you can’t tell who’s who. That’s pretty amazing. Both our voices blend so greatly together, and I didn't’ expect that at all. Especially when you’re in a duo, you have to work a lot in terms of blending the voices, but that was really easy for us.
Kiroko: That was definitely surprising for me. I’d heard his stuff before, but I never thought that we sounded alike. But the whole process itself was also surprising. It’s one thing to demo something. It’s another thing to hand it over to someone else and it becomes a whole different animal. It’s a real fun thing for me because I’m not used to doing that.