WHEN Niwel Tsumbu was growing up in the Congo, he wanted to be Diego Maradona. In fact, he wanted to “out-do” the pint-sized Argentinian on a soccer pitch. That dream ended when he picked up a guitar at the age of 16.
Football’s loss is music’s gain, as the Congolese has become a guitar virtuoso, an artist, who has collaborated with a head-spinning list of Irish musicians, chiefly Liam O Maonlai, and more recently, with Donal Dineen on his burgeoning ‘Parish’ project.
“I started really late, I was 16,” says Tsumbu of the guitar, who has been based in Cork since he moved to these shores in 2004.
“We always had guitars growing up in the house, my brother used to play, but I was never interested - I was more of a school boy, I liked to study. My dream as a teenager was to be the next Maradona, to out-do Maradona,” he laughs.
“I was playing a lot of soccer and one day, I remember very clearly, I came back from training and my brother was playing the guitar and I asked him to teach me something. He taught me a line and I got it and took the guitar into my room and played it all night, until the next thing, all I remember is my grandfather waking me up, shouting about going to school! School started at 7.30am and I feel asleep around 6am. I had left all the windows open all night. My dream of being the next Maradona and my school work just went downhill from there, it was all about the guitar.”
Tsumbu has been something of a regular visitor to Limerick, playing at the Africa Day events and hooking up with the Speakeasy Jazz crew, and those lucky to have witnessed a live show will describe it as something special. His eclectic blend of rumba, jazz and flamenco inspired African rhythms, complete with lyrics in his native Lingala - and English - are inspiring, as are his abilities, little wonder then that he has played with the likes of Kila, The Wailers, Horace Andy from Massive Attack, and Cameroon virtuoso bass player Richard Bona.
An early teacher introduced Tsumbu to jazz, expanding his musical horizons, which largely consisted of Congolese ‘soukous’ or popular music. The traditional music of his homeland also had an effect.
“It was Congolese soukous music - popular music - which is what everybody likes in Congo, that you hear on the streets every day. Also, there is traditional music. There are an estimated 435 tribes in the Congo and they all have different types of music, so it is very vast - I wouldn’t even know half of them,” he explains.
“You would hear all the different traditional music and soukous on the street and on the radio they would play African music - stuff like Fela Kuti, singers from South Africa, a lot of West African music like Salif Kaita. Then there was a lot of western music as well played on the radio. Growing up, I liked it all, it’s all vibration to me, it vibrates me, I liked it all really,” he adds.
Vibration is key to Tsumbu’s central ethos or belief system with regard to music. His latest record - a stunning, largely electric collection that evokes world jazz and classical music alike - is actually called ‘S’All Vibration’.
“I called it that because over the years I get asked the same question all the time, what do you want the music to be called?” he explains. “I came to realise that the reason I play music, or listen to music, is because of the vibrations to do with the sound. That is really what I like, the sound - it is not a genre, genre does not interest me. I like sound, whatever sound people make is created by people vibrating something. All of the songs on the album are very different to the next, but overall it makes sense as an album, so that is why I decided to call it ‘S’All Vibration’. And it is also a way of using, vibrating yourself, finding yourself.”
The album is largely electric, a departure for the more traditionally acoustic bent of his previous albums, most notably the exceptional ‘Song of the Nations’. He will be accompanied by a band to tour the record, and clearly feels moving to Ireland and collaborating with Irish musicians has led him to where he is now.
“I don’t think everything would be as it is if I wasn’t in Ireland. Being in Ireland has shaped my career, I have been able to meet all of these people, musicians. I have been more influenced by the people I am playing with now than the music I grew up listening to. I am lucky, I am meeting all of these musicians and they all really love music, it is all about making music, that is what I love.”