In guitarist's music, Mississippi flows out of the Congo

Siama Matuzungidi sitting by the Mississippi.
Congolese guitarist Siama Matuzungidi sitting by the Mississippi. His new album, "Rivers: From the Congo to the Mississippi," is based on his own rich tradition of soukous music, but incorporates Minneapolis-based musicians from all over the world to celebrate the great rivers.
Courtesy of Carlos Grados

The latest addition to the Minneapolis sound draws on a rich musical tradition from Africa — with flavors blended in from the rest of the world.

Siama Matuzungidi knew as a boy that he wanted to be a musician. He wanted to play guitar. But in Congo in the 1960s, that was a problem.

"It was hard to have a guitar home at that culture," he said. "Like, if you had a guitar, your parents might throw it or break it."

People believed that guitarists would spend so much time with their instruments, they wouldn't learn in school. But Siama really wanted to play, so he came up with a plan.

He went to the local priest, who his dad respected, and said he wanted to learn music. The priest gave him a guitar. "So my dad wouldn't touch that guitar, because it was the priest's," Siama recalled. "So that was the trick."

It turned out Siama was a natural. And soon he was playing the local specialty known as soukous.

"It did begin by being a dance, soukous," he said. "People just keep saying 'Dance soukous! Soukous!' And soon it became like a music of the country, soukous music.''

Siama moved to Kinshasa, where he found work as a session musician. He ended up playing on hundreds of records.

Siama Matuzungidi at his south Minneapolis home.
Siama Matuzungidi in the garden of his south Minneapolis home on May 16. He's lived in Minnesota since 1996, after having played his infectious Congolese guitar music all over the world.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

It was during this time he recorded one of his biggest hits. It's called "Sisili," after a girl he knew.

"I should have been more careful," he said. "I met this girl, and I told her, 'I want to sing you.'"

He wrote the song, and a few days later, when a bandleader at a recording session needed one more piece, he offered it up. Before he knew it the song was being played on the radio, all across the country.

The problem was Sisili's parents heard it out in the country — and drove straight to the city.

"So I never saw her again," Siama said with a laugh.

Since then, Siama has played all over the world. He moved to Minneapolis in 1996. Having grown up by the Congo River, he immediately felt an affinity with the Mississippi.

He began meeting and collaborating with other transplanted musicians, and the result is the new album, "Rivers: From the Congo to the Mississippi," which will be released Tuesday night at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.

The album also features Tibetan singer Tenzin Ngawang, as well as Indian singer and instrumentalist Nirmala Rajasekar. There are also the gospel phrasings of J.D. Steele. Siama asked them all to sing about the rivers in their lives, and the result is astonishing.

It's hard not to smile while listening to "Rivers." Siama said he tries to live by something his mother once said to him back in Congo: "You are responsible to make yourself happy."

"So when I play my music I believe I am sending a message of healing," he said.

It's a message Siama hopes will spread down the Mississippi and across the world.

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