Name: Sam Mangwana
Occupation: Singer, songwriter, composer, performer
Current release: Sam Mangwana's Lubamba is out now.
Recommendations: I am fascinated by the traditional music of the Incas and by Classical symphonic music. As a child, I travelled and discovered the world through my comics: Davy Crockett or The Adventures of Tintin
If you enjoyed this interview with Sam Mangwana, visit his personal website for biographical information and music. He is also on Facebook and Youtube.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started out as a chorister in a missionary school with the Salvation Army missionaries near the capital of Congo.
I was also influenced by the music my mother listened to, she was one of the organisers of a cultural group for Angolan women exiled in Congo. At home, we also listened to the national radio which played local folk music and European and American pop. This is how I discovered Harry Belafonte or Louis Armstrong.
I didn't really want to be a musician at first. But I started to compose my own melodies when I was a teenager.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I started by imitating the great Congolese rumba singers: Grand Kallé, Tabu Ley Rochereau or Nijos. One day, I went to Tabu Ley Rochereau's house with my compositions and after listening to my melodies, he wanted me to accompany him on stage (to replace Nijos as my tone of voice was similar to his). Rochereau chose me because of my ability to imitate other singers.
Then I released my first 7-inch vinyls with the group Festival des Maquisards and that's how the public discovered me.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I was born into a family committed to the liberation of Angola and Africa and my parents gave me a traditional and religious education, which had a great influence on my personality and my music. This led me to develop a preaching style because I like to talk about what is happening in the world around me and give advice, which surprised many at the time because it was unusual.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
At the beginning of my career, I used my songs to communicate with the public but sometimes with other artists too. For example, if another singer tried to steal one of my songs it was a way of claiming my rights.
I have always, and today even more, tried to raise society's awareness of current problems: food crises, drought in Africa and tried to provide solutions (agriculture, ecology, economy).
(Note : Sam went back to Angola in 2003 after the Civil War to help with the reconstruction of the country & is still based there)
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you?
At the beginning of my career, I wanted to change the world, especially to push society in Africa to evolve and to recognize the place of African women.
I can say that my songs made an impression on people because some people were enthusiastic when they heard my songs and others were more critical, so the message was getting through.
Also, the music reviewers were pretty tough. You had to write quality lyrics with a message if you wanted to be broadcast and recognised. The journalists called me “the moralist” in the late 1960s.
In which way do you feel as though music can also bring about change and lead to tangible improvements?
Music can make a difference, especially in the environment in which I grew up. It was through art and above all through music that one could reach people who did not have access to education and culture.
I remember one day when a student offered me a goat because he had taken an exam in which the subject was to analyse the lyrics of my song "Zela Ngaï Nasala". This meant that the message of my song was important enough to be studied and spread.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach?
I have always collaborated with many musicians, on each of my albums. I've always used the same system: when I come up with a melody or a lyric, all the musicians get together to bring their ideas and we make the arrangements. We build each song together.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
When I was young, everything was spontaneous and we played almost every day. Now, I prefer to follow work schedules to take time for myself to cook (one of my great qualities, I am good at cooking and I like it), read or meditate.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I've had many key moments in my career.
I like to give myself challenges to evolve: work proposals, collaborations, etc. That's how people discovered me, and how I was able to move forward.
But one of the most important moments in my career was the day Tabu Ley Rochereau said to me, "Kid, you have a beautiful voice, I want you to come and sing with me" in September 1963, when I was only 17.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Creativity comes to me spontaneously, I often catch myself humming a new melody, so I start writing. There isn't really a particular place or context that favours my creativity.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Some songs excite me, penetrate me and influence me. I don't know if music heals but it can definitely provide relief. It is true that music can also hurt with immoral, violent or unsettling lyrics.
I find music therapy fascinating: being able to provide relief to humans and even animals through music. This is the power of music!
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
It's hard to say that there are boundaries in the art of music because everything embraces and meets. Especially with the young generation that doesn't like taboos and tries to combine and harmonise different cultures and sounds. Now we can no longer prevent cultures from meeting each other.
I am currently working with a very good French guitarist, who is very open-minded and admires Africa. I am often told that he is "African at heart".
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I've always tried to control my senses, but it all comes together. Indeed, I often listen to songs and see images, smell odours which could come from memories or my imagination.
For example, it's easy to imagine artists if you've never seen them. I remember very well imagining what Louis Armstrong or B.B. King was like when I heard their music. When I met them, the picture was different from what I had imagined.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
For me, everyone is a creator and certain "happy accidents" in life (such as meetings, opportunities) make some people become professional artists. Being an artist is a full-time job.
I remember my father absolutely didn't want me to be a professional artist but after a few years he thanked me and asked me to forgive him because his name was known worldwide thanks to my music.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
In all the arts, artists communicate and exploit the themes of life and death. Music is no exception to the rule and is not stronger. It is the message that is important and it can be expressed in all the different art forms.