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It’s a sign of Niwel Tsumbu‘s talent that as an absolute outsider to the Irish music scene a few years ago, he’s found himself on stage with an absolute who’s who of our city’s music right now. The Congolese born guitarist has fingers in a lot of pies. His latest project RiZA is his third that I’ve been particularly taken with (on top of his solo work and his guitar contributions as part of Donal Dineen’s Parish), and explores seriously personal themes (the first single about his kid turning out not to be genetically his) in gorgeous Central African language Lingala.

I caught up with Niwel to learn about promoting African music in the Irish market, the background to his new project and his numerous other explorations…

Tell me about the idea behind RiZA. It’s a phenomenal line up; how are you all going to work together and fuse your styles? 

RiZA is based on Risa, a fictional planet located about 88.2 light-years from earth, known for its beauty and relaxing tropical atmosphere. It is a world commonly sought by interstellar vacationers and starship crews on shore leave.Anybody into Star Trek would know this.

After I released my last record “all vibration”  in 2011, I went into a whole different journey of operas, theatre and performing with bands like Republic of loose, New Triangle, D.F.F ,The Multiverse, Donal Dineen’s Parish, Crash Ensemble, Treelan and Anarko Flamenco in Spain. I could not focus on my music that much. I was also  part of the Cork Opera house production of  Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, Roger Doyle’s “Burned” opera and also the Abbey Theatre’s fantastic Risen People-a rendition of  James Plunkett’s best selling novel Strumpet City.

So, I went for a long period without playing my own form of music and I started missing it. Strangely  enough I really missed singing, as with all these projects I was just playing the guitar. Last year I was having  really tough time and that’s when I decided to use sound to create an environment just like RiZA here on earth and viola  the concept of RiZA- A place of beauty and relaxing atmosphere. As you may have noticed I changed the “S” to “Z”

I am really happy with it,It is a line up of super stars in their own right. Eamonn Cagney is my long time collaborator, we have done so much together that it is nearly telepathic between the two of us at this stage. Paddy Groenland plays in many bands around town such as Ensemble Eriu, Manden Express and others and I am enjoying paying with him. I really like his touch. He then introduced me to Ema and Sally who are sisters and when they sing together- we used to call it “murder”.

I wrote all the music for this album but I am already looking forward to our second  one as I want  everyone involved to contribute with their composition for this one.

How easy do you find it to ‘sell’ African musical styles in Dublin? I’ve certainly seem some impressive live reactions. Does the language barrier prove an issue?

I don’t think it is that difficult if you know how to sell it.  There is a dedicated audience of “world Music” who would be used to listening to  music with other languages. In Ireland I notice when people talk about “African music” they mean West African music, more precisely Malian or Senegalese music. I asked a promoter friend of mine once, why do you mostly bring west African stuff here Africa is big?

Her answer was it is easier to sell. As soon as you  mention a griot from Timbuktu  or something the tickets fly out of the door.So,that is the angle…

The first RiZA track is intensely personal for you. Can you tell me the story behind it, and how you translated the story into music?

Kabembe came from a conversation I was having with my son about listening and also preparing him for his future. Although that is not his real name-I chose Kabembe because it rhythmically worked with the melody.

It was easy to put into music because I was actually singing to him while talking so,I actually put the music to the lyrics.

I’ve heard there’s already an album on the way. Are the other themes similarly intense?

Yes, we recorded the whole album already at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studio. There are ten songs in total  and they speak of different thing such as gratitude, love, loss etc…

You’ve had some fantastic collaborative work over the years, not least with Donal Dineen. Does music naturally come to you as a community activity? 

Music is the best to connect with people. My goal is always to touch people in a positive way to enhance the community

It goes without saying your Congolese influences flow through your music, and rightly so. Let’s talk about the other side: how has Ireland influenced the way you play, and what you write?

There is no way my music would be the way it is today if I was living anywhere else. Music is my way of life. For the last ten years my life has been in Ireland, I am learning so much from all the musicians I am getting to play with, the weather and just being here.

How does a musician’s life in Ireland compare to what you might expect in Congo?

It is very different indeed, In Congo you rehearse all day long, hungry and hoping for a gig one day whereas here people would get paid and rehearse for two hours.

There is no royalty system set up there. It is really difficult the whole country itself is not doing well. A singer would have to find a person who is going to pay him money to sing his name or something.

Personally, I can’t help feeling that you’re a touch under-recognised as a musician here in Ireland, perhaps as I personally see you as amongst the best Ireland has to offer. How do you feel this country has treated you in terms of your musical progression?

Wow!Thanks for putting me up there with the best.

As far as I am concerned I have had success with my music in general. Nothing makes me happier, as long as I am playing with sound my soul is forever rejuvenated. What people think about me is not the most important thing . A lot of people tell me that they like my music and that makes me happy and pushes me to get even better.

Often people would book me and I would ask -what do you want me to do? and their answer would be “just do your thing” I don’t take that for granted, Most people in the world would love to get paid doing what they love.

What do you think of the PR side of music? Does it sit naturally with you to try and promote what you write?

It is very difficult to be a musician and do the PR thing.

I used to think you just need to be great at your thing to make it in the music business but experience has taught me that,that is only 10 percent of it, the rest is PR in my opinion. The problem is, if you spend a lot of time on the computer doing PR stuff, your artistry suffers, and you spend a lot of time improving and developing your art you don’t get the gigs…

It is great if you have a PR company. I am now working with Ensemble Music. It is run by Rob Farhat and Rob Kearns . I am not as bad as other musicians I know on this matter believe me, but it doesn’t come naturally at all, I have to make myself do it. I remember I did a CD launch of my album once and I forgot to mention the CD itself. I still need to get better on this.

What are your plans for the summer, and for the future?

I have a lot of stuff in the summer including gigs with RiZa and the album release later following a tour of Switzerland in September. And also finishing another album with Jiggy a project I am really enjoying being part of. After that I will be in the Abbey theatre for the Autumn.

 State of the Nation is a blog project for 2015 focused on telling the story of the Irish music scene through interviews with some of its major players. Interviews are published weekly, and you can find a full index of all published to date here
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