For as far back as Kiazi Malonga can remember, there has been music.
When most kids his age were watching Sesame Street or reading children’s books, Malonga was absorbing the rhythmic patterns of drums in the recording studio and instinctively studying the beats and tempos of professional musicians.
The son of Malonga Casquelourd, a world-renowned musician, dancer, and champion of Central African art and culture, Malonga was born into the intoxicating world of traditional Congolese music — an on-the-job training that helped prepare him to inherit his father’s role as a pioneering cultural ambassador.
“We didn’t have babysitters back then,” Malonga says. “So wherever my father went, I went with him. I remember looking up from my high-chair and seeing the images of these adults playing, and I would just fall asleep to the music. It was kind of a lullaby and it forever stuck with me, to the point where I was playing before I could really learn to walk.”
A native of East Palo Alto who now lives in Oakland, Malonga has been sharing the wonders of Congolese music with the Bay Area his whole life. Those efforts have reached a culmination of sorts with the release of his debut album, Tembo Kia Ngoma, which comes out March 5.
The album is a collection of original compositions that play homage to the music of the Kingdom of Kongo, a bygone monarchy that incorporated the lands that now include the countries of the Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, and Gabon.
The album in particular highlights the ngoma — drums that range in size and timbre and are the beating heart (literally and figuratively) of Congolese music. The English translation of the Tembo Kia Ngoma is roughly “wind of the drum,” a fitting title for an album that feels like a breath of fresh air.
The 10 tracks on the album run the gamut — from minimalist offerings of handheld drum beats to full-band excursions that include snapping electric guitar play and grooving bass lines. Underpinning each is a foundation of upbeat percussion, making each song feel like a galloping, jaunty joyride.
On the lead single, “Lomami,” nearly a dozen different drums are deployed — including multiple ngomas — with each one layered on top of the other to evoke a sprightly, upbeat atmosphere. The percussion instruments include a wine bottle as well as a ditumba, a traditional drum from the Balumba ethnic group that emits a buzzing, kazoo-like clamor.
The dexterity and virtuosity of Malonga is on full display on tracks like “Tembe” — a feverish combination of blistering hand drums — but the album broadens in scope with tunes like “Ntâli Jazz,” a brassy, slow-moving lilt, and “Akéna Mina Mê,” a Balearic-inflected track, which melds classic and contemporary influences.
The whole album is a stirring ode to the roots of Congolese music, a reflection of the two-year journey Malonga spent creating his debut release. After more than three decades of live performances and teaching the elements of the ngoma, Malonga set out to document the sounds of his ancestral homeland. He was motivated by the opportunity to highlight the scope and capacity of the ngoma while uniting the traditional and modern aspects of the rich tapestry that is Congolese music.
“The music of our culture has evolved, and at times it has moved away from the ngoma as the foundation,” Malonga says. “For the songs on this album, I wanted to reinject the ngoma as the centerpiece.”
Malonga says the album is dedicated to the various teachers who bestowed upon him the principles of Congolese music, a cohort that includes his father. Malonga Casquelourd was a giant in the Central African diaspora, and his founding of the Fua Dia Congo Performance Dance Company in the Bay Area created a generation of music and dance adherents.
In 2003, Casquelourd was killed in a tragic car accident. In many ways, the burden of carrying on that tradition of ambassadorship fell to Malonga, who was in college at Stanford University at the time of his father’s death.
“There were moments in my life when I had other focuses and interests,” Malonga says. “When I was at Stanford, I considered walking-on to the football team, which obviously would have taken up a lot of my time. But it was around then that my father had his accident and passed, which really shifted my focus to be more present, and to be in the moment, and to embrace his legacy. In the end, I will always stay true to my heart, my heritage, and my culture.”
In the wake of his father’s death, Malonga helped sustain his vision by continuing to act as a teacher and musical leader of the Fua Dia Congo troupe. Those roles continue to this day. Despite the pandemic, Malonga is still providing lessons, both virtually, and via outside, socially-distanced gatherings.
Malonga credits his father for instilling the need to find balance in his life. While always encouraging him to explore the world of Congolese music, Casquelourd also urged his son to study and better himself through education — guidance that helped Malonga graduate from Stanford University. His father’s teaching also inspired Malonga to start his own solar energy company, which is aimed at closing the social development gap in Central Africa through its clean power investments. Malonga was in Congo-Brazzaville when the coronavirus pandemic broke out, and he caught one of the last flights back to the U.S., curtailing what was supposed to be an eight-week trip.
Upon his return to Oakland, Malonga redoubled his efforts to complete Tembo Kia Ngoma.
“I didn’t want to rush anything, because I really wanted to be mindful of those who came before me,” Malonga says. “But at the same time, I started to tap into that place where I’m inspired and where I can then create and compose.”
Because performing Congolese music is such an all-encompassing experience, featuring highly-detailed choreography and synchronized playing, Malonga is eager to play the songs off Tembo Kia Ngoma live. He’s already mapped out a live band, and has plans to write more material and get out in front of audiences as soon as things are safe and opportunities present themselves. He says he’s excited about the different possibilities of his craft, eager to explore the next evolution of his career.
That will continue the journey he’s been on since infancy. For his entire life, music has been close to Malonga’s heart. Fortunately for those who appreciate his craft, that sentiment is staying true, now, and into the future.
Will Reisman is a contributing writer. Twitter @wreisman