Ray Lema

Born : 30/03/1946 in Lufutoto (DR Congo ex-Zaire)
Country : DRC
Language : French / Lingala
Category : Composer / Male Artist / Songwriter
Style of music : african music / Jazz
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Raymond Lema A’nsi Nzinga was born in a train on March 30th 1946 in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). On her way to the neighbouring village of Kary (today Lufu Toto), his mother, who lived in Lukala, gave birth in the station - for a son of a station master, there was nothing out of the ordinary about this. During his childhood, he had no direct contact with music. In 1957, aged 11, he entered the small seminary of Mikondo in Kinshasa with the intention of becoming a priest.

But very soon, music lessons revealed a gift for the piano. His music reading ability was remarkable: he could read the most complex pieces effortlessly. The young boy discovered music through Mozart, Bach and Gregorian chants, through Western culture and traditions very different from his own. For several years, he was designated official organist at mass. His teachers were so impressed with him one of them even gave him a piano…and religious vocation quickly became a musical one.

For his first concert of secular music, he played "The Moonlight Sonata" by Beethoven. His brother was the only African in the audience.

Kinshasa débuts

After he left the seminary in 1962, he studied at the Collège Albert and later enrolled in the chemistry faculty at the University of Lovanium in Kinshasa. During the sixties the country was invaded by Western musical influences, particularly American rock and Cuban salsa. Ray discovered the urban culture of Kinshasa and learnt to play the guitar and it quickly became clear chemistry was not the best choice: he preferred playing in local groups and orchestras and playing piano in night clubs.

He was spotted by musician Gérard Kazembe, joined his orchestra and for two years played endless Anglo-Saxon tunes, everything from Jimi Hendrix to the Beatles. He became known little by little until, in 68, he was asked by the government to form an official ensemble. He formed Baby National and appointed himself musical director. But serving up culture in a governmental sauce was not his strong point and the group was disbanded after a year. Afterwards, he spent some time accompanying Zairese stars such as Tabu Ley Rochereau and Joseph Kabassele.

Civil servant

In 1970, aged 24, Ray already had a lot of experience behind him. He joined a very popular rock group, the Yss Boys. When the band broke up in 72, Ray felt the need to deepen his knowledge of traditional music. He travelled around the country with a tape recorder for several months, recording every sound, music, dance or chant he came across.

Doing the work of an ethnomusicologist, he recorded on tape some of the countless musical styles of ex-Zaire and was considerably enriched by what was an unusual experience for an African musician. In 1974, the government asked to form and direct the Ballet National du Zaire. Given the task of assembling all of Zaire’s musical styles, Ray Lema travelled the country in search of musicians and dancers from the different ethnic groups. The result was a company of a hundred artists. 

After a year and a half directing the ballet, the government wanted Ray Lema to produce an opera but the project was blocked due to lack of funds. Ray left the ballet for good in 76. If, culturally, directing the ballet was a positive experience, working for the government absolutely did not suit this humanitarian views and his love of freedom and experimentation. He went back to working with the greatest Zairese musicians of the day, including Franco, with whom he performed at the Festival des Arts. He formed a new group, Ya Tupas, in which he drew on the musical sources he had collected between 72 and 73. The group became well-known and was awarded the Maracas d’Or in 78, a French prize for an African and Caribbean music. 

Africa – America – Europe

In 1979, an American production outfit invited Ray Lema to go and work in the United States. With funds from a Rockefeller foundation scholarship, Ray Lema flew to America. Fascinated by what he discovered there, in particular the recording studios, he stayed longer than intended. He married an American and learnt studio sound-recording technique and (in New Orleans) recorded his first solo disc, "Koteja". He also played for a while in a Haitian orchestra. In 1981, the Old World began to beckon, and Ray left the United States for Belgium before definitively moving to France. He has never returned to his home country since. 

New address, new culture, new career. In Europe, he was able to fully pursue his perpetual quest for new sounds and influences. Like all African musicians living in Paris, he was not known. He made his French débuts in venues frequented only by his countrymen. He started a group, Carma (Central Africa Rock Machine) with musicians from Zaire, Cameroon, Haiti and Guadaloupe, and began to be noticed at musical events organised by the magazine Actuel. The editor of the magazine, Jean-François Bizot, was his manager for several years. Ray Lema soon found a record label, Celluloïd, which enabled him to distribute his mini-album, "Koteja", in France and above all to record his first album. 


In 83, "Kinshasa-Washington DC- Paris" was released. The album’s title sums up Ray Lema’s career. Rumba-rock, funk, reggae, modernity, his first album contained a mixture of influence and it was the take-off point for an international career: it received rave reviews and sold well at a time when World Music was really taking off commercially.  

At the end of 84, Lema gave a concert at the Chappelle des Lombards, the prestigious Paris jazz cellar. Around that time, he played on the first solo album of Englishman Stuart Copeland ex-drummer of the Police. 

The following year, he met Frenchman Martin Meissonier, a recording engineer and arranger highly respected in World Music and African circles. In a London, two of them, both sound recording addicts, concocted the album "Médecine", released in October 85. 

In 86, Lema composed the soundtrack for the film "Black Mic Mac" by Thomas Giloux. The following year, he went on a long European tour which included Greece, Spain and Italy. 

Well established now in France, Ray Lema had developed an excellent rapport with several French singers. So much so that in 88, he formed a temporary group, the Bwana Zoulou Gang, with his own musicians and French artists, including Charlélie Couture and his brother Tom Novembre, Jacques Higelin and Alain Bashung. He called on African musicians as well, among them Willy N’for from Cameroon and Manu Dibango. Festive, rhythm-packed, the album brings together pygmy influences and the most electronic funk. 

In 89, Lema gave a Senegalese name to his new album, "Nangadeef" (Hello in Wolof). There were numerous guests, including English saxophonist, Courtney Pine, and the magnificent female voices of the South African group, the Mahotalla Queens. Produced by his new label, Island, the album sold moderately well: his meditative exploration of music in general and African music in particular pleased the public and artists alike. At a concert in Portugal, Lema played in front of 100.000 people. On October 6th 89, at the Cigale in Paris, he received a warm welcome form the French public. 

Ivory Coast

The whole of the following year was booked with tours and festivals. In July, he was a guest of honour at the Francofolies festival in La Rochelle. In the autumn, he travelled around Africa with Radio France Internationale on a tour organised by the French Cultural Centres for the "Découvertes" competition. One of the dates was a concert in Abidjan on November 15th - Ray Lema had never returned to his home country, but the capital of the Ivory Coast had become his African pied à terre. The tour had a profound effect on him and inspired the album "Gaïa", released in 91. However, due to the disc’s low sales, Island dropped Lema despite him being universally recognised as a master musician. 

At the end of 1990, Ray Lema helped to produce the album "Funana" by the Cape Verde Islands group, Finaçon. This first African production marked a new departure in Lema’s career. During the following years, he pursued multiple and diverse musical influences. In 92, he again produced an African artist, We Were Liking and his troupe from the Ki Yi M’bock Theatre in Abidjan. With We Were, a musician from Cameroon living in the Ivory Coast, he wrote the opera, "Un Touareg s’est marié avec une pygmée". He also returned to jazz, playing with German pianist Joachim Kühn on the album "Euro African suites". 

But his greatest experience at that time was his work with Professor Kirim Stefanov, the master of Bulgarian choral art and artistic director of the Pirin’ since 1956. Together, they composed and recorded a remarkable album in which 23 female singers (14 Bulgarians, 6 Africans and a choir of 3) blended voices and cultures in a whirlwind of dazzling melodies. The success of the disc took Ray Lema and the ensemble on tour in 93: Francofolies, the Sfinks festival in Belgium and the Festival des Musiques Métisses in Angoulème.


The next release, "Tout Partout", was more sober in content. On this minimalist album, Ray Lema, on piano, is backed by two French vocalists, Cathy Renoir and Isabel Gonzales, a kora, a pygmy flute and an accordion. 

On September 23rd and 24th, the ensemble played at the Passage du Nord Ouest, a small Parisian venue which has disappeared since. 

In 96, Ray Lema released "Green Light", an album which pursued the solo vein begun with "Tout Partout". Alongside this, he showed the full extent of his humanitarian commitment with artistic missions to Chad, Benin and Burkina Faso. These trips were an opportunity to coach and help young local musicians, a task which Ray Lema is particularly attached of.

The introspective vein continued with "Stoptime", released in 97. A more solitary and more acoustic work, the album testifies to a certain maturity (fifty years old) and is an overt recognition of his classical training. His classical background also came to the fore in 97 with the writing an opera for a 30 musician orchestra. Inspired by African nature, this musical play was rehearsed for the first time by a Swedish orchestra in February 97. Ray Lema’s re-discovery of his work, played by a classical orchestra was unprecedented emotional and artistic shock.

In his own way, Ray Lema is an artist without roots. He discovered music through white, Western culture and the first instrument he learnt to play – the piano – does not exist in African music. It was not by chance that he left in search of the more traditional sounds of his own country when he was not yet twenty. The trip was the departure point of a much longer, philosophical and spiritual search for his true roots.


During the year 2000, Ray Lema worked with a traditional Moroccan band called Tyour Gnaoua. This encounter gave birth to a very successful musical show uniting Gnaoua (this was the music of the ancient Subsaharan slaves) tempos together with Congolese vocals (Ray Lema’s own origins). The opening night of this unusual show took place in May 2000 at the Couvent des Cordeliers, a medieval cloister in the heart of the Marais, one of Paris’s oldest districts. Lema and Tyour Gnaoua performed together again during the Fête de la Musique at the end of June and at some festivals around the French provinces during the summer. In December they gave a last gig at the Maroquinerie, a small and cosy Parisian stage, and released an album entitled "Safi" (it means "We agree" in Arabic).

Renowned for crossing frontiers and pushing back musical borders, Ray Lema branched out in a new direction in November 2003, teaming up with theatre director Jean-Louis Matinelli. Working with Matinelli, he wrote the music for Max Rouquette's play "Médée", which was staged at the Théâtre des Amandiers in Nanterre in November 2003.

Piano solo

Lema, who claims that he discovered the "complementary nature" of African and western music in a workshop on harmony, has long been on a mission to fuse the "horizontal" nature of African beats with the "vertical" lines of western harmonies. And in 2004 Lema picked up his solo career again. His album, "Mizila" (named after his late mother), followed on in the same vein as earlier albums such as "Green Light" (1996) and "Stop Time" (1997), mixing jazz and classical influences with African rhythms. Lema took to the stage to give a debut solo piano performance at the Café de la danse on 29 March 2004.

Ray Lema has always been committed to the idea of passing on tradition, culture and know-how to the next generation. And this is something he has frequently put into practice through his work with the UMA (Université Musicale Africaine), teaching a range of classes. In 2004 and 2005, Lema also headed off to Burundi to give two master classes, an experience which he repeated in Burkina Faso (2005) and central Africa (2006).

In 2005, coinciding with celebrations of the "Year of Brazil" in France, Lema performed a series of one-off concerts with Brazilian singer-songwriter Chico Cesar, fusing the vibrant beats of Africa and Brazil. The pair went on to appear at various music festivals that summer across Europe.

In 2006, Ray Lema teamed up with drummer Francis Lassus and bassist Etienne Mbappé to form the African Jazz Trio, re-emerging on the live circuit with yet another new sound.

In November 2006, the trio teamed up again and headed out to Burkina Faso to organise a new session of the African Music University in Ouagadougou. The three musicians staged master classes and training courses for local musicians.

2007: "Paradox"

Fans had to wait until February 2007 for a new album from Ray Lema. "Paradox", recorded with Etienne Mbappé and Francis Lassus, featured a range of very different tracks including songs in English as well as French and a series of vibrant instrumentals. On this album, Ray Lema also paid tribute to the late great French star Claude Nougaro ("C'est une Garonne") and the Malian icon Ali Farka Touré ("Ali Farka Touré"), two musician friends who had greatly influenced him throughout his career.

In 2008, Ray Lema formed a threesome with Etienne Mbappé and Francis Lassus to take “Paradox” around the world, going to Europe, Africa, South America, China and Korea.

The following year, as part of the Year of France in Brazil, Lema was invited by the Jazz Sinfonica Orchestra de Sao Paulo to record 13 of his numbers with the 90-strong orchestra directed by Joao Mauricio Galindo. The collaboration resulted in two concerts in Sao Paulo in May 2009.

Also in spring 2009, Ray Lema formed a group, which he called Saka Saka after a Congolese dish based on manioc and fish. The band comprised a bass player from Cameroon, Etienne Mbappé, drummer Conti Bilong (who usually plays for Manu Dibango), a Cuban brass section, some Franco-Congolese backing singers, a Brazilian guitarist and Laurent Lupidi, programmer of Zebda and Brigitte Fontaine.  Lema and his team served up a repertoire that married the rhythms of Congolese rumba with rock, and took in traditional rhythms from the Congo and Central Africa. Saka Saka performed several concerts in 2010 at the Festival de Montreux, the Panafrican Festival in Algiers and on open stage at La Villette in Paris in July.

2011: "99"

In August and September 2010, Ray Lema and his eclectic Saka Saka recorded a new album that was released on 9 May 2011. It was entitled “99” in reference to the code number attributed to foreigners living in France. With Brazilian sounds, reggae and jazz, the album is musically diverse with some very idealistic lyrics. Lema dreams of a tolerant, mixed-race type of globalization that is a far cry from the standardized, commercial reality he sees today. The songs in “99” were presented in Paris on 11 May at La Bellevilloise and on 28 of the same month at the Quai Branly museum.

The end of the year saw the release of a CD and DVD featuring two original concerts performed in Brazil in May 2009. On the collection, Ray Lema reworked thirteen of his numbers accompanied by the Jazz Sinfônica de São Paulo, conducted by João Mauricio Galindo, lending a new symphonic atmosphere to the works.

The insatiable musician went from project to project. In 2012, he was in the creation “Station Congo”, a dialogue between traditional and modern Congolese musicians. This project, launched at the initiative of the Détours de Babel festival, was significant for Lema because its preparation took him back to the DRC for the first time in thirty years. In Kinshasa, he selected traditional musicians and rappers for his new show, which also featured his compatriot Fredy Massamba.

2013: "V.N.S.P."

The following year Lema was back with a jazz sound on the album "V.N.S.P. (Very Special New Production)", a nod to Herbie Hancock’s legendary live album, "V.S.O.P: The Quintet". To record the new compositions, Lema chose a quintet comprising bass player Étienne Mbappe, Nicolas Viccaro on drums, Irving Acao on saxophone and the trumpet player Sylvain Gontard.

He performed with the band at the New Morning in Paris on 7 February 2013.
The album "V.N.S.P. (Very Special New Production)" won him the Académie Charles-Cros Grand Prix 2013 in November.

Rather than settling into a particular musical style, Ray Lema tried his hand at a wide range of projects. One of them saw him with the Brest University Orchestra at the Festival du Bout du Monde in August 2013 and then at the Quartz in Brest in May 2004. He then travelled to China for the opening of the Festival Croisements, performing with the Wuhan Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Liu. He gave several concerts in the country during a fortnight in April.

In a completely different vein, Lema got together with Rodrigo Viana, Fredy Massamba and Ballou Canta to work on the Nzimbu Project. The group paid a tribute to Aimé Césaire at the New Morning on 12 December 2013 and supported the Central African Republic in March 2014 with a solidarity event at the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris.

May 2014


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