Shortlist shortcut to Pierre Kwenders' José Louis and the Paradox of Love

Discover the 'Heartbeat' of the Montreal artist's Polaris shortlisted album.

Discover the 'Heartbeat' of the Montreal artist's Polaris shortlisted album

Kwenders' recent album, José Louis and the Paradox of Love, is on the 2022 Polaris Music Prize short list. (Kim Yang; graphic by CBC Music)

To help music fans get to know the 10 Polaris Music Prize-nominated albums, CBC Music presents the Shortlist Shortcut series. Every week, we will ask a nominated artist for a recommended track off their shortlisted record. Perhaps it's a song that best represents the themes on the album, or maybe it's the most important, difficult or rewarding song they wrote. The question was left to the artist to interpret, but the hope is that the selected track will give us a pathway into their work. 

In the eighth instalment of this series, we spoke with Montreal-based singer-songwriter Pierre Kwenders, who received his second Polaris short list nomination for his 2022 album, José Louis and the Paradox of Love.

Written by Kyle Mullin.

Although the lyrics are in Lingala, you'll instantly understand the love Pierre Kwenders is singing about on "Heartbeat." It might seem surprising that the Congolese-Canadian artist chose "Heartbeat" as the gateway song for his Polaris Prize-shortlisted album, José Louis and the Paradox of Love, but once you discover the beauty of the lyrics in the language of his homeland, the universal message will woo you.

"Ask any Congolese — they'll say Lingala is the world's most romantic language," he says over Zoom, before enlightening those less familiar with his heartfelt native tongue by singing the first verse of "Heartbeat" a cappella.

Kwenders' impassioned "doux doux doux" refrain is catchy enough to make anyone sing along. Against his deep, rhythmic voice is French-Senegalese singer Anaiis, whose fluttering higher register and smouldering delivery gives "Heartbeat" its soul.

José Louis and the Paradox of Love finds Kwenders transcending language, culture and continents. Throughout its 13 tracks, he sings in French, English, Lingala, Kikongo or the more rhythmic Tshiluba, which his grandfather spoke and which Kwenders says "makes you want to dance with your hips." 

Multilingualism has always been Kwenders' motif. Born José Louis Modabi in the Congo capital Kinshasa, he was not only raised on Congolese rumba (an African-Cuban musical meld), but also his mother's VHS tapes of South African pop star Yvonne Chaka Chaka, who transfixed him in English and Zulu. 

He went from being curious about South Africa to immersing himself further: after following his mother to Montreal at the age of 16, Kwenders started performing with Chorale Afrika Intshiyetu, a Congolese-Canadian Catholic choir that's featured on the album's rousing closing track, "Church (Likambo)." Sunday mornings aside, Kwenders gravitated towards Montreal's electronic music scene, co-founding the now-global Moonshine collective, whose parties are famous for beckoning attendees to secret locations via SMS.

Despite his musical momentum, Kwenders says that his mother hoped he would stick to his less-than-romantic day job as a Revenu Québec tax collector. As consolation, he says "the most personal song I've ever written" is for her: the hushed, yet raw, track "Your Dream." It begins with a mother wishing her son both a happy birthday and success in life. By that, she means marriage, parenthood and stability. "I wanted to respond to that. But also reassure her that everything is all right," he says. 

Naturally, he did so by singing in tender Lingala — "the first language my mom and I spoke, besides French. When she yells at me, it's in Lingala," Kwenders adds with a wide, warm grin. 

When she listened to "Your Dream," it brought her to tears. 

Be it through familial love, brotherly love or the kind of romantic love that could compel him to climb mountains (which he sings about on album highlight "Kilimanjaro"), José Louis and the Paradox of Love sees Kwenders open his heart wide to explore the nuance of love, and its many powerful languages.