Before finding beauty in complexity, Congolese guitarist Kojack Kossakamvwe was a safe bet to become a jazz music hero, influenced by the likes of Django Reinhardt, George Benson, Wes Montgomery and Joe Bass.
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But these players, alongside Maryse Ngalula, Elie Kamano and Franco Nabiso, got him thinking. What if he could fuse jazz with the sounds of Congolese folk, or soukous?
The guitar chose me
Born and raised in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Christian Kossakamvwe Mpongo, also known as Kojack, is an accomplished player with an idiosyncratic style. Using two-handed tapping techniques, he plays rhythm with his left hand and melody with his right to put together a rumba-jazz sandwich of sound.
The virtuosic guitarist, author and composer first discovered music in a children’s choir in 1986, and soon began playing the guitar, at the age of 10.
“Back then I was in a children’s choir, and an adults’ choir rehearsed at our house, but still I was not that invested in music,” he says. “One Saturday morning, I went to visit a friend, who is the son of a pastor, and found them playing musical instruments. Since I couldn’t disturb them, I took a seat and watched. When the pastor arrived, he noticed that everyone was playing an instrument except me. He told his children that it’s not nice to leave a friend alone while visiting you. That’s when my friend took a guitar and showed me the first notes. I didn’t think I would be a guitarist. I think guitar just chose me, unlike vice versa.”
The spider-fingered Kojack’s early learning came via audio cassettes, which he used to teach himself.
“I would listen to the solos of some great guitarists and transcribe them,” he says, “and that was how I progressed until today. We had a chance to meet a professional guitarist from Belgium, Fabien Degriz. He taught us a lot. He really taught us to play well, and that’s how I got into music. Since then, every occasion I get I give, because only through giving can you become great as well.”
In a country where rumba is a queen, soukus a princess, and sebene a prince, Kojack discovered that he had a passion for jazz by listening to the great players on the radio. From here he would develop his playing and impose his own wondrous style on the genre.
Aside from his propulsive syncopated rhythms and intricate contrasting guitar melodies, Kojack’s rattling transitions between different styles of music, his polyphonic ensemble playing, and his deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre make him a formidable composer.
In 2002, Kojack saw a video of the legendary bassist Victor Wooten, famed for his tapping technique. Kojack was amazed to see a bass player with only four strings producing so many harmonious sounds. He began practicing the same technique on a six-string bass and was suddenly a serious tapping proponent. These days, he executes the same split-brained polyrhythmic playing across his Kiesel and D’Angelico guitars.
“During my apprenticeship, I always felt a need to advance further,” Kojack tells us. “I felt an attraction that pulled me towards something that I did not know, and that grew my ambition for difficult techniques. I followed every guitarist that I could see on television and on the radio, especially western music. That is how I fell in love with jazz and ended up blending it in with Congolese folk music.”
The pandemic meant that Kojack had to cancel 20 live dates in the US. Now he’s finally back on the road with new material reworked during that extended period of downtime.
“With plenty of time that corona gave us, I worked on my old songs one by one and composed new ones along with my hot quartet. Covid got us cast out of the world, because most of us win when we are playing, but now I am back on the road.”
As well as being a touring artist, Kojack also offers group guitar lessons, because he believes that’s what made him the player he is today. He’d like to share his knowledge with the world too.