Genre: Pop/World Music
Location: L.A. USA
Origin: Kinshasa, RD Congo
You’ve never heard anything quite like Mohombi. 23-year-old singer, writer and producer with half Swedish, half African heritage, Mohombi delivers a fresh, irresistible party sound he calls Afro-Viking.
“It’s music that sounds like my story,” he says, and what a story his is: this son of an African King-cum-politician escaped war torn Congo in his early teens, relocated to Stockholm where he tasted musical success for the first time then, before hanging out with friends in LA, where he was almost instantly talent spotted by fellow semi-Swede and super producer RedOne (Lady Gaga, Usher, Lil Jon).
Flashforward to summer 2010 and RedOne has not only welcomed Mohombi into his hit making camp and produced his debut single, but he’s also made Mohombi the first signing to 2101 Records, the label he’s running with Cherry Tree/Interscope in the U.S. and Island Records in the UK. The album – featuring guest spots from Nelly and Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger – is already in the bag and if you think this is worth making a song and dance about you’d be spookily spot on: a gifted mover, Mohombi has brought every track on his album to life with an individually choreographed dance routine.
The undulating, dancehall grooves of debut single ‘Bumpy Ride’ set the stage brilliantly and if you feel the winningly propulsive quality of his tunes you’re not alone: this is music about moving to the dancefloor, but moving beyond it too. Indeed, the next time a breathless, newly anointed pop idol gasps about their ‘journey’ – in many cases a journey from the bus stop to the nearest audition – try to remember the way Mohombi’s own journey started, twelve years ago. Mohombi remembers the day well. It was August 14 1998 and over in Congo it was, to employ some complex socio-political terminology, all kicking off.
There were bombs exploding everywhere, gunshots overhead. Mohombi’s parents decided that their kids should be evacuated from the turmoil. Mohombi and his brother and sister tried to take a ferry, but the port closed minutes before they were due to board. The next day they were transported by the French military to a base in France, then finally to Stockholm. “Obviously, it was a really difficult time,” he recalls. “It was in the middle of the war that we had to flee. I realised we were really lucky to get that second chance, and to get a new life.”
His thoughts were consumed by what happened to the people who stayed, and this turmoil was expressed in poetry, which a teenage Mohombi eventually set to music. “You have to figure out how to manage something like that, what to take out of it and whether you make it something constructive, or whether it destroys you,” Mohombi says now. “Music was my way of working through it. It was a way of expressing not just what was in my mind, but what was in my heart.” Mohombi and his brother and sister got a flat in the relative calm of a Stockholm suburb and felt freedom for the first time. Brother Djo started DJing in Stockholm clubs and the trio’s house was alive with Bobby Brown, Will Smith – party music, in the main. There was an unselfconscious energy and joy to the music that flipped a switch in Mohombi’s brain. It was contagious – the brothers started working on music together, and before long they had founded the group they called Avalon.
The dynamic between them lent itself well to songwriting, each brother playing to their individual strengths musically: While Djo concentrated on beats, Mohombi was captivated by song. “I think we sounded different but still accessible…’ Mohombi says now of Avalon, “We were still Congolese but we offered a twist on it – we were music of the day like R&B, dancehall and hip-hop”. In Sweden, Avalon became something of an underground success but it was during this period that Mohombi’s sister died in an accident. It’s not an event on which Mohombi tends to dwell, but he does acknowledge its significance in what would happen later on. “She’s a big part of me still, and a big part of the music, and always will be. She was always the one who believed in this the most,” he recalls. “She saw the potential. She said we’d be signed to the biggest label in the world. And today I am signed to the biggest label in the world.”
Group Avalon’s was no overnight success, but when it worked, it went off like a firework. Between 2004 and 2008 they sold half a million albums, picked up an African Grammy and performed alongside Ludacris, Ginuwine and Musiq Soulchild. Mohombi, meanwhile, was writing so much music that there were tunes left over. In 2005 he was shortlisted in Sweden’s prestigious Melodifestivalen having written, produced and performed his own entry, then massive South Korean boyband Big Bang picked up a number of his other songs.
It would take another move for things to really fit into place. Mohombi’s pop career had only ever been part time and by the late 2000s Mohombi was working for Sony Ericsson in Stockholm as a logistics manager. Excitement was in short supply. “It wasn’t,” he notes diplomatically, “exactly my dream.” “One day I went to my boss’ office and said, ‘I’ve been doing music since I was 12, I have to take it to the next level, I’m going to hang out in LA for a while.” His boss raised an eyebrow and offered Mohombi a withering “good luck, my friend”. “It felt like something was pulling me,” Mohombi says. The Big Bang songwriting success may have been destiny calling or may simply have been some rather good timing but it served as a validation of his songwriting talent. It was also the beginning of a shift in his expectations. “It was the push I needed to go to LA,” he recalls. “I got together with a bunch of friends who are also songwriters. I said, ‘let’s do this!’.” So they did that and they went to LA. People always go to LA with a purpose, of course, but they can also leave LA with broken dreams. Mohombi knew he had to make it. “I was suddenly among all those people,” Mohombi recalls. “Every one of them hoping to take their dreams to the next level.
It’s in the air, it’s in the energy. It’s hectic and hungry.” He called contacts from Sweden and met up. A small collective was forming. A couple turned out to have moved over when the previously Stockholm-based producer RedOne, whose own background is Swedish-Moroccan, saw his first single with Lady Gaga becoming a hit. When Mohombi met RedOne they clicked instantly. “He’d heard that I was a songwriter,” Mohombi recalls. “But he was also interested that I was an artist.” Skip ahead to summer 2010 and Mohombi is not just an artist, but the first one signed to RedOne’s 2101 Records. His tunes, meanwhile, have zoomed off in exciting new directions. There’s a 90s rave dance feel to tunes like ‘Dirty Situation’ and ‘Coconut Tree’ – reference points that feel like Haddaway, Dr Albarn and Ace Of Base but not in an angular, post-ironic Hoxton-obsessed sort of way. The joyous, celebratory spirit that fuelled all those hits back in the day is splashed across these tunes like the surf up your legs on a sunset beach walk. As Mohombi explains, while his new material takes a big leap forward, it’s not even that different in spirit from what he used to knock out with his brother. “That’s what makes it so honest for me,” he says.
“The motion and the rhythm are really African – rhythmic, dancey, but what we tried to do was merge the African feel with 90s words and melodies.” The result is something that sounds very 2010. “Red took it to the next level, modernised it, gave it his touch and his pop flavour,” Mohombi says. “He’s an amazing pop producer first of all – he’s a hitmaker.” Well, those hits – and they must surely come – will speak for themselves, as the journey continues. “It feels like my life is all about movement,” Mohombi says. “I don’t know where I’ll end up. Maybe nowhere, maybe everywhere.” It’s hard to listen to his songs and not feel that ‘everywhere’ is the only option. “It’s ‘the long road’, as we say in Congo,” Mohombi says. “A bumpy ride, but an exciting one.”
Mohombi avec le Group Avalon – mama africa
(Before he went platinum)