Music that takes his soul: Master of soukous to perform in Willmar region in June
NEW LONDON — Here's the path Siama Matuzungidi took to get from stardom to obscurity.
He started in the Democractic Republic of Congo, where he left his home at age 17 in 1971, and made his way to Uganda, Kenya, Japan, and Dubai. He played for large audiences who celebrated him as one of the masters of soukous music, a joyous music that he learned in the Congo.
Marriage led him to Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1995 and with the move came instant obscurity.
Finding no demand for a soukous-playing guitarist in Minnesota, he learned the musical styles of his new home and made a hardscrabble living performing with small bands in clubs and bars. All the while, "he never stopped playing his music," said his second wife, Dallas Johnson. The two became friends while playing together in an international dance band, and eventually became sweethearts.
She credits his 2014 selection as a McKnight Fellow with helping Minnesota and Midwestern audiences discover Siama and his music, which today includes soukous and many other styles of music, some of his own blending.
"Takes my soul," said Siama of his love for soukous. Today, he and Dallas put on anywhere from 250 to 300 programs a year for audiences as they introduce thousands to their music.
The two are performing June 8 at Sibley State Park in an afternoon celebration of the park's 100th anniversary. The duo is also scheduled to perform June 15 at the Willmar Public Library, as well as at 22 other libraries throughout the Pioneerland Library System during the month of June.
In Africa, Siama and Dallas said many people just naturally break out into dance and song when soukous music is performed. Minnesotans aren't quite as foot free, but even in small towns they've enjoyed audiences who sing along and move to the music. "The biggest thing we hear all the time,'' said Dallas, "is people get super happy."
Siama said that he knew by age 12 while growing up in the Congo that he wanted to be a musician. "I don't know about that," he said was his father's reaction. He literally left home with a guitar on his back with aspirations of making it as a musician.
He found success. He wrote music and played with a popular band, but being heard on the airwaves in Africa did not translate into wealth by any means.
At one point, Siama said he and his fellow band members took up an offer to perform for the "rich uncle" of one of the band members in Uganda. The rich uncle was Idi Amin, a ruthless dictator, who provided them room and board but no more. They eventually fled, running aways shoeless.
Siama married a peace corp volunteer who grew up in Duluth, and that's what brought him to Minnesota in 1995. He still talks about the shock of discovering what a Minnesota winter is like.
Dallas is a North Dakota native who has done her own traveling out of love for music. She studied classical music and moved to New York city for the opportunity to record and perform before returning to Minnesota.
Dallas said her husband is humble to the core. She only learned by her own research how well known and accomplished he was as a soukous musician.
Things have opened up for them now. They do anywhere from 250 to 300 programs a year for audiences of all ages. Performing for children has taught them to be more engaging with adults, and to "just be happy," said Dallas.
That's their goal for every performance. "It's a fun time to be together,'' said Dallas.
Sibley State Park celebrates 100 years
Bring a blanket to lounge on and enjoy music, free snacks and beverages on Cedar Hill. Enjoy a retro game of "kitten ball"' (softball), go on a hike with a naturalist and try your hand at fishing in Lake Andrew as Sibley State Park continues its 100th anniversary celebration Saturday, June 8.
9 to 11 a.m. Voyageur Canoe Paddle on Lake Andrew with Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center
11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Community & Campers Kittenball game / rootbeer floats for players and spectators to follow.
1:30 to 3 p.m. Siama Matuzungidi and Band
1 to 4 p.m. Family and Kid Friendly Activities including: facepainting, healthy eating education, fish painting, paper making, drop in "frog" hole game, special guests from the Fish and Wildlife Service and Hawk Creek Animal Shelter and more.
3 to 4 p.m. Happy Birthday treat served.