June Artist Spotlight: Siama Matuzungidi & Dallas Johnson of Siama's Congo

Hi Dallas and Siama, thank you both so much for taking the time to be interviewed. You guys just performed at COMPAS' 3rd Annual Arts and Crafts event last weekend. How did it go? Did you have a good time?

Siama: The event was so fun and people really responded to the music. We loved that the kids played instruments with us. 

What are your art forms? Can you tell us a little about both of your backgrounds?

Siama:  I've been a guitarist since twelve years old but now I'm a singer also and I'm teaching myself mbira (thumb piano).  I was born in the country in Zaire (now DR Congo) where music was an everyday routine. Everyone was a part of it. Music wasn't for performance. Singing, dancing and percussion were something we all shared. At 17 I left for the city and ended up recording a lot of records and traveling the world with big artists but I still feel connected to the traditional music I grew up with and I'm excited that Dallas and I get to share it every day.

Dallas: I started singing as a kid in rural North Dakota, played piano and flute and started composing on guitar at twelve. I was in a rock band in high school, sang classical and folk in college, then sang Caribbean and Central America songs. In New York City, I played steel drum in a Trinidadian band. When I moved to Minneapolis in 1995, Siama and I were in an international dance band and then I dove into jazz-funk and bossa nova. I released my first CD in 1999, another in 2004, Jevetta Steele's last album features two of my songs and I have a House song on OM Records.

Do you remember when you both first became interested in music? How did it happen? Did you have any big influences?

Siama: I was influenced by hearing soukous music by Franco and Tabu Ley and I got my first guitar after becoming a fan of guitarist Bavon Marie Marie.

Dallas: I started vocalizing as a toddler and when I sang in public at age five, I was hooked! I was a rocker so I loved rad women like Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry and Patti Smith.

Can you tell us how the two of you began making music together as Siama’s Congo?

Siama: When I moved to Minneapolis there weren’t soukous musicians so I started learning other music. In 2005 my friendship with Dallas started and we became sweethearts in 2007. I was playing in bands but not making money. In 2014 Dallas helped me apply for a McKnight Fellowship and when I won it, she encouraged me to start my own band and start singing for the first time. She was booking and promoting and good things started happening. Then she wanted to start singing again after a long break.

Dallas: My life changed the day I asked Siama to teach me his music. His primary languages (Kikongo, Lingala and Swahili) are enunciated just like the Latin languages I'd studied in college so I'd write his lyrics phonetically and repeat each line for hours. We also practiced his rhythms for hours at a time. I started adding one or two songs with each performance until I'd learned dozens of his songs. I love his singing style. It’s so liberating to open up and SING and he always challenges me to improvise and trade lines with him. He often composes new songs spontaneously so I just open my ears and dive into space with him. It's the most fun I've ever had. We balance each other as performance partners. Siama doesn't talk much onstage so I get to narrate, sharing the stories behind his songs. I quit my j-o-b and we got married in late 2015 so now our life is making music.

What are your goals for your performances? What do you hope the audience gets out of it?

Siama: With kids, we show we love them and we want them to experience music the way I did back in Zaire when I was young, where making music is for community and to feel happy. I create music for healing, to send a message of happiness to people because the happier people are the more peaceful they will be.

Dallas: Singing Siama's music is the joy of my life and I love helping people feel happiness and freedom. When we make music with kids we like to encourage them to be brave and try new things - like singing into the mic or singing in different languages - because we want their experience of music to be fun and welcoming.

Have you been working on any new projects lately?

Dallas: We’re promoting his album, “Rivers” and Siama received an MRAC Next Step grant so we're recording a new kids' record and creating a toy theater with puppets. Meanwhile, we're recording Siama's new mbira music among a chorus of morning birds in northern MN for lovely meditation record.

Siama was recently featured on TPT’s Lowertown Line. What was that like? Did you enjoy the experience of being filmed?

Siama: I enjoyed it so much, every part of it. They made it so easy and fun.

Dallas: They really captured Siama's heart in this program. We're so proud of it and so grateful.

How do you both practice creativity in your everyday life?

Siama: I touch my musical instruments all the time I'm awake. I reach for whichever one my body chooses to create in that moment. I kind of never stop composing because every minute there's new ideas coming.

Dallas: Siama sews so we collaborate on fun outfits ("Rebel Nest Designs”) and we love decorating hats and making shakers out of plastic fruit. We're avid gardeners and we enjoy experimenting with musical instruments. We approach our career as an art form too, always brainstorming new projects and collaborators. Creativity is Life!

Think Dallas and Siama would be a good fit to perform in your community? Book them!