There is music for painful moments, for happy moments, for homesick moments, for walks by the beach, crying and shouting, and for singing in the shower. Somehow Juanita Euka manages to encompass all of these emotions on her debut record. Mabanzo – meaning as much as thought in Lingala – is the debut record of an artist who is already well versed in the music industry. As a part of several different projects, Juanita Euka has been putting her diverse musical and cultural background into artistry since young age.
“Mabanzo is actually a reference to one of the songs by my uncle – Franco Luambo released in the early 60s. When I was looking for a title for the record, I overheard my mother singing lines from it and it clicked,” she tells me when I connect to her London base via zoom last week. “I wanted to go back to my roots. It is inspired by is a love song and my music is like a love letter on every track.”
As the child of diplomats, the Congolese singer grew up in Argentina and moved to London when she was fourteen. Her music bridges the Afro-Latin experience with the experience of African diaspora and draws from her family legacy in music. Her uncle Franco Luambo was an important figure in the Congolese music using influences from Cuba, in the shape of Congolese Rumba. It just makes sense that Juanita joined an Afro-Cuban band WARA, as well as the London Afro-Beat Collective. To get a feeling for the different influences, pains, and emotions that created each song on Mabanzo, we talked through the album one by one.
Alma Seca is the very first solo track written by Juanita and was recently featured on the series Killing Eve. “WARA were my beginnings. Everything started there. The song, like the band, is inspired by so many Cuban acts and references from the music that inspire me, like Los Van Van, Bamboleros de Cuba.” It is a collaboration with the rapper Fedzilla from Wara.
“It is the single that allowed me to create the record. And it warms up for the sound I have on the other songs. It is a celebration the culture and passion for Cuban music.”
The second song on the album is sung in Lingala and written with Juanita’s long-time collaborator Greg Sanders. The title translates to “One Country” and the song is about the experience of Juanita as a 3rd culture child. “I grew up in a culture that was not my parents’ and then moved to a culture that was not mine. There are so many people – here in London as well – that share this experience. All of the languages on the song and on the record, are a part of me. But music is the universal language that connects them all.”
Her experience as living abroad as Congolese diaspora has shaped Juanita and allowed her to see things in a way that is beyond linguistic expression. “I learned that no matter where you grow up, in what culture or what language, we all know what pain and love feel like. Music has become my way of expressing these universal emotions.”
“I am chasing my own culture,” she says describing her experience as a never-ending process. Her music speaks of that definition of constant growth as well, instead of being narrowed down to one identity – Juanita is a singer with multiple identities that all find a space on her record. Mabanzo carves an international, intergenerational, and inter-genre space that defies boundaries and definition.
But it has not been an easy journey for Juanita. “I struggled as a singer. I felt like I did not sound like anyone else and in the schools for singing and music, I felt like I could only express a limited version of myself. That did not work for me and I wanted to do more.” And on Mabanzo, Juanita does it all.
For All It’s Worth
The first English-language song on the record was written from the very living room she is calling from, the singer tells me. “It is about love and partnership”. Inspired by the first relationship Juanita had, the song was co-written by her ex giving it special emotional depth. Singing in a mix of Spanish and English Juanita finds her self-worth and reminds to shift focus to value non-material things.
Sueños de Libertad
“This one is gonna make me cry”, Juanita says. A way of healing through music, the song is a dream of freedom. Freedom dreamt from precolonial times, when Congo and Latin-America were untouched by European colonial violence. It is Juanita’s way of confronting this traumatic history and saying “you destroyed my kingdom”.
“This song is my heart. I poured all of it into it – my struggle, the painful history of Africa and the painful history of Latin America.”
“I am trying to bring peace. This thing, the past, that has created so much pain that we still have today. On the song I am dreaming of a better future, even if I am not part of it anymore”. Sueño translates to dream in English and captures the vision and the utopia that Juanita is singing about. But even though they can seem distant, dreams are powerful. You need to dream it to make it happen. “We are still fighting for so many things – that is why freedom is still only a dream and something we need to work towards.”
Nalingi Mobali Te
The infectious Afro-Beat song celebrates Black women, Juanita tells me. Written as a dance tune, the video to it features Juanita and two other women, dressed up in colorful suits performing and dancing. Drawing from the Sapeur culture from the Congo, she appropriates the male-dominated fashion statement for women while singing “I don’t want a man” in Lingala.
“I think, it is important to dance when you are in pain.”
A way of resisting to the imperialistic values brought by the colonizers, the Sapeur culture claims the euro-centric way of dressing as an empowering practice. The social movement shows the power of fashion and art as a tool of resistance but it is, like many things, male-dominated. Like taking away the euro-centric expression from the colonizers, Juanita reclaims sap culture from the patriarchal structures and thereby blurs the binary gender-roles that were imposed by an eurocentric lens.
“This is one of the last tunes, I wrote. It is about my humanity and the humanity of Black people, perceived as racialized. It is about the pain of racism without talking about the pain of racism.” Blood is a powerful metaphor. It runs through the veins of every human and Juanita reminds of that fact on her song bedded in laid-back instrumentation merging gospel, RnB with contemporary Afrobeat.
Baño de Oro
The bath of gold – the title already paints a distinct picture. “The song is me as a Congolese person missing my home. On the song, I journey into pre-colonial times before Africa was divided by the Western nations into the countries we know today.” On the song, Juanita explores her personal history, drawing inspirations from the stories she heard about her grandmother and other women in her family, who she never met. But she also connects the painful history of Africa with Latin-America by singing of her experiences in Spanish.
“I was questioning where I come from and started investigating into the stories of the women in my family before me. On the song, I use Oshun the goddess of the sweet river from the Nigerian Yoruba religion, but I connect her to the Congo River and by singing in Spanish I am also having a conversation with Cuba and Latin-America.”
Motema means heart in Lingala. “This is a cheeky song. I am exploring the frustrations of people as humans but while having fun with it. The heart is such a powerful organ – biologically and emotionally.” On the song, Juanita Euka also brings her love for Afro-Peruvian music into the record while singing in Lingala. “Coming from a theater background, I use my body a lot as language and to break barriers of expression. People can understand my music, even if they do not understand the lyrics.”
The following, Camarades, also explores rhythms that draw analogies to the psychedelic Cumbia songs from Peru while sung in french. “At home I also always mix the languages,” Juanita explains. “The song is about the afro-diaspora and migrant experience of always feeling the need to do well, to work constantly and harder than anybody else. It is a high-five to the people, encouraging and acknowledging their struggles in solidarity and telling them that they are enough.”
War is over
War is Over is a strong song title, especially at the moment while there is a war going in Europe, Juanita says. But the song is about the emotional wars that we fight every day, the wars we have with ourselves. “It is a sad tune but hopeful. It is a song for the end of a war but not a happy ending, it is painful and leaves scars. War is a loaded word at the moment. It is strange. There have been wars in my country and nobody cared. The Eurocentric perception of war and struggle is very much still present. The word war also shows how much power and importance things happening in different places in the world are given.”
Irresolute was written during lockdown on guitar. Staying with her mother during the pandemic in London, Juanita tells me about the experience of having her mother up close in her creative process. “She got to know a different side of me in the process. Before that she would just hearing the songs when they were finished and she had never seen me in the writing process before. It was a new kind of interaction for us. The journey was powerful because when writing, I am also healing stuff and getting to know myself.”
The record closes on the acoustic version of Alma Seca brining the album to a full circle. Embracing every part of her identity and heritage, Mabanzo is a record that transcends boundaries and celebrates the beautify of Afro-beat and Latin music through tradition and contemporary developments. It is an act of personal resistance and healing, working through pain and generational trauma, while at the same time allowing to celebrate the culture.
“Je n’oublie pas mon passé“
Mabanzo is out now via Strut Records.