Interviews March 18, 2024
Moonshine Lights up the Globe with Afro-House Extravaganzas

Moonshine is a Montreal-based, Afro-house collective founded in 2014 by Juno-nominated musician Pierre Kwenders and his childhood friend Hervé “Coltan” Kalongo—both of Congolese decent. San Farafina, a Montrealer of Haitian and Filipino descent (Fara for short), also deejays for Moonshine crowds, mixing a huge variety of new and old global sounds. Kalongo’s visuals and fashion are also on display. The collective’s beginnings are humble, but these days, they host rave-like parties in places as far afoot as Santiago, Chile and Kinshasa, Congo. Last month, Moonshine released their mixtape Fédération Internationale du Bruit, the inaugural release of UK dance music star Aluna’s new label, Noir Fever, alongside a short documentary. The release features the many diverse members of the Moonshine collective, as well as Aluna, Sango, Branko, and more. Afropop’s Banning Eyre spoke with the three principles to learn more. Here’s their conversation. (Banner image by Alexis Belhumeur.)

Banning Eyre: Great to meet you folks. I should tell you, I'm kind of old school when it comes to African music. I come from the world of live bands and roots sounds going back to the last century. You guys represent a new force, a new movement in the music. So I want to hear your stories. Pierre, I know you a bit because we once spoke about your coming to Montreal and getting involved with arts there before settling on music. We spoke after your show at the Africa Now concert at the Apollo Theatre back in 2018.

Pierre Kwenders: That was a while ago.

BE: I should also mention that I grew up in Montreal and love returning there.

PK: It's the best city in North America.

BE: Hervé, why don’t you start. Tell me how you got to Montreal and into this collective.

Hervé "Coltan" Kalongo: I was in Montreal like in ’98, from Congo. I did all the regular things. I was a teenager, so I did high school over here. We were living north of the city, in Cartierville or “Six Four.” That's like for the people that are from that area. We call it that. So there’s always a lot of six-four metaphors and things like that in the Moonshine universe. And then me and Pierre were living on the same street, so we went to the same high school. He was also from Congo, so we bonded over that. Pierre's mom is an amazing cook. So since I wasn't living with my mom, Pierre's mom was like the plug for all the Congolese vibes.

BE: That's cool.

HCK: Also guidance. So we all went to school like regular kids from Congo. Our parents loved diplomas, so we all went for that diploma. And then Pierre decided to do music and we relinked there. I had a clothing brand, Pierre was doing music, so we were just like, “Let's work together.” I started managing Pierre, and then Moonshine became a new playground for us. It was an extension of whatever he was already doing and whatever I was creating. Moonshine started as a small kitchen party. All the same people that are on this call were there, with some other friends. People didn't really like the music that we played here in Montreal. They couldn't understand what Pierre was saying in his music.

PK: I'm sorry. (laughs)

HCK: And Moonshine became like a bit of the context for that. So we started this party in the kitchen in my old apartment, and that was my contribution, giving my kitchen and cleaning the apartment after the parties.

PK: I think that was a great way to start.

BE: Kitchen parties. I like it. When you say people weren't relating to Pierre’s music, I’m curious. As I recall, six years ago, you were doing a pretty experimental thing. There was Congolese in it, but there was a lot else going on. It was unique. Can you put a little meat on the bones of what Herve was just saying?

PK: Well, I always like to challenge myself and try different styles, and see how I can see myself in that new environment, whatever that be. When we started with Moonshine, that was like this other side of me, being a DJ. You know, when we started doing those parties in the kitchen, I was just dropping sounds with my iPod. I wasn't really an actual DJ. But when we decided to go on this adventure, that's really when I learned all the tricks that I needed to learn, and my music also evolved. It’s been 10 years now. But in the beginning, I was kind of struggling.

It wasn't a big struggle but you know people would be like, “Okay, what's Moonshine? What's Pierre? They couldn't really see the two being together, but through the years, I figured out a way to bridge those two words. You can feel that on my latest album that came out in 2022, José Louis and the Paradox of Love. I started the album with the core sound of Moonshine, which is more dance and house music. The Congolese guitar is still in there and then you also have this more Afro-pop sound that kind of represents the universe of Moonshine with all the pop songs that we've been playing, everything from back-in-the-days Congolese rumba to coupé decalé and nowadays we have the amapianos and the Afrobeats and all that.

BE: I have that album. I'm going to go back and listen again. I've seen the video of one of your sessions at a Boiler Room event, and you seem very comfortable behind the DJ desk these days.

BE: Fara, tell me a bit of your story.

San Farafina: I actually met everybody just a little bit over 10 years ago. So I've been there from the beginning. I was at the kitchen parties that Hervé mentioned. I did the bar at the first event, and from there I started doing the social media and now I'm deejaying and doing some other stuff. Through all this, we've grown really close. We were already close, but working together with people you care about and doing something you care about, it's like a dream come true. Working in culture and African music—Afro-pop, Afro-house all that—being able to discover that and then to go to different countries. You kind of get immersed in the culture and meet some of the subcultures. I love meeting our peers in these different countries with the people that I care about and who are passionate about this. Yeah, it's a blessing for sure.

BE: I want to hear about those travels. But first, tell me a little bit about your background. Were you a musician before? Did you grow up in Montreal?

SF: No, no, I'm actually from Calgary, Alberta, out west like.

BE: Ah, a slightly less hip city than Montreal.

SF: OK, but Calgary is coming, you guys, I'm telling you.

HCK: Okay, this is funny. This is funny.

SF: The hip is coming, I give it another few years, but it’s on its way.

BE: I remember this old joke from the National Lampoon magazine. There was a map of the US showing the “deep south.” And then there was this bar that went all the way up to include Calgary as part of the deep south. But okay, that was a long time ago. So you say the hip is coming.

HCK: (laughs) Yeah, we’re waiting for it.

SF: Honestly, fair. Fair, definitely. No, but there's a lot of stuff happening. There are actually a lot of South African people living there now. A lot of Ghanaian people, a lot of Nigerian people, West African people. Amazing. There's always been a lot of Habesha, like Eritrean and Ethiopian people. Amazing African food. Mark my words. I give it another couple of years and it should be there, for sure.

BE: Okay, you're making me curious.

SF: I moved to Montreal from Calgary just a couple years before I met the rest of the crew. So my experience in Montreal has been mostly Moonshine.

Photo by Oumayma B Tanfous
Photo by Oumayma B Tanfous

BE: Moonshine has been going for 10 years. and I'm just finding out about it. Either I’ve been out of the loop, or you've been underground.

HCK: No, it's on purpose. We kind of like to play with people we know. We know exactly who we're talking to and how we want to operate in that environment. It has never been about being out there. So Moonshine being out there now just shows that the escape of African music has gotten so big that there's even a place for Moonshine to exist, alongside the Burna Boys and Wizkids.

BE: Yeah, it’s a whole different world now. So originally you guys were playing mostly in Montreal. How did you get to start traveling? Fara mentioned going to other countries. Talk to me a bit about that.

SF: Moonshine started touring really early on. How many years ago was it when Moonshine first went to…was it Paris? Or was it Chile? Yeah, Chile.

HCK: Paris, I think in year two. Chile first.

PK: Wasn't it New York? I mean, New York is close, but, it's still travel.

SF: Oh yeah, it was New York.

HCK: I'd say that traveling always has always been part of the core DNA of the project. The collective is big. We all come from different places and I think curiosity also plays a part in it. You can hear that in the music. So really early on when we started doing the party every Saturday after the full moon. You had to text a phone number when we started. It was my phone number. So for the first six months or year, it was just copy-paste the address of the location, which was always changing, you know, from like places near a train track or a co-working space or a regular venue. We'd do all of that.

You know, we were traveling in the city. So when we had a big amount of people following us, and artists gravitating around, VJ, dancers… Then we had an opportunity to go to France. That was one of the first ones I remember. But prior to that, Pierre was already touring and I was also part of those tours, so we already had friends in France. And we Congolese, we have families everywhere, literally everywhere. So like every time we want to travel, I always ask my mom, “Do I have a cousin there so I can crash the couch or something?” That's why we've been traveling so much. We all have a lot of families, you know?

BE: I believe that. So what are some of the other places you've traveled to? Chile, France, New York...

PK: Los Angeles, Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, Kinshasa.

BE: Tell me about Kinshasa.

PK: Kinshasa. Actually we went during the pandemic. Nothing much was happening here. Everything was closed so we couldn't do any Moonshine. But going back to Congo was one of the things that we really wanted to do. We wanted to go and work on some documentary ideas that we had back then, and that are coming out soon actually.

We just decided, instead of staying at home, now that we can at least travel, and everybody put in their own money, and we all went back to Congo. And while we were there that time, Boiler Room contacted us, and we did a Boiler Room documentary. It was the first Boiler Room ever done in Kinshasa, actually.

BE: Tell me about Boiler Room. It’s an event, not a location.

HCK: Ooh, you wanna go with the Boiler Room thing?

BE: It sounds like a big story.

SF: Yeah, it actually started off very niche and very small by Blaise Belleville in London, I think, in the UK. It was just filming the underground party scene, and now it's this huge operation, a huge platform that tours globally.

HCK: I'd say Boiler Room is really the core of the DJ culture. For a lot of DJs playing a Boiler Room is a milestone. It's like, “Okay, I'm part of like the DJ gang. I played the Bolo Room.” Having the Boiler Room stamp is really important.

BE: Cool. So talk to me about your source materials. When you're DJing, what kind of music are you using in your mix?

PK: I mean, I'm Congolese and I love African music, so I play a lot of Congolese music, all different genres of Congolese music. It could be Congolese rumba or it could be the more electronic stuff of nowadays like DJ Péter or Kokoko. And I'll play also a lot of coupé décalé, and a lot of subgenres of coupé décalé like Afro house, dance music, you know, just paying homage to the dance floor. Moonshine is kind of a rave. It's a dance rave so it's important when I deejay to showcase those who've paved the way for these kinds of raves.

BE: What about you two? When you're deejaying, what are you drawing on?

HCK: Me, I don't do s%$#, to be honest. I do behind-the-scenes stuff and creative direction. I handle the clothing and the fashion part of Moonshine.

SF: And a lot of the A&R too. Hervé's taste is all over the Moonshine DNA as well, for sure.

BE: And you, Fara?

SF: Me and Pierre get to be the stars. Pierre is the number-one star, but I get to be his little mini co-star. So what influences? Well, I had so many phases growing up. Obviously, I liked hip hop. I loved Missy Elliott and Aaliyah and NERD and all that stuff. And then in Calgary there was a lot of dancehall music. I had a little techno phase. And then I came to Montreal and I heard dubstep for the first time. I was just shown so much different music while being here. I've always been someone who researches music. I was always looking for different kinds of music. I grew up in the Napster days, so I was doing that. And then I met Hervé and the guys. My horizons have been broadened. Now I really like to explore all of the really old genres that some people forgot about, like kwaito, for example. And now Batida, which is so new, right? And we get to mix them together in Moonshine and people let us do that because the crowd expects musical discoveries.

BE: Your audience is open-minded. They want to hear things that are going to blow their minds in some new way?

SF: Absolutely.

PK: Or things we feel like people should be listening to, or at least should discover and decide for themselves.

SF: Yeah, because Montreal's nightlife was so rich. Back then, Azonto was really popping off, but we were not hearing Azonto anywhere. We had to go to Hervé's flat to listen to Azonto.

BE: It's funny you mention Azonto. That was a big deal for a while, but I haven’t heard that word in years.

HCK: Yeah, that's 2014, right? It kind of disappeared.

PK: It's still a little bit in there, you know, in the Afrobeats.

BE: It got kind of swallowed up in that movement.

SF: Yeah, and we play all of that too. We play like kuduro, amapiano, Afrobeats of course. That goes without saying.

BE: What do you guys make of the meteoric rise of Afrobeats? It's been amazing for us because we've been covering this music since the late eighties when even the biggest stars, whether it was Papa Wemba or Youssou N’Dour or whoever, they were playing in nightclubs, and now you have Burna Boy selling out Madison Square Garden and Citi Field. It’s been a revolution in terms of the accessibility and mainstream acceptance of African music.

PK: I mean, it was about time. It's like the legends and great artists that were there unfortunately couldn't do what Burna Boy is doing right now. But it's amazing to see him able to do it. It means that it is possible for everybody. People are more open to hearing everything, and you can say whatever you want. We're kind of lucky today. We have social media. We have the internet that facilitates all that. I'll be in Montreal and I'll see people on TikTok that are based in Congo playing sounds that I've never heard before, and then I'll be like, “Let me go and find it and DJ it.”

BE: Of course. Technologically, it's a completely different world. Any other thoughts about that?

HCK: Well, what I'm thinking is like, first of all, shout out to the Afropops of this world. I think a lot of people like you paved the way and it's just great to see, to witness that.

BE: Thanks for that.

HCK: It's a win for everyone. I feel like the music is lighter, it's brighter. It's fun to be in the beginning of something.

BE: Right. You're not in the wilderness anymore. The moon is shining.

SF: I don't really listen to the radio that much, but sometimes, if I'm in a car or something, I'll hear like an Ed Sheeran or a Justin Bieber, or you're hearing Afrobeats influences in the music. I guess some people aren't happy about that. There are a lot of questions about ethics and everything.

BE: Ah. Questions about appropriation and all that. I've never been too sympathetic with these appropriation arguments, because that's what music is. It's hearing things and being inspired by what you hear, wherever it comes from. I also think that Africa has been in our popular music forever. Everything from the banjo to funk and blues and jazz. It's always been there. What’s new is an interest in sounds from Africa today.

SF: And I don't think it's a trend. It’s here to stay.

BE: I agree. There’s no going back. So, what do you guys have coming up? What’s the next big Moonshine event?

HCK: Oh God, that's the whole year. All we do is work on a big event, and then a bigger event.

So we're going to hit up New York. We're going to be around Coachella as well, not at Coachella, but in Palm Springs. And then we have a big event this summer, a festival where we're going to showcase a lot of the artists that featured on our last project. It's going to be here in Montreal.

BE: I will likely be up there for the Nuits D’Afrique festival in July.

HCK: So I'm trying to steal you from Nuits d'Afrique. I think it's July 20th we have a Moonshine. And I think DJ Lag might be there. If you never saw DJ Lag, man, South African prodigy… This is Africa today.

BE: Sounds like a plan. Well, we have to stay in touch. I'm glad to connect with you guys, and to reconnect with you, Pierre. Check out our website, There’s a lot going on there.

SF: Okay. Thank you.

HCK: Definitely. Thanks for taking the time.

BE: Good luck with everything and keep in touch.

PK: Thank you so much, Banning.

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