INTERVIEW: Batila Talks Favourite Congolese Bands, Writing for a Childhood Hero and Building a Career in Berlin
Batila is a Berlin-based artist whose music marries the influence of his Congolese roots, haunting soulful melodies, an undeniable sense of groove, excellent musicianship and, of course, his charismatic singing. We talked to Batila about his various musical influences and experiences, the way he writes songs and works with his band.
— You fell in love with urban Congolese music of the time at an early age. Can you share some of those recollections? What were the songs, how you first heard them and what made you fall in love with each of them?
— I can't say when I heard them for the first time. It was mos def in our household. Uncles, parents and friends. Also my father used to travel to Belgium and bring back vinyls and CDs of the latest and past releases, since you couldn't get them in Germany at that time. No matter how late it was he used to wake me up and hand me over these records. In the morning I would have already memorised some songs and let him know which one of the songs he should consider listening. I also loved to listen to old tapes my parents brought with when they emigrated to Germany. I fell in love with the melodies and the harmonies of the singers. Then of course the guitar lines and later the poetry in the lyrics just got me hooked to the music. As a kid I was a fan of Choc Stars, Viva La Musica & Papa Wemba, Djo Nolo, King Kester Emenya, Franco Luambo Makiadi, Tabuley, Koffi Olomide, Mpongo Love and many more. My favourite artist turned to be Papa Wemba. His performance, Stage presence and his voice shaped me a lot.

In general I come from a very musical family who love music. I was amazed how the musicians could tell love stories with socio-political issues wrapped in – I guess because of mobutu's dictitatorship.

But I am listening less to Congolese music nowadays. For me the productions, topics of songs and the art got a bit missing in the run for popularity. I am more or less hooked to the old stuff. But there are also plenty of artists that are making the difference but don't really find their place in the mainstream.
— What were some of the music projects you were involved with before 2021? And how did your experience with them (both negative and positive) shape the sound and songwriting of Batila today?
— Uuh, this question is a tough one. Well, I worked in quite a few projects but in the last four years I was more or less getting ready for TATAMANA, spiritualy and musicaly. But nevertheless I, for example, toured with the jazz combo Mop Mop. An amazing jazz band with crazy talented musicians like Pasquale Mirra and Alex Trebo. They booked me as a front man and we performed great venues and festivals like the Macki Music Festival or the Kaliningrad City Festival. But along the tour I realised that I want to be on tour with my own stuff. I was unsatisfied within, despite outstanding feedback and love from the audience everywhere we performed. This also pushed more and more to TATAMANA. I also recorded quite a number of songs in German and performed as Ange da Costa in different formation but singing in German and the kind of songs I was writing was like I was trying to please the German audience who didn't really accept.

At that time I was a black man singing in perfect German but with melodies that were not really German. I was not singing like the German singers most of who sounded the same to me when it came to soul music. Besides that, I had the feeling that not singing in my mother tongue was taking away something from me. I did it for quite some time though and knocked on different doors but didn't get the acknowledgement and appreciation I was expecting. I mean the production was on point, working with producers like David Vogt from the Beatgees or Andre Boadu from Keine Musik. At the end of the day it all didn't feel right.

My songwriting was the strongest when I didn't want have to follow rules and didn't feel the pressure of the industry on how a song should sound. But I mos def learned a lot during the time. This all made me understand how I didn't want my music to sound like. I needed to fall back to my roots, to my beginnings, my voice, my language, my culture and my own understanding of music.

Oh, and I forgot to mention a projects Congo Crew, a bunch of young Congolese rappers rapping in lingala. That was, like, 2005. We released one album but didn't get the full exposure in Germany and besides that guys just wanted become famous without a strong vision. It was fun though. Crazy beats and mad rhymes in lingala. But at that time Afrobeats was not that cool among the vast population. Since Obama Africa and Africans became more trendy somehow... Can I say that... I am not a trend, I am not cool, but mos def stylish and soulful on my own terms.

Another project I took part in is 1884, a big band with African musicians from the diaspora. It was dope and opened my eyes. It was initiated by the Werkstatt der Kulturen. They brought together musicians like Dizzy Mandjeku ( guitarist of TPOK Jazz) and Bibi Hammond (bass player and producer for Waldemar Basto) to musicaly discuss colonialism and its consequences. This pushed me more and more to my spiritual journey for TATAMANA. But at the end of the day all my projects shaped me. All of them. I learned a lot and grew and became more conscious about myself.

And did I mention that Papa Wemba also asked me to write for him. Unfortunately the song got never released. It's a beautiful ballad. Would have loved to sing with that man.
— How do you usually work on the music – do you start with the the band and go from there or do you bring full songs or song ideas to the musicians you are working with? Or all of it? Can you give some examples?
— I usually bring full songs and sometimes songs ideas to the band. I am very sensitive about my shit, so my guitar playing gives the band a strong rhythmical guideline. I mean I have a particular way of playing the guitar which sets the groove. My playing is quite rhythmic and often sounds as if the bass is also playing. I am lucky, 'cause somehow the band members love the songs most of the time. So I let them jam around them and, as we play along, I listen carefully to what the song inspires them to play. My band members have different musical backgrounds, so that makes it very interesting. I kinda give them space but at the same time I am very strict about where I want to take the full band version. All my songs perfectly work with just my voice and the guitar. But in the studio I do not necessarily play with all my band members. I then choose the musicians according to what I feel the song needs. It is very important for me to be free to experiment and let different inspirations dive in.

For example on blacklove I worked with a young Congolese guitarist for the Congolese touch and with Mauro Pandolfino for the more psychedelic feel. For this I also let Ikonola from Papa Wemba's band Viva La Musica play the lokole, a folkloric instrument which in former time was also used as a kind of telephone, means of communication. Don't know many who master that instrument In Europe. For Kindoki I took the recording to to Kinshasa and back to Berlin. I like different approaches with my guitar playing, my composition in the centre of it all. Everything around it submits to it.

That's why I also call my band the Dreambus. It's full of influences and inspiration and musician jump on and off according to the destination. I am the conductor.
— You are based in Berlin. Is it a good place to start an international music career? What are the pros and cons?
— I think Berlin is a good place for Artists because the living costs are not as crazy as in London ( where I lived before coming to berlin) or Paris. But for my sound I feel a bit restricted and rather see my choice of musicians in Paris , London or Kinshasa but on the other hand I am also very much in love with distorted and psychedelic guitar sound qnd electronic elements which Berlin is good for. But anyway I think for my debut I managed to bring all elements together. On the second one tho I would like to experiment more but the same time be more confident with my voice and just the guitar. We will see. But nevertheless Berlin got some crazy cats tho, hard to get but if you do, madness. Missing African bass players tho and of course the Congolese guitar. We have some but I would like to take it higher.. I always liked the mix... music you can listen to on the moon as well as in a small village somewhere in the equatorial forest... does that make sense?
— Thank you for the interview!
Cover photo by Daron Bandeira.