Jam Tales: José Hendrix
Updated: Sep 27
Sometime in the Spring of 2011, a singer from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) sat in at the Saturday Afternoon Jam at BBs.
His stage name was José Hendrix. His first name is pronounced with a hard “J.” There is no soft “J” sound in French, which is the official language of the DRC. Pronounced, “Joe-SAY.” His full name is José Ndelo Kumbu. He lives in Kinshasa, the capital city of the DRC with a population of 15 million.
He was good, real good.
As I remember it, after the gig he asked me if I would be interested in doing "something" but wasn’t specific. I nonchalantly said, “Sure” and gave him a card.
I get that kind of thing often; 99.9% of the time it’s nothing, but I usually respond in the affirmative, especially if I’m impressed with the guy, because you never know. Anyway, I went on to the next gig and thought no more about it.
Several days later I received a call from a woman named Kelly Myers whom I didn’t know who was calling on behalf of José. She sounded very nervous and talked fast;
“José asked me to call you. He said you told him you were interested in working with him and I told him you were just being polite, that you’re one of the most well-known and busiest musicians in town and you wouldn’t have time, and I’m calling you so I can honestly tell him that I did.”
“Wow,” I thought to myself, “That’s pretty presumptuous!”
“Now wait just a minute,” I said. “I’m interested enough to want to know more, so why don’t you tell me about it?”
What follows is a very abbreviated version of Kelly and Josés' backstory, just for context.
It happens that Kelly is a songwriter. She had been collaborating with Gordon Williams, a grammy-winning producer. Gordon has worked with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Teddy Riley, Babyface, Stacy Lattisaw, Diana Ross, New Edition, Nile Rodgers, Carlos Santana and Quincy Jones. He worked on Lauryn Hill's solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and Will Smith's movie and soundtrack Men in Black.
Kelly had posted a grieving tribute on Facebook to her mother, who had passed away. By seemingly random coincidence, José had seen it and sent her a heartfelt condolence message.
Kelly was touched, and they began a long-distance friendship via Facebook during which it came out that José was a singer/songwriter and producer in Kinshasa.
Upon learning that, Kelly suggested a collaboration to create something new and inspirational; a cross-fertilization of American-type pop songs with African musicians for something a little different. She sent José a stack of CDs of some of her song demos.
José was willing but had no funds for recording. There was really no way to vet him but Kelly decided to take a chance and sent him money for recording and to pay the Congolese musicians that he would use.
José came through. Together Kelly and José created about 15 songs and released a CD, Embrace the Earth. The video below was produced by José in Kinshasa to promote the CD.
Pay attention to the first song in the video, Kiando. All the voices and a lot of the percussion sounds are José. The dude is Michael Jackson good at layering vocals and Bobby McFerrin good at imitating instruments with his voice.
José and Kelly's music is hosted on Broadjam, check it out.
Then, Kelly decided to bring José to America and try to break him into the business here. Kelly has a marketing and promotional background, and was working for Sprint at the time (she’s currently with Vodafone).
However, after arriving, José needed a band. Thus Kelly and José came to the Saturday Afternoon Jam at BBs to network and possibly find musicians who were willing to play with José.
There were 2 things about the situation that were red flags to me;
Because the music was all-original, this situation was going to require a ton of rehearsal. Rehearsing is usually a deal-killer for me because, as Kelly said, I am very busy. However, I was willing to go against my no-rehearsal policy because I was so impressed with Josés' singing and production skills and the general feeling that there was a bunch of potential here. Plus, I simply liked the dude.
It felt like Kelly was lining up musicians willy-nilly without knowing them; how good they were (or not!) and whether or not they could work together. I wanted to be involved in picking with whom I was going to be working (control issues anyone?). The right combination of guys makes it easy and a joy - and the wrong combination of guys is excruciating and self-sabotaging.
Fortunately, Kelly had lined up Jaisson Taylor on drums, vocals and percussion. Jaisson and I go way back so that was good. She also got Ayo MacPherson to play congas. Ayo sits in with us on Saturday afternoons on a regular basis, so I was familiar with him.
José had a quiet and gentle spirit about him; I liked him a lot. I never once saw him lose his temper or express frustration or anger.
However, he was obviously very ambitious. He was hungry. After all, he had come to America from Africa under the auspices of a woman he'd only interacted with online who was footing the bill to get him over here; he was walking into a lot of unknowns. She had taken a chance and trusted him by sending money for recording, now he was trusting her, hoping to further his career.
In spite of his gentle demeanor, to do what he had done in Kinshasa - write the music, sing all the parts, produce the recordings, then manage all the logistics of putting together the music videos (the musicians, performers, dancers etc), besides starring in them - that takes a strong and determined badass person with major management and logistical skills...on top of being an insanely good singer.
Without a bass player Jaisson and I decided to go with more of an acoustic-oriented concept. I worked up acoustic arrangements of the songs and Jaisson played Djembe instead of a drum kit. We had Ayo on congas and I enlisted Phil Brenner on sax for soloing. That was the band we had for the first gig with José.
His American debut (other than sitting in at various jam sessions around town) was April 28, 2011 on the campus of the Sprint World Headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas.
That sounds big-timey, but it was not much more than a lunchtime gig in a courtyard on a hot and windy day on a portable stage with no shade.
The day before the gig, we were informed that a woman who was connected to Gordon Williams was flying in from L.A. and would be playing piano; we didn't know her, we didn't know how good she was (or not), and there would be no rehearsal with her. I was irritated by this but Kelly told me she thought it was Gordon's way of getting an independant opinion of José and the band. Gordon was on campus but was busy with some kind of presentation and unable to see the band.
The woman's name was Lara Lavi, she’s a Grammy-winning songwriter in her own right, and in our brief introduction right before the show it was clear to me that she was experienced and knowledgeable enough to stay out of the way musically, even though she would be onstage with us playing piano. So, one less thing.
The gig went well (Lara‘s playing was fine) and afterwards Sprint fed us. I sat next to Lara. She was impressed with José and all the musicians in general. She asked me questions that were designed to find out how versatile I was; could I do more than play acoustic guitar behind a singer? Of course I can. I gave her copies of my CDs.
“Would you be willing to come to L.A. to record?” she asked.
“Would you be willing to tour?”
“Maybe. Give me something concrete; for how long? How much? And then I’ll say yes or no. I’m listening.”
Never heard from her again, but I don’t take it personal; it’s the music business.
I also met Gordon Williams. He was very upbeat and complimentary. I gave him a couple of my CDs and never heard from him again. That’s ok, I don’t take it personal; it’s the music business.
That was the first of quite a few gigs. The band became a fluid thing, depending on the venue, the budget and who was available.
The next guy Kelly added was Brian Padavic on bass. I didn’t know him, Jaisson didn’t know him; that made me nervous but he turned out to be really good. So with a bass player in the mix, Jaisson switched to a drum kit and I switched to electric guitar. At various times the band went from a trio to six pieces.
There were times when one or another of us had conflicts. At least 2 times I couldn't make a gig and had subs play for me, we had 3 drummers in the queue, sometimes we had Phil on sax, sometimes not. We had two bass players in case Brian couldn't make a gig.
Kelly discovered that management, marketing and promotion in the music business was a lot different than what she was doing for Sprint. She says,
“I soon learned I didn’t like the booking or band management business nor did I know much about it, and it was hard to get a red cent in our pockets, but we forged ahead as best we could to get his name out there...”
Kelly brought José to the U.S. a total of 3 times, for 3 months each time, in 2011 and 2012. Each time we put a band together to back him. Each time Kelly covered the expenses out of her own pocket.
One of those times Kelly and José flew to L.A. to do a recording session with Darryl Swann producing. Darryl Swann is an American record producer, songwriter, educator and musician. He’s a Triple platinum award winner. He has worked with prominent artists including, John Frusciante, Macy Gray, The Black Eyed Peas, Greg Hetson and Mos Def among others. He has also done substantial work for Atlantic Records, Sony Records, and Universal Records.
José re-recorded the song, Kiando, with Darryl Swann producing. The video was shot in Kansas City:
Compare this to the one José did in Kinshasa (first video above). To be honest, I like the José Hendrix-produced version better. Both the music production and the video.