Jam Tales: José Hendrix
Updated: Sep 27, 2021
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.
So far, nothing has come of the Darryl Swann connection. I trust Kelly and José don't take it personal; it's the music business.
There are many more anecdotes I could tell, but one last story will illustrate the abilities this guy has;
This happened before the Darryl Swann-produced recording.
We had done a show in a theater downtown. José was scheduled to be on a flight back to Africa the next morning. He had a new tune he wanted us to record and so there was a recording session booked at a studio about 40 minutes from the gig. So José, Jaisson, Brian and myself met up after the show at the studio about midnight.
We were sitting in the control room. José had no charts or demos of the song, it was all in his head. He couldn’t write out charts anyway, he’s not musically literate. I had written charts for all the tunes we did and he told me he wished he could do that.
Anyway, he said he was going to record some vocal tracks so we could get an idea of how the song went. He was standing at the board behind the engineer with a Shure SM58 mic. That’s a $100 stage microphone. It’s designed for stage use, not recording.
With no reference - no click track, no pitch reference - José sang a melody with lyrics. I checked the pitch on my guitar; he was in F#. One take. Then he said,
“I want to do another one.”
Then he sang a harmony part. No click, no pitch reference other than the track he had just done. One take. Then he said,
Same thing. Another part, no reference, first take.
I watched in amazement as he did 5 or 6 parts, no reference other than the tracks he’d already done, on pitch and in time, all first takes. He built up the harmonic dimension of the form of the tune, one track at a time.
About halfway through this process I realized these were not what we call, “scratch vocals,” he was actually recording the vocals first! He was thinking these ARE the vocal tracks! I didn’t say anything; watching his process was fascinating.
It was exactly backwards from the normal way of doing things where the rhythm section records first, sometimes with scratch vocals for reference, which are then erased when the real vocal tracks are recorded last.
I was the only one in the room who realized what José was doing.
After 5 or 6 tracks, the engineer said, "Ok, I think we've got enough to get the form of the song, let's do the rhythm section."
“But I'm not done yet!" said José.
"Dude!" I said to the engineer, "Don't you realize what he's doing? These aren't scratch tracks, he's actually recording the vocals first!"
Engineer: "No, no, no! No way, man! We can't use those vocals; it's a freakin' SM58! The sound sucks!"
It was at that point that I realized that the thought of a ten-thousand-dollar vocal mic hanging in an isolation booth had never entered Josés’ mind.
Jaisson, who was producing said, "José, a word in the next room, please."
I am not privy to what was said in the next room but I presume it went something like this:
"Jay and Brian are on the clock. We're paying them by the hour to sit on the couch while you want to record the vocals. We need to get their parts tracked first and then cut them loose."
We then proceeded to cut guitar, bass and drums live. After that, Brian was off the clock and left. José wanted 2 or 3 more guitar parts so I stayed a while longer. José would sing the guitar parts he wanted, and I would play them back to him until he was satisfied, then I would record them.
After the session I asked him, "Do you have perfect pitch?"
"No" he replied, "I just have a lot of practice."
"Is that the way you do things in Africa? Record the vocals first?"
"Not always. The thing is, we can't always find instruments so I have to do it with my mouth."
The session ended about 6:00 AM and José headed straight to the airport.
A week or two later Jaisson called me and said, "We need you back in the studio to finish up some loose ends on this José Hendrix song."
2012 was the last time Kelly was able to get José to the US. The expenses incurred from the multiple trips had drained her resources and she had personal issues that needed her attention.
She has maintained contact and she and José have continued to collaborate. She says,
“I’m still trying to think about how I can help with José, putting another CD together and promoting him to a big name act that he might be able to collaborate with to get his name in America.”
I have maintained contact with José as well through Facebook and email.
On June 3, 2013, I received a private message from José via Facebook Messenger:
José had won Best of the Best which is like the American Idol of the Congo! The prize was $100,000.00 and a recording contract with a big South African producer.
According to Kelly, the trips to America had gained José street cred and traction in Kinshasa and had a lot to do with him winning Best of the Best.
Unfortunately, José saw very little of the money due to the rampant corruption that permeates all levels of society in the DRC.
Prior to winning Best of the Best, he was robbed of some money Kelly had sent him, at gunpoint, by the police! They discussed whether or not to kill him but decided to let him go.
With the corruption so pervasive, how he manages to get anything done is beyond me, but he appears to be very active, regularly posting videos and messages to his social media pages that are full of positivity and light. He is on all the major platforms but his Facebook pages are the most active:
I’ve contacted José with a request for a synopsis of what he’s doing now. He responded by saying he needed a little time and would get back to me. As of publication time I have not heard back from him.
It's tough to get a handle on everything; most of his posts are in French.
If you go to his Facebook pages you'll see that he's got a lot going on.
He has a group called The Golden Knights that performs around Kinshasa. They have a weekly acoustic gig doing Congolese Rhumba and International Music at the Pullman Grand Hotel, Kinshasa.