Watch Lèa’s performance here.
Guitarist and singer-songwriter Lèa Mondo played four original songs for a Belmont Villa session last week, filmed by Muphovi in London. In less than 20 minutes, from her perch on a sheepskin-draped peacock chair, Lèa took listeners on a journey that spanned personal and collective heartache and reflected on the state of the world. The group had easy, close chemistry, like a living room jam, the songs moving easily through distinct styles that overlapped thanks to Luke Wynter’s subdued, velvety basslines, Grace Samba’s sweet vocals harmonies, and Bubu Otis’s stripped back percussion, played with shakers, a kickbox, and a spoon on a washboard.
To borrow a descriptor the artist herself used in late in 2020, standing in my living room, listening to Susheela Raman, Lèa’s voice and music are “fruity” -not that they’re bright, or extra sweet, but rich and earthy. There’s no added pretension to wide range, and you have a sense of nourishment after listening thanks to her satisfying riffs and the conscious lyrics.
Lèa’s first song, ‘Mwana Mboka,’ means ‘Village Kid’ in Lingala. Over a simple, creeping reggae groove, she meditates on conditions in Congo and immigrants’ struggles. Lèa and Samba harmonise sweetly, and the circular melodies sound like storytelling. At times, Lèa sings directly to Congolese people, telling them “one day we’ll go back to our country, take care of it, love each other. Things are going to change.” Mwana Mboka’s message, though, is not just for Congolese people, but for all immigrants who have had to leave their countries because of Western imperialism. Lèa was born in Congo and spent several years of her childhood in South Africa before moving to the UK. “There’s a special kind of loneliness that immigrants feel, especially mothers,” Lèa said. “They have to learn a new language, they had to leave their communities and move to Europe for better jobs and education because of capitalism. It’s dehumanising.”
The second song, ‘Heights of Love,’ chronicles a lover’s dejection. It has a Bossa Nova feel, and crests when Luke steers the bassline in a harder direction, over which Lèa takes increasingly emotional turns through the chorus, her voice swelling, makes the closing line all the more heartbreaking -“Forget it, I get the picture, you don’t want me anymore.”
Kora player Moussa Dembele joined for the session’s second half, weaving plucky, shimmering strings into ‘Brave New World,’ which takes its title from Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel. Lèa explained, “Western ideals of pleasure are so bad, we’re too busy in hustle culture that we forget to actually live.” Lèa sings in a mix of Lingala and English criticising consumer culture and its false aspirations. ‘Brave New World’ feels like a folk ballad, Lèa’s voice a clear admonition of the present and warning for the future.
Throughout the session, Samba’s light, restrained harmonies are like salt for Lèa’s earthy, clear voice. In the final song, though, which takes inspiration from the high-life and rumba of Congolese music icon Franco Luambo, Samba’s bolder backup vocals, Moussa’s spangled Kora accents, and Bubu’s lively beats lend a more celebratory, communal feeling. ‘Ndjokela,’ named for Lèa’s mother, has two up-beat chords over which she chants for her mother, asking where she is in such a hard world. She takes a small solo on her deep green Gretch, giving listeners more of a glimpse into her guitar chops alongside her singing and writing.
When interviewing her for this write-up, Lèa said, “Congolese music is always really happy rhythms with sad lyrics.” Lèa has been performing around London for years; she frequents many jams, but Belmont Villa was her first recorded live session. Fans can only look forward to Lèa furthering the tradition of uplifting, thoughtful music with a message.