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Patrick Kabongo, a voice from Kinshasa

Nice (Alpes-Maritimes), special envoy.

We are on the Cours Saleya, in Nice, between the Mediterranean and the old town. The sun is a caress of warmth. Patrick Kabongo sits down and orders a coffee. The day before, this French tenor, originally from Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo), performed gracefully in the White Lady, de Boieldieu, on one of the stages of the city opera. An appointment first placed under the only lyrical score, before extending over a life and a daily life punctuated by self-sacrifice and work.

“I loved to hear choirs”

But how do you fall into lyrical art when you come from Kinshasa? “Completely by chance, he answers. First, it must be said that I loved to hear choirs. I sometimes walked for two or three hours to go to a church to listen to it. » At 16, he himself is in one of these formations. No pretension for those who first started studying electronics, just for fun.

It turns out that at the time, his tone of voice did not bring him to the treble. Until a Belgian conductor, invited to help with the interpretation of music theory in the new choir where Patrick Kabongo was, wondered. The young man had been chosen as the bass soloist to sing the Snorkel tubaof Requiem by Mozart, “with the famous low E”as he points out.

“He tells me that I am not a bass, not even a baritone, but a tenor! You imagine ? At that time, with us, tenor was not the voice of men…” Never mind, for this time, he will sing bass in the choirs and tenor in the solos. Those years are uncertain. Mobutu was driven out, Kabila father arrived. Hope and foufou (made from cassava flour) help to support difficulties.

“I had to learn everything in a year”

What some would call a miracle then happens. “The chef asked me to come to Europe for an internship. For a young person from Kinshasa who does not know the lyric, do you realize a little? I said yes, but my parents couldn’t afford the ticket, we didn’t have any money. The Belgian embassy took care of him. That’s how I arrived in Europe for four weeks. »

He arrives, alone, in this Brussels which perhaps “brussels” more, but was still singing. In particular at the Royal Conservatory, where all the singers present have already received training. “I didn’t know anything. I had to learn everything in a year. And then, it was a big change for me. In Kinshasa, there is no privacy. When you’re in a neighborhood, everyone knows everyone. I arrive in Brussels in a twelve-storey building, I didn’t even know my next-door neighbor. I understood what it was like to be alone”he remembers without nostalgia.

To fight this new loneliness, he plunges into work, to drown himself. Watch movies, read novels “to see how a character evolves”. He admits bluntly: “I have an African culture but also linked to religion. Previously, I struggled to play a villain because I was judging the character. But I had to understand why he was behaving like this. Or when we talked about sex, it made me feel uncomfortable. It was difficult for me to make the difference between the Patrick of Kinshasa, me, and the Patrick who interprets a role. »

“No matter the skin color”

But, at the start is the voice. So, tenor? Once again, we hesitate. He is said to be a lyrical tenor, then of character. Finally, he is tenore di grazia. “That’s how I got into specific roles of Rossini or Donizetti. It was in 2015. I started in 2006 as a tenor. It’s funny because when I finally found my voice, it felt like it was a language I already knew. » And to add bluntly: “Singing Verdi or Puccini requires slightly more full-bodied, animal voices. In the repertoire that I sing, these are beautiful lines. »

He notices that “it is rare to see a black Don José (Carmen) or Alfredo (la Traviata) on stage”but Patrick Kabongo prefers to think that “during auditions or during shows, those who listen to us do not pay attention to skin color”.

He keeps all his sense of humor. “In Nice, when my partner on stage, Amélie Robins, suggested that I come last to say hello because of the importance of my character, I pointed out to her that the show was not called ‘L’Homme noir’. but the White Lady”», he lets out with a big laugh. In short, an ethic of life like his musical line, full of softness, lightness and flexibility.