Mathew Tembo's musical journey began in Zambia, and at least for now, it has brought the multi-instrumentalist to Illinois, where he leads his band, Mathew Tembo and Afro Roots. But his first long-term home in the United States was Pittsburgh, where he moved in 2011.
"My wife is from Pittsburgh," Tembo explains. "We lived in Africa, and when we moved to the United States, we came to Pittsburgh first and lived there for about a year, before I went to Illinois for college."
There, Tembo would study world-music performance at Northern Illinois University — perhaps an odd choice for an accomplished musician who'd already toured internationally. But his layover in Pittsburgh was a time of transition, both geographically and stylistically.
He had long been a reggae musician, because that's what he played when he started as a musician in his teens.
"I listened to a lot of reggae," Tembo recalls. "In Zambia, after you [take] your high-school exam, you have one year to wait for your results. You need your results to go to college or work or anything like that. So all I did for that year was listen to music."
And along with the Western pop airing on the radio, Tembo says, it was reggae that commanded his attention: "It sounds a bit like African music, and apart from that, it talked about issues that people in Africa knew, like poverty, corruption, slavery, all those things. There was still apartheid going on in South Africa when I started getting into music."
After studying classical piano, Tembo became a successful reggae artist in Zambia, and began touring. But by the mid-'00s, his music was beginning to change.
"I was playing in Denmark in 2004," he recalls. "And when I played there, they asked me why I played reggae when I was from Africa and there was a lot of music going on in Africa. So when I went back home, I started thinking about my own music: ‘Those people are right, why do I play reggae?' So I started experimenting with traditional African instruments." Tembo now plays a slew of them: the silimba, a sort of Zambian marimba; the kalimba, a thumb piano; and the kalumbu, a one-stringed instrument.
During his year in Pittsburgh, Tembo plugged in to the local music scene to some extent, playing with local artists including Colter Harper, Preach Freedom and Geña. "When I was [in Pittsburgh], I was trying to get it going," he says. "But it was quite challenging to do that. There isn't that much of a world-music scene in Pittsburgh. There is a lot of punk rock, and I know they have a jazz scene, but the world music scene is not there."
One connection he did make in Pittsburgh was with Occidental Brothers Dance Band International: Tembo saw the band perform its brand of Central and West African dance music at The Andy Warhol Museum, and met guitarist Nathaniel Braddock. When Tembo moved to DeKalb, Ill., to pursue his world-music studies, he got in touch with Braddock and ended up jamming with him. Braddock then asked him to sing with Occidental Brothers.
"At first, I was like, ‘No, I can't do this.' Because we listened to a lot of that music in Zambia — Congolese music. And I've always been like, ‘I hate this music!' So I said no. But he gave me a CD, and I went home and listened to it, and I started liking it. I realized I could sing it."
Meanwhile, Tembo assembled his own group to play a style of African music inflected with other kinds of pop.
"The fact that I play traditional Zambian instruments already gives it that feel," he says. "But I also appreciate jazz, and play with a lot of jazz musicians. And my singing — I sing in mostly African languages. That gives it that African feel."
Tembo is returning to Pittsburgh this weekend for the first time with Afro Roots (though some of the Chicago players can't make it, so some of his old Pittsburgh compatriots will be helping out). He'll play two shows in one day: one at 6 p.m. on Saturday as part of the Umoja African Arts in the Park festival, and another that evening at Hambone's, in Lawrenceville, with opener Batamba.
"When I lived there, I played mostly reggae," he says. "This is the first time I'll play a lot of this music in Pittsburgh."