Singer Tresor’s journey from refugee to Afro-pop star
Sama winner Tresor on his remarkable journey, the artists who’ve inspired him and what has made him the man he is today
THE walk to the stage was short – but his journey to it has been long. The sounds of his childhood, growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), inspired his music – especially his latest and most personal album, aptly titled Nostalgia. Tresor Riziki (32), his eyes hidden behind his trademark shades, accepted his third Sama, for Nostalgia, then thanked the people of his adopted home, South Africa. “Ten years ago I came here, as a refugee to Durban, and being here today, winning this award for the third time in a row is really overwhelming,” he told the crowd, who roared with approval. “I’m really grateful to South Africa for loving the music.”
“This album was very personal and close to my heart,” he tells DRUM. “When I was making the record, I went back to my childhood and imagined all the music we used to listen to as kids, through my parents and neighbours. Brenda Fassie, Bra Hugh [Masekela], Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Chicco Twala, Youssou N’Dour, Phil Collins and a lot more – they all played a huge role in me finding the sound that resonates with me the most.
“I travelled back in time and made a record that will show people why I am
the artist I am today.”
Nostalgia won Tresor best pop album of the year award at the ceremony, which was held at Sun City earlier this month.
THE hitmaker cuts a dapper figure, and a tall one at that, in a powder-blue suit and funky kicks. His head nearly brushes the top of the doorframe as he enters the room. Today he’s not wearing his usual dark sunglasses – this pair is blue to match his suit – and his kind brown eyes match his gentle voice and infectious laugh.
His journey to the top hasn’t been an easy one. In fact, it’s the stuff of movies, and would sound quite far-fetched if it hadn’t actually happened.
Tresor, his parents, Elizabeth and Jacques Riziki, and his siblings lived in the city of Goma, in the eastern DRC near the border with Rwanda. His parents managed a chain of pharmacies and life, he says, was pretty good. “I come from a successful, happy family and it was cool growing up, until the Rwandan genocide.
“I was eight years old and I saw a lot of people die,” he told IOL news website.
“My parents took me to church every day after school where I learnt to play the drums. They took me there because they didn’t want me to see the deaths. A lot of us kids were messed up because we began to see death like that as normal.
“It was only when I was in SA that I realised it’s not supposed to be like that.”
Some years later, in 2002, volcano Nyiragongo erupted and destroyed parts of Goma. Tresor’s family “lost everything”.
Two years later his parents died, but their passing is a topic that’s long been out of bounds for discussion.
He speaks fondly of his parents, and how they raised him and his siblings.
“My parents, especially my mother, broke down all sorts of barriers and gender biases. You know how in most African homes the girls’ chores are mostly in the kitchen and the boys’ chores are outside? There was none of that at home.
“She would make sure we took turns washing the dishes, cooking, cleaning and gardening – there was nothing that was designated only for the girls or only for the boys.
“And I’m so grateful for that upbringing
because it resulted in me being the man I am today,” he says. Tresor completed high school and in 2007 made his way to Durban, by train, car and on foot. “When I took a leap of faith and decided to travel through Africa I nearly lost my life many times. I even crossed a crocodile-infested river and walked through crazy African wild parks. I was so young and this fire within was pushing me to do things I didn’t believe I had in me,” he wrote on Instagram.
He arrived in South Africa unable to speak English but determined to make it as a musician. He hustled hard, as a car guard by day and security guard at night.
In between he managed to work his way into the Durban music scene, networking with local music makers at social and music events, and quickly made a name for himself.
He joined the group Maisha, who opened for Eddy Grant, Johnny Clegg and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and having quickly learnt English, he turned his gift for language and music to writing songs for local artists.
It didn’t take long before he bagged an international deal with the Universal Music Publishing Group, and the singles and albums started dropping.
Seven years after his arrival in Durban he won his first Sama for best pop album for VII in 2016.
HIS siblings have done well for themselves too, he tells us. “I was so blessed to finally be able to pay some of my siblings’ tuition fees. “My folks were passionate about us going to school and being independent in the future – and I’d say we’re well on our way; they’d be proud to see us,” he says.
His eldest sister, Deborah (34), studied medicine, and his other sisters, Alice (33), Providence (28), Grace (26), and his only brother, Joshua (24), are studying and working too.
On the romantic front, Tresor is involved with psychiatrist Langa Mngoma, whose sister is singer and TV presenter Nandi Madida. “We met a couple of years ago and we were friends before we started dating and decided to be a couple,” the singer shares.
His bae’s work in the mental health field is particularly inspiring. “I find that it is very important, especially in the black community where there are stereotypes around mental illness. She’s amazing and we’re really, truly happy.”
But Tresor doesn’t want to delve too much into his personal life. He’s happy to talk music. “I want to make more records that will represent our generation and reflect the times. Africa has such rich stories, and they’re crying to be told. If not by us, then who?”
‘I was eight and I saw a lot of people die’
At the recent Samas, Tresor bagged the award for pop album of the year for Nostalgia. It’s the third time the Congoleseborn singer has won the coveted award.
LEFT: Tresor with girlfriend Dr Langa Mngoma at the Samas earlier this month. ABOVE: A young Tresor with his late mom, Elizabeth Riziki.
Tresor with singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka, one of the artists he credits with inspiring his latest album, Nostalgia.