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Benin’s Angelique Kidjo took home the award for best World Music album at the Grammys last night. She’s also been nominated for a NAACP Image Award. They’re handed out this Thursday. Another nominee in the NAACP world music category is a relative unknown from Congo. The World’s Marco Werman has more.

Shiko Mawatu came to the US in 2004. Now in 2008, most people here still haven’t heard of him. Nevertheless, Mawatu considers the past year anyway an important one in his career. To start with, he was able to release his debut CD.

Shiko Mawatu’s recording “Kimbanda Nzila” is in many ways a surprise nominee for the NAACP’s Image Awards, or any awards ceremony for that matter.

He doesn’t have the same promotional machine behind him as better known international artists. And he champions a Congolese dance music — rumba and soukous — that has never really caught on in the U.S.

He updates the style with busy, high-paced arrangements, and distortion on his guitar solos.

You are the bearer of the flame of Congolese rumba from the period from the 70s and 80s…

Shiko Mawatu: “Yes, I am. But it’s second nature for me. It’s like a rock that God has created. It’s just there. It’s nature, and i’m proud of that. You can’t change it. And rumba is ours, it’s Congolese. Even salsa, it comes from rumba.”

Mawatu would like to see Congolese rumba catch on in the US, but he’s not holding his breath. What he’d really like to see happen is for more Congolese musicians to come here and make music.

Shiko Mawatu thinks the U.S. can become a destination for African musicians in the same way France was years ago.

Shiko Mawatu: “Absolutely, and thanks to musicians like me. When the great Congolese singer Franco went to Paris years ago, there was nothing. Now today, you go to Paris, you go to some neighborhoods and it’s like finding Kinshasa at your feet with all the musicians who are there.

That’s because musicians like Franco and others paved the way. They made sacrifices for us. Now, I am in New York making sacrifices for the young Congolese musicians who will come here in the next few years.”

Shiko Mawatu’s sacrifices are clear. He left his family in Kinshasa. He lives here modestly. And aside from the NAACP Image Award nomination, he works in relative obscurity.

Perhaps his most discouraging moment came not long after he released his debut CD early last fall. Mawatu was strolling in Harlem, and spotted his CD being sold by a hawker on the sidewalk. It was a pirated copy.

Shiko Mawatu: “I really wasn’t expecting that, especially because the guy who was selling it was an African. It was like my brother had ripped me off. And this is my first album, and I hadn’t even seen a single dollar from it. I’d like to make a little money on this album, but if it’s pirated, how can I? I really wasn’t expecting that.”

Then again, Shiko Mawatu was not expecting to be nominated for an NAACP Image Award. And though it’s not a Grammy, for a young artist from Congo who only arrived here four years ago, it’s huge.

For The World, I’m Marco Werman.

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