As a 10-year-old boy living in his parents’ house in the Republic of Cameroon, Ngu Mbandi would listen to everything from Cameroon’s mix of Caribbean influences to South African vocal harmonies to American R&B songs to tunes by British rocker Phil Collins.
“My father had collected music from all over the world, and he had a huge collection of discs,” says Mbandi, who particularly remembers a recording by French pianist Richard Clayderman, who arranges popular, jazz and classical music.
“I didn’t know about the piano, but I knew I wanted to play it,” says Mbandi, who pursued his dream.
Now 33, he lives in Mitchellville and composes and performs an instrumental blend of African rhythms, smooth jazz and world music.
“It’s peaceful, it’s a reflection of my personality,” he says about his music. “The melodies are very lyrical. It has intricate rhythms, but it’s gentle, it’s not too jarring.”
On Saturday, Mbandi will perform at the Montgomery College Performing Arts Center in Silver Spring.
Because the center is not producing the event, tickets can be purchased only through his website or by calling Graffi Records.
Performing with Mbandi will be a group of musicians who include saxophonist Vince Norman, guitarist Parris Spivey and percussionist Joe McCarthy, along with additional musicians on strings.
“I do recording projects with most of them and plan on traveling in the future with the same group,” says Mbandi.
Born in a seaside town in Cameroon in West Africa, Mbandi realized as a teenager that he wanted to pursue the piano but his parents objected, wanting him to study medicine.
At 15, they sent him to Indiana University of Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, where he majored in pre-med and psychology, but he also took music classes to supplement what he was teaching himself on a keyboard and synthesizer.
“I knew when I was a sophomore that I would also need to work to start my music career,” says Mbandi, who graduated in 1998 and went to work in IT for WorldCom in Northern Virginia.
But he also kept developing his music, working as a street musician at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, performing in Border’s book stores and then at art festivals and places such as Sugarloaf Arts & Craft Festival in Gaithersburg.
“I could get my music out to people and make a decent living,” says Mbandi, who released his first CD in 2001 called “Fingerprints.”
In 2002, after four years with WorldCom, he decided to quit and focus full time on his music career.
Like most musicians in the post-record deal era, Mbandi markets himself and his work online, where he says he has more than 30,000 Facebook fans.
Some of his performances and interviews are posted on YouTube, including “African Skies,” one of the pieces on the Saturday set list that he wrote during his college days.
“When I first came to America, I was surprised at people’s perception of Africa,” he says.
“People would ask me if we have houses,” he says. “All they were exposed to was the media and National Geographic.”
Playing into the stereotype, he says he started to spin a tall tale about his best friend being a lion, and to his surprise, his dorm mates fell for it.
“It was a good way to break the ice,” he says with a laugh about making new friends in the U.S., but the experience also got him remembering his early life in Cameroon.
Also on the set list Saturday is “Caribbean Shores,” composed during a two-week vacation trip to Antigua where he and a significant other had hopes of saving their crumbling relationship.
“Things weren’t working, and every morning I’d play a piano that was outside under a gazebo, with a view of the water that was absolutely beautiful,” says Mbandi.
“It was a sad time, because [something] was ending, but it was also a happy place,” he says about the piece included in his 2004 album “Harbor Nights.”
Mbandi says he plans to produce videos with special effects to further showcase his compositions.
“The music doesn’t matter if you don’t package yourself properly,” he says.
His instrumental piece “Fairy Tale,” which he also expects to play Saturday, grew out of an idea for a video, says Mbandi, who describes walking through the wilderness and finding a piano in the center of a flower-filled garden.
“I start playing, and people and animals hear the music, and they start dancing and having a party,” he says about the imagined scene.
“And then I thought, ‘What song would I be playing?” he says.
Mbandi says he believes he has developed a unique style as a composer and pianist during the last 10 years.
But he also says he wouldn’t mind emulating the career path of Greek pianist Yanni in reaching a global audience.
“My ultimate goal is to do [this] bigger and all over the world,” says Mbandi.