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Flick: Mboka Mwilambwe and that name of his...

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Mboka Mwilambwe celebrates early returns during a watch party at Hacienda Leon on April 7. He won the race for Bloomington mayor.

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Markowitz, Smart, Ewing, Merriman, Funk, Bittner, McGraw, Hayes, Rhodes, Buchanan, Stockton, Renner … the names of Bloomington mayors go on, more than 50 of them since the city’s founding in 1850.

But May 1, a new era will officially launch and a city of storied history that ranges from Abe Lincoln’s beginnings to the creation of the most successful car insurer in the world will encounter a citizenry faced by a never-before-encountered question:

Umm, how do we pronounce the new mayor’s name?

“That’s the story of my life here, telling others how to pronounce my name,” chortles Mboka Mwilambwe, with a hearty laugh. “My name has been pronounced any number of ways. I’ve been called everything. It’s given me a thicker skin and better prepared me for politics!” He laughs again.

Flick: As Chicagoans try to traverse downstate ...

A nicely humored guy who laughs freely — at himself and at the natural awkwardness of people trying to say his name — Mwilambwe is not only the first person of color to become a Bloomington mayor, but he’s also the first to be 7,500 miles from his original digs.

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How in the world — and we mean that literally — did he end up here?

Growing up on the western African coast, it was Mwilambwe’s older brother who took the family’s first bold step. In the mid-1980s, interested in agriculture, he looked at a map of America and decided he’d go to college in the heart of agrarian America: Western Illinois University, in Macomb.

A few years later, on recommendation from his brother, Mboka followed to America, but to Illinois State University in nearby Normal, to major in math and then also get his master’s in education.

“My folks thought I’d settle in France,” says Mboka. “But I told them, if there was any place to go, it was America.

And so, some 30 years later, married and with four kids, in love with a country and a town in the middle of it, Mwilambwe (he’ll be 51 in July) now takes a city’s gavel, a nice story of an American immigrant finding prosperity, happiness and success.

Oh — that correct pronunciation of his name?

“Mboka: It has a subtle 'm,'" he explains — a very quick “mm,” then “-boka.” (In Lingala, it means a country, place, city, which for Mboka now seems especially appropriate.)

The last name? It’s “m-will,” then “lom,” then “buh-way.”

“My kids,” says Mwilambwe, “they make fun of me all the time when they hear people trying to pronounce the last name. I get ‘mom-boo-ka’ a lot, too.”

He laughs again.

“This is America,” he says. “I just let the people choose what they want to call me.”

That guy between two music legends

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Across America on Sunday night, during the American Country Music Awards on CBS, all eyes were on a show highlight when country legend Kenny Chesney joined front-line pop star Kelsea Ballerini to sing a duet of the 2020 Ballerini hit “Half of My Hometown.”

That is, all eyes except maybe a few who recognized the drummer of the band that backed the two.

Even that wasn’t easy.

Per COVID protocols, he was masked and socially distanced. Lighting on the set made the background more obscure.

But, that was Phil Lawson!

Only 14 years ago, Lawson was at Bloomington High, a son of Kevin and Vicki Lawson, a drummer whose drumming dad has been a guiding influence.

But now Dad is one other adjective, too: “proud.”

Living these days in Nashville, in his early 30s and a few years out from a significant career break — landing a job as drummer in Ballerini’s band — Lawson is becoming a familiar face on any other night, too.

“It’s always super special to get to be a part of any awards show,” he says. “But it’s especially so when performing with legendary artists like Kelsea and Kenny.”

Ever wondered on awards shows where big stars are quickly shuffled in to perform together, how much practice they actually get?

Three months into 2021, the Central Illinois Regional Airport has logged 54,109 total passengers. Only 183,190 total passengers passed-through in 2020. 

“There’s always some sort of dress rehearsal,” says Phil.

Chesney and Ballerini, he says, ran through their song “once or twice before we actually started recording takes.” (Video of the duet on CBS, along with Phil Lawson, can be Googled at “Ballerini Chesney”.)

And having to wear a mask while performing?

No problem while indoors in air-conditioning, says Lawson, but “I may not be saying the same thing if I (have) to wear a mask during a 90-minute set at an outdoor festival when it’s in the mid-90s.”

On the other hand, when you’re hot, you’re hot.

And Phil Lawson appears to indeed be getting there.


Bill Flick is at bflick@pantagraph.com

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