When I first arrived in Rwanda it was already dark. Ben and Mugabo from the U.S. embassy met me at the gate and swiftly checked me into a hotel. After the 16-hour flight from Washington, D.C. it didn’t take long before I was fast asleep. The next morning at dawn’s first light, I re-packed my suitcases and checked right back out to drive to Gisenyi in the Western Province. My first and only full day in Rwanda would take place in that region before returning to Kigali for the rest of the tour.
Ben and Mugabo already waiting for me in the lobby at 7:15 a.m., plus two of the musicians that would be my band for the next 4 days: a local, five-piece, jazz outfit.
The trip to Gisenyi took about three hours. We traveled northwest and round and round up steep, green hills. I understood immediately how Rwanda got it’s name “land of thousand hills.” The countryside was breathtakingly beautiful and the towns and farms appeared well-organized. By the time we arrived at those high altitudes, though, I had a whopping headache.
Destination #1 was the School of Arts and Music (SAM), formerly known as Rwanda’s premier art school, Nyundo School of Art. It was established in 1952. When we arrived classes were in session. I met the three music teachers Ben Ngabo (drums/voice), Honore Iyakaremye (keys), and the Music Head, Jacques Murigande (guitar/voice), popularly known as Mighty Popo. These guys were also the other remaining members of my Rwandan band. They quickly introduced me to their students and welcomed me with two well-rehearsed choral pieces.
After the introductions Popo and went to a rendez- vous with the station manager of Rubavu Community Radio, Steven Kalisa, at the station in Rubavu. We met Steven, took a tour of the station, and talked about African music on the radio.
After a quick lunch, it was time for the band’s rehearsal and sound check. We had a performance that night at the Catholic preparatory seminary school, le Petit Seminaire, in Nyundo. Thousands of young men and some women attended, including the music students from SAM. I performed my classic repertory of jazz (Autumn Leaves, All of Me, Girl From Ipanema, etc.). They were an attentive and receptive audience. The audience really came alive when I called some of the SAM singers and dancers up on stage to join me in two classic African songs. Here’s a clip of the event.
Not bad for Day 1 in Rwanda. The band and I just clicked and this debut performance was one of many more great concerts, workshops, and musical exchanges to come over the next few days. Stay tuned for the next post in this series for more Music Time in Rwanda.