Rwanda: How music heals divides, 25 years on

PHOTOS: MARILENA UMUHOZA DELLI | December 9th is World Genocide Commemoration Day. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the largest Rwandan genocide.

When people speak of the Holocaust, for those in Cambodia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Indonesia, Rwanda, and beyond, there is often understandable confusion as to what event is being referred to so definitively.

Almost all Rwandans born before 1994 qualify as “genocide survivors.” Yet, throughout the populace, trauma and suffering are so widespread that few wallow in having had family members killed. Strikingly, the majority opt for the more subdued verb ‘died’ instead. This trait stands in sharp contrast to the glorified culture of victimization that sometimes plagues America and other Westernized countries.

The musical group, The Good Ones, sought solace in music after their mentor’s murder. Their formation actually embodied a spontaneous unification—through shared interest and friendship—of Rwanda’s three tribes, with the original trio’s members each having Tutsi, Hutu, or Twa (“Pygmy”) origins, respectively.

The Good Ones were the first group ever to have original music in Kinyarwanda widely-distributed internationally. Their simple, direct, and plaintive love songs are sung in the street dialect of the rural outskirts of the nation’s capital, and speak more to the healing power of peace than a thousand academic treatises or preachy goodwill ambassadors ever could. Literally, four of the songs on their 2010 debut record were titled with the names of the women whom they were written for. And their follow-up albums have continued this trend, with one song on the new record even proclaiming “My Wife is as Beautiful as a Sunset.”

Adrien and his partner Janvier have been singing together since childhood and the dovetailing harmonies reflect the single-voice harmonies often found with familial singing groups like The Carter Family, the Staples Singers, and the Everly Brothers. The two men trade off high and low parts so frequently that is often difficult to tell who is singing what. With the musicians rural and remote hilltop origins, the similarity to American Bluegrass vocals is often eerie.

We recorded the latest record live, outdoors, and without overdubs on The Good Ones’ leader, Adrien Kazigira’s, farm. Many of the songs on the record are the result of instant composition. It is a process I use often since the strength of intuition and the unconscious can be powerful and liberating. As a result, much of the percussion on the new album come from “found instruments”—farming tools that were nearby or on hand like buckets and shovels and baskets, and picked-up and played spontaneously mid-song.

As so often is the case, the random noises from the village children and passing or visiting birds did not ruin or interfere, but instead complemented the sonics. Such is the sympathetic response of the less inhibited and critically minded.

My wife Marilena Delli does all of the video and photos for The Good Ones’ projects. Marilena’s mother lost her entire family during two earlier and less famous massacres in Rwanda (1959 and 1973), and due to this we live with related emotional consequences daily.

We’ve paid respects at countless headstones, not in cemeteries, but the yards of friend’s homes, often on the exact spot where the loved one(s) were felled. We’ve visited houses that stand abandoned, not out of fear, but despair. And we’ve been led calf-deep out into the reeds where my mother-in-law’s best friend’s husband was last chased before being struck down in the small lake their front-porch looks out upon.

Even more punishing is knowing that slaughter can claim your entire family—as was the case with my mother-in-law, Myriam, who returned from fetching water to see her family’s home engulfed in flames—but still have it not be deemed significant enough to be historically newsworthy in the rest of the world, overshadowed instead by the numerically larger tragedy of 1994.

All that remains from her family is a single, out-of-focus Polaroid. Even their land was stealthily stolen away by claim-stakers without ancestral ties.

An overused phrase like, “May God bless your family,” takes on a different tone when spoken by someone whose parents and every last sibling were massacred.

Some sad lessons from Rwanda are how radio played such a sizable role to incite hatred and violence. Extremists seized the lone major broadcast signal in the country, and then used it around the clock to convince others to attack. Due to an ensuing onslaught of disinformation, citizens were misled into believing the exact opposite of what was occurring—that the aggressors were actually the victims and that, therefore, the aggressors needed to kill the victimized tribe first, as self-defense.

This makes it particularly chilling today to hear a European media giant’s catchphrase proudly proclaim, “One nation, one station.” Yes, the mass-media centralization that we are facing in the West is far from merely economic and without threat to free speech and democracy.

2019 year marks the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide during which over just a three-month period more than 12.5% of the population was killed, resulting in around 1-million deaths by conservative estimates. Most victims were murdered by hand, and many were tortured (often, by slicing their Achilles tendons with machetes so they would be unable to flee) and raped before being killed.

Due to the massive numbers that perished, Rwanda experienced an inverted baby-boom generation, in this case created by murder, not birth. This disproportionate representation of those under the age of twenty-four has generated a seismic “youth culture” shift in Rwanda, much the same as what the USA experienced after WWII or as occurred in post-revolution Iran.

The capital, Kigali, is a scenic and vibrant city awash in optimism and progress. Defying the horrific footage of corpses lining roads twenty-five years ago, today Kigali is far safer than most American cities. Nonetheless, on their first attempt, The Good Ones were recently denied visas to perform in the USA, no matter how highly recommended they’d come. The embassy seemed unaccustomed to entertaining middle-aged men from the countryside with threadbare shoes and who spoke zero English.

The Good Ones’ leader Adrien still lives without electricity or running water on the remote hilltop farm that he and his children were born on. It is where he hid out for months in the trees nearby to survive the genocide.

There, life goes on. He continues his work as a farmer, making truly “roots music” by night.

Rwanda is home.

The Good Ones’ third album, Rwanda, you should be loved was released this past November by Anti- Records on vinyl and features guest appearances by members of Wilco, Sleater-Kinney, Fugazi, TV on the Radio, and My Bloody Valentine.

Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning music producer (Tinariwen, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ustad Saami [Pakistan], Zomba Prison Project) and author. Since 1993 he has taught violence prevention for such prestigious organizations as the University of London, UC Berkeley, and the National Accademia of Science (Rome). His fifth book, Silenced by Sound: The Music Meritocracy Myth was just published in September by PM Press.

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