My First Few Days in Rwanda

Monday August 10th, 2009

Today was the first official day of the Rwanda 15 Parade of One. Despite jet-lag and general confusion about how transportation, money exchange, cell phones, and internet work here, I managed to begin the mission of playing music on the streets in Rwanda, and it feels good.

My starting point was a place called Kimironko Market, probably the largest center for buying produce in the city. Imagine a gigantic tent-like structure, but made of aluminum. Inside it is quite dark, and merchants sit at tables overloaded with beans and fruits. I started playing near the entrance close to when the evening rush was going to start. I was already kind of standing out in the crowd, being a mizungo, wearing a white sports coats and sunglasses, but when I opened the saxophone case and started assembling the horn, people gathered around me immediately, before I’d even played a note. The small children placed themselves in front, in a circle around me, staring intently, and not making a sound. Then the older kids and grown ups, assembled behind them. The people gathered so close to me, that it was actually a little awkward. The little kids in the front were just inches away. I started playing a little improvised music, sometimes going into tunes like Ayler’s “Ghosts” or a little bit of a theme I’ve been working on. When I told my grandfather that I’d be playing on the streets in Rwanda, he said that all I was going to need was a decent theme, a “hummable” melody that I’d return to throughout my stay here. The theme I’d say is still a work in progress.

After my first tune, which was really more of a medley, there was uproarious applause and requests for more. After my next medley, people finally asked me to explain what I was doing. The problem was most of them don’t speak English. I was able to tell someone who spoke English, and they in turn. explained to the others in Kinyarwanda. My explanation of why I was playing on the streets in Rwanda was just as popular as the music itself. They were very glad foreigners are doing something to commemorate the genocide. The people were honored that I was there, to remember their country’s history and celebrate its present. They also wanted to know what this instrument was called and how it worked. Most of them, maybe all, hadn’t seen or heard a saxophone before. By now, I needed a decent water break from playing. I was doing long tunes, consecutively, and was surprised that the people had quite an attention span and kept asking for more. But I insisted on taking a water break and coming back in 15 minutes. As I opened the case to put my saxophone back in, the people crowded in even closer, trying to look inside the case, as if it might be full of jewels, even though without the horn inside it was empty. When I walked to a little stand to purchase water, I was followed by a bunch of men, mostly unemployed street urchins. They asked me a lot of questions, and taught me a little kinyarwanda, which I promptly forgot.

Fifteen minutes later, I was playing again in front of Kimironko Market. This time there were luckily some very curious students watching, two from university and one high school student. They wanted to talk a lot about why I was playing on the street, and why in Rwanda. They spoke fairly eloquent english and were extremely grateful for what I was doing. They said many people at school were orphaned or otherwise severely effected by the genocide. I asked them where else they thought I should play, and they said the universities, then the high school kid chimed in, “and secondary schools!” They couldn’t stop talking about how happy they were that I was playing in Rwanda for the reasons that I was. Then one of them offered to take me into his campus at the Kigali Educational Institute, which was right down the street from Kimironko Market. His name is Emmy, and his father was killed in the genocide, and he’s attending university on a scholarship from the Aegis Trust. So we walked together, and I had to show a guard at the gate my passport. Emmy is physical education major, and he gave me a brief tour of the campus. Including a section donated by China, where students learn to speak and read Chinese. Then he suggested I start playing again, and so I was very warmly received by an audience of Rwandan students. Many of them asked interesting questions. It was a foreign concept to them for music to be both completely instrumental (as in no lyrics) and about something, in the way we have funeral marches and wedding marches etc. So I simply explained that, in my culture, even music without lyrics, could be about a particular event. Then, they wanted to know how the audience was supposed to be aware of what the music was about without lyrics. I suggested that even if a song doesn’t have lyrics, it can still have a title, and the title of what I’d just played was, “Celebrating Rwanda at the Kigali Institute of Education.” This drew uproarious applause. Then, I was off to go get some dinner. Emmy suggested that I come back on Wednesday after the students had completed their finals. I agreed to call him on Tues. night, so we could arrange this.

Tuesday August 11th, 2009

Today’s performance was in the center of Kigali at the intersection between the Simba Supermarket and the Union Trade Center. I immediately attracted a crowd of paperboys and other various jokers. What differed about this crowd from the people at Kimironko and the Kigali Educational institute was that they all thought they needed to learn how to play the saxophone and that I should teach them. They wanted to know if I came just to entertain or to teach too, and they seemed to think I should open a music school. Also, unlike Kimironko and the University, the people who stopped were mostly men. This might’ve been because I chose a location that was overrun with paperboys and cabdrivers.

After playing I took a moto-taxi to Novotel, a posh hotel in the neighborhood where the American Embassy is located. There I was to meet Hope Azeda, who has a theater group and does casting for Americans and European films in Rwanda. I was a little early, so I decided to give Paradis a call. She’s poet, model, actress, and manager of Rwa Makondera, the children’s dance troupe I’m supposed to work with. I told her I wanted to meet her sometime in the next couple days, and she said that was cool. Then at some point during our discussion she said she was at Novotel, and I told her I was there too. I found her by the pool. It was a remarkable coincidence that we were both there. I told her that I was there to meet Hope, and she asked “Hope Azeda?” But I said no, because I thought Hope’s last name Katurebe (her husband’s name which she rarely uses.) Eventually, it was established that Paradis and Hope know one another though, and Hope is in fact Hope Azeda.

I found Hope, and we had a drink at the cafe while her daughters swam in the pool. Hope complained about the service at the hotel cafe (which was roughly the same as the service everywhere I’d been in Rwanda.) I’m finding that Rwandans who’ve traveled abroad, though, have some of the same frustrations with Rwanda that foreigners do. Anyhow, Hope very helpfully gave me the contact info of a musician, here in Kigali, and another one in Butare, a town in the south that I’ll probably go next week. Afterwards, we went back to where Paradis was lying by the pool, so Hope could say hello. Then, Hope and I left the hotel, and as we left Lucy Mbabazi arrived in a cab. Lucy, a grad student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has played an important role in this project. She was the first Rwandan person who told me that my idea would work and should absolutely be pursued. Who would’ve ever though that Novotel was the place almost every Rwandan I knew liked to hang out!?

I should also mention that on this second day I am already starting to feel a little known around town. At least two people said “Hi Jeremy” as I walked by, and when I passed Kimironko Market almost everyone waved or said something. Another interesting moment, was when a young boy who said he was eleven but could’ve been younger crossed the street and started walking next to me, talking in English the whole time, and he didn’t know that much English. But he told me among other things, that his name was Eric, he “loved” me, the names of all his brothers and sisters, what school he went to, and that he sang at school. Then, he sang a couple nice songs in kinyarwanda for me, and I praised his skills. He asked me how old I was, and I told him to guess. He said, “Eleven?”

8/12/09

Today I finally met Daddy Ruhorahoza a Rwandan filmmaker with whom I’ve had a lengthy email correspondence over the last few months. It was a very productive meeting, and we will be doing more meetings and introductions tomorrow. We came up with some ideas of things to film, including me popping, with my saxophone, into Rwandan “dive” bars where the poor and uneducated drink warm beer. He introduced me to a couple other people, including a music promoter Jean-Pierre and a businessman named Sunday. Tomorrow we will be meeting some musicians with whom I might collaborate.

After leaving Daddy, I started heading back to Kimironko, but got out of the bus a couple stops early to walk around a little. While strolling, I heard someone saying, “Hey saxophonist!” He was a cab driver with a guitar in the passenger’s seat. He said he’d seen me playing in the town center the previous day. I asked him if he wanted to play a little. Then, I walked into Chez Lando to grab a bite to eat, and the waiter introduced himself as Charles and said he really liked my music.

8/13/09

Today I was up early, met Daddy at Novotel, and then we paid a visit to the local Goethe Institute and arranged a meeting to discuss projects, funding, etc. After that, went to Bourbon Cafe, checked email, chatted, and discussed coming days’ itineraries.

I then met Lucy Mbabazi and her cousin Arthur for a lunch buffet. Africa Bite served authentic cuisine of rice and beans, mashed bananas, fish, corn cakes etc. Afterwards, Lucy went to interview some government minister, perhaps the minister of finance or health. I don’t remember. As for me, I went to play on the street in a neighborhood called Kiyovu. I picked a mostly unpeopled street with a decent sidewalk, and just walked and played. Someone stopped their car, got out, and told me that Rwanda needed me to do was what I was doing, because there had been such little investment in arts and entertainment.

In the evening, I had a meeting with Jean Pierre and Daddy at Mille Collines, the hotel of Hotel Rwanda fame. During the genocide, a thousand refugees took shelter there, while the manager diverted trouble, to make a long story short. There I was introduced to some musicians who were performing there and they had me play with them, and I also did some unaccompanied saxophone music before and in between their sets. Instead of standing on the stage, I stood in the middle of the room and did some long completely improvised sets which the packed room loved. The house band consisted of a keyboard player, with programmed percussion and three singers. Their music ranged from Tina Turner songs, to South African and Congolese hits. The audience was very enthusiastic. There are almost no places where someone can see live music in Rwanda. There is not a single bar or club or theater that has live music every night or even every weekend. The people are thirsty for it, and Rwanda has yet to create it’s own kind of modern music in the way that countries like Congo, Nigeria, and Mali have. In some ways, it’s refreshing to be in a country that can start from scratch. In other ways, the lack of resources is startling. It is hard to find a bass player or drummer around here, or even a place to play! And like I’ve said the vast majority of Rwandans have never seen a saxophone.

It was evident that the audience was hungry for a good time, and this has been evident too wherever I’ve played on the streets in Rwanda so far. People keep telling me that Rwanda needs arts and entertainment. Some people in the audience that night stopped me, one of whom went to Cornell, and he pinpointed me as being from NYC. His friend asked if I was Jewish, and I said yes. He said that he was Jewish too, and I thought he meant literally, so I asked if he was a Rwandan of Ethiopian Jewish descent. He found this hilarious, and said that he meant that he was a survivor of the genocide. It takes a lot more than genocide to be Rwandan or Jewish probably. I don’t know what makes anyone anything, but I appreciated his desire to connect, and he begged me not to leave Rwanda.

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2 thoughts on “My First Few Days in Rwanda

  1. Hi Jeremy,

    Very glad to hear it is going well.

    I just wanted to express agreement with a point you brought up in your initial “justifying” post. I contend that to entertain recurrent requests for explanation by the incredulous is often a waste of time and of the very vital impulse that drives someone down an exceptional course of action in the first place.

    For those who seek to do something with life other than fall in line with the teeming horde of unthinking corruption that passes for our society, each moment is vital to the task. Unless he is exceptional in the circumstances of this birth, he who seeks another way is beset by parasites at every step. These blood-suckers are typically of the financial variety, but are by no means confined to rent-seekers and the abominable agents of taxation. I would imagine that the majority of requests for information regarding your Parade of One enterprise fall into the category of time-parasitism, or even of spiritual parasitism, as may be the case when a mediocrity questions your motives in order to get at the source of your inspiration, so that he too may lap at that redemptive spring.

    I say: Good For You. You owe explanations only to yourself, and naturally to your Rwandan audience. For the rest, allow your body of work and of action and of music to do the explaining. If they still don’t get it, I submit that they should take a walk down the primrose path.

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