Week 3: Collaborating with the locals, and sax demonstrations in the schools


This afternoon I took the bus back to Butare. My expectation was that I would be performing with Salus Populi at the National University in the evening. I checked into my hotel, then went out to eat something before the performance. While I was waiting for my food, I got a phone call from Manuel, the leader of Salus Populi. It was one hour before I was supposed to show up at the auditorium, and I was now being told that the show was cancelled! It had been a waste of money and time to come to Butare, and I had only a limited amount of both! He asked where I was, and I told him I was already in Butare. Where else would I be one hour before a gig, when it takes two and a half hours to get there? I said that I wished he’d told me sooner, and that we’d discuss it later.

Now I was in Butare for a night with no idea of what to do. I asked around a little, but since the Salus Populi show was cancelled no one else knew what to do either. So I decided to do one my favorite things: I took a couple beers back to my hotel room and listened to some music, Abbey Lincoln, Bjork, etc. At some point, Manuel called and asked if he could come talk things over, and in a few minutes he was at my hotel. He explained that there was heightened security on campus, because President Kagame would visit on Sunday. He had only been notified at 5 PM that campus security had postponed the concert. Manuel saw that I was drinking Primus, one of the two Rwandan beers. “Hey, I like Primus too,” he said. And how could one not like Primus? It had a crisp clear taste, not too strong, and perfect for any occasion. In a few minutes, we were sitting in the hotel cafe drinking Primus together. I showed him some pictures I’d taken in Rwanda so far, and he had a little hard drive with pictures of the recent Salus Populi performance at the Pan-African Festival in Algeria. He complained of the racism in Algeria.

I agreed to try and make it for when the gig is rescheduled next Friday. My schedule is a bit hectic and unpredictable, but I hope I will be there.


This morning I took the bus back to Kigali, and by the afternoon Daddy and I had straightened out our film permit issues with the Ministry of Culture. So finally, he was able to film me playing on the street, and we chose Kimironko Market as our location today. I also called Emmy, a student from the Kigali Institute of Education, to see if he wanted to come hang out, since he’s been so interested in the project. He’d also been useful as a translator in the past, so I thought he could be helpful when, as usual, people started asking where I was from and why I was playing on the street.

The crowd was bigger than usual, and for the first time I had some solid dancers in the audience. Usually people are a little too bewildered at the situation to simply enjoy it the they were today. Maybe it is a sign that they’re getting used to me. Also, today for the first time, no one asked why I was playing on the street. This was very unusual. I told them anyway about the 15th anniversary etc, then had Emmy translate to them, but today they didn’t care at all, when in the past this would generate at least approving nods and perhaps applause. Maybe they already knew why I was there since I’d already been doing this for a couple weeks now?

At some point, the crowd was very large, and Daddy thought it might be a good time for us to try and escape, before things got a little out of control. Escaping is not easy in a situation like this. For some reason, every time they see I’m about to leave the crowd closes in around me, with questions, attempts to practice english, and requests to keep playing (especially from kids.) So Daddy and I stood there calmly discussing where we were going to go and how, while a whole bunch of people stared at us (something I’ve learned to completely igonre.) The only way was going to be to get a cab. If we tried to escape by foot, we’d certainly be followed by a bunch of kids and probably a couple drunks too. We pulled Emmy along with us and got into a taxi, sax still strapped around my neck, and people were knocking on the window waving until we pulled out.

On the way to get a beer, we interviewed Emmy a little, and he told us about his perspective on the genocide and where Rwanda’s come since then. His father was killed in 1994, and his mother was disabled, not having gotten out of bed since the genocide. His sister is so busy taking care of their mother that there’s not time for her to be gainfully employed. Emmy has been in and out of school since the genocide, at times not feeling right enough in the head for his studies. His education is being paid for by the Survivor’s Fund of the Aegis Trust. He hopes to work after finishing school next year, though he’s a little concerned about whether he’ll graduate and usually precedes it with the word “if.” After working for a few years, he hopes he’ll have enough money to go to graduate school. He told me that wants to discuss these things, because it makes him feel free. We arrived at the bar of a local hotel Chez Lando, where mobs of people were loudly watching soccer. We ordered Primus, and Emmy told me about how he was currently researching the impact of the genocide on Rwandan soccer. He believes that soccer in Rwanda is still behind where it was when many of the players and coaches were killed.

While sitting at Chez Lando, Daddy showed us some of today’s footage. Seeing it from the camera’s perspective was hilarious to me, since it was so different from how things look when I’m concentrating on playing, and only using my own two eyes and not seeing myself as part of the scene. In fact, I’d never realized just how chaotic and ridiculous these street performances look! In one shot, there was someone standing right next to me, pretending to play sax, while I was actually playing, and right in front of me was a ridiculous drunk man dancing, while kids kept pretending to steal his bag of onions to tease him, and meanwhile there was just this big crowd, with some other dancers etc. Daddy reported hearing some young children surmise that the reason for my playing on the street is that “he must be traumatized about something.” And generally my own display of wackiness generated a chain reaction of other crazy people and gawkers. If I was watching this footage as a stranger, with no idea how or why this scene had occurred, I would surely think it was fictional, probably some kind of weird, absurdist comedy.


My first meeting of the day was supposed to be with Emanuel but was postponed until Tuesday. My second meeting was supposed to be with Richard at Novotel to discuss a performance with Rwa Makondera, but there was some sort of misunderstanding and he was not there.

Finally, the only thing that worked the way it was supposed to today was my rehearsal with the kids of Rwa Makondera. It was a lot of fun. Today we focused mostly on their choral pieces, though they also drum and dance. The teachers were taking care of the drumming today, and we explored how to arrange their songs to include the saxophone. It was fun for me, the teachers, and the children.

Today marked the halfway point: two weeks until I return to New York. It has gone fast, and so far I would count this trip to Rwanda as one of the best experiences of my life. Sometimes, I’ve been a little too caught up in logistics to play on the street as much as I’ve wanted to, but I’m hoping to address that by de-prioritizing some of these other pursuits and not-so-productive meetings that don’t seem to lead anywhere.

I also thought today a little about what it might be like to return to NYC. Probably not just the reverse culture shock, but the total difference in the relationship of self to locale: I will go from being the totally outlandish crazy mizungo with a saxophone in Rwanda, to being the somewhat typical jazz musician in Brooklyn. Just the same person in a different context.


This morning I met the students at the Muhima Primary School. The students there fall into three categories: Either both parents are deceased, one parent is deceased, or the parents are too poor to take full responsibility over them. First, I was taken to a classroom full of about 50 twelve and thirteen year olds. I told them about how in NYC the summer is hot and humid, but it snows in the winter, and about how we use the subway, and you can feel the ground shake when it runs beneath you etc. Then, I took out my saxophone and explained how the reed produces the sound, and told them about how jazz and many other styles of American music combine African and European elements. First, I played a high note for them, followed by a low note. Then, I played a descending chromatic scale and this drew a lot of applause. The kids absolutely loved the chromatic scale. I then played some blues as an example of “basic” jazz, then played Sonny Rollins’ St. Thomas as an example of Caribbean jazz. Afterwards, I opened it up for questions, and they wanted to know every last detail about everything. Can you play reggae and hip-hop on a saxophone? How about Beethoven? What happens if you try playing it without a reed? Does it break if you drop it? How long does it take to learn? Are you married and do you have children? One important question was “How do I get a saxophone?” With the severe musical instrument shortage in the country, I told them they needed to write letters to people in power like the president and say that they needed musical instruments, like the rest of the world.

Sometime during this interrogation, the headmaster suggested that I go outside into the schoolyard to play for the all the kids, from 5-6 up to 13-14 years old. Then the older kids whose questions I’d answered could teach the younger ones. Soon enough, I was standing on a chair in the middle of the schoolyard surrounded by literally a couple thousand kids. They applauded generously at times I wouldn’t have expected from an American or a grown-up audience, seemingly in the middle of things. They asked me to play some reggae, and this resulted in a sing along to the tune of Bob Marley’s One Love. Marley is quite possibly the most ubiquitously adored musician in the world. I surmise that it’s partly that he sang in English, the current international language, plus his melodies and lyrics are simple enough for all ages.

When I finished playing, some students came to shake my hand, and this started a mad frenzy of little kids trying to shake my hand and tugging at me from all directions. What could possibly be more interesting than shaking that crazy sax guy’s hand? This continued until I’d shaken hands or slapped fives with at least a few hundred kids, and I had to hold my hands up in the air and just wave, saying “Byebye!” The headmaster and I went to his office to discuss when I’d come visit again, followed by a few dozen kids who knew better than to actually walk into his office, so they just stood at the door until they got bored and left. I agreed to come back on Friday afternoon.

In the afternoon, I had a rehearsal with some Rwandan musicians. The Goethe Institut is sponsoring this workshop, where I collaborate with them, and two days before I leave, there will be a concert. We practiced at a night club in the Kaciryu section of Kigali, and here was the first full drum-set I’ve seen in Rwanda. It even had a snare! They taught me some Rwandan songs, and I taught them the Thelonious Monk song Well You Needn’t and one of my own tunes called Exactly Serious.

Later that evening Jean-Pierre Kalonda and I had dinner, and we discussed many things. He’s a music producer with real ideas and good intentions. He thinks, as I do, that Rwandan music has just as much potential as Malian or Nigerian music to evolve in new and different directions and reach global audiences. We dreamed of having a weeklong Rwandan music festival in New York in the future, and even started plotting ways of getting musical instruments from Europe and the USA into Rwanda, where there’s such a severe shortage. We then moved onto Rwandan history and politics. He told me about fleeing to Burundi before chaos broke out, but his mother and sister stayed behind and were killed in the genocide. He thinks that the genocide happened because of bad government, and currently bigotry is being reduced by good government. I suppose that it is even easier for those in power to manipulate such an uneducated public, for better or for worse.


This morning I had a meeting at the Gisimba Orphanage. Since I’m never quite sure what’s going to happen at a meeting like this, I brought my saxophone. For instance yesterday when I arrived at Muhima Primary School, I did not expect to be playing for a couple thousand little kids. But today at Gisimba we merely scheduled a time for next week when I would come back to perform for the kids.

The Gisimba Orphanage was started in the 1970s with just a few kids, and is now being run by the grandson of the founder. During the genocide, the facility was flooded not just with children, but ordinary people too, some of whom were hidden in a secret room. The orphanage was under constant attack, but the militias accepted bribes and desperate pleas for mercy, and only eight people were killed at the orphanage. It was only a matter of luck, and according to Mr. Gisimba God’s help, that money helped save lives there, because in other situations, the same strategy didn’t work.

After my meeting at Gisimba, I had another rehearsal in preparation for the performance at the Goethe Institut. It was more of me learning Rwandan music, and Rwandans learning jazz music. Progressing very well.

Finally, Jean-Pierre and I met Elise, the Belgian delegate for the Red Cross to have some dinner, then we saw Jaws on a projector screen at someone’s house. Jean-Pierre gave me a ride home afterwards and told me that there was some truth to Jaws, in that people don’t understand when danger is right around the corner. In the movie, people (especially those in power like the mayor and businesspeople) don’t want to shut down the beach. They won’t accept that business as usual cannot continue, with the risk of a shark attack. Jean-Pierre thought this was relevant to his own life, since most people wouldn’t listened to him when he said, in 1990, that Rwanda was in great danger. He fled to Burundi, but many loved ones stayed behind and died.


Today despite feeling exhausted, I had a rehearsal in the morning for the upcoming Goethe Institut performance. I was the only person who was on time, a few people were an hour late, and the person who we really needed, the Inanga player, didn’t show up at all. The inanga is a local stringed instrument, and today’s rehearsal was supposed to center around inanga-based songs. The result was a few wasted hours. Misuse of time can be a problem here in Rwanda. The status quo is unreliability, and there is a weakness here both in taking charge and managing as well as being managed. When one person fails to complete their task in part of a larger mission, it makes the efforts of others futile and wasteful. The misuse of time and unreliability can be viral in this respect. It is hard to know when one’s efforts will be worthwhile. My strategy has been to simply try as hard as I can to get things done, be happy when the task is completed, and try not to feel too disappointed when things don’t work. If any of the people I’ve been working with are reading this, I hope they realize that it is not meant to be taken personally. These problems and many others exist in the USA too, and I’d be curious to know what annoys them when they come to visit New York – the rudeness of people, the rush? I know that on the roads here I am sometimes fighting the temptation to give other drivers the finger on behalf of my driver. But that kind of uncivil behavior is unheard of here.

Anyhow, I now feel that this morning might have been better spent catching up some much needed rest. Having only four weeks to get as much done as possible has led to a mad rush of sometimes inefficient work. I am exhausted, and many of the people around me, like Daddy and Jean-Pierre, are complaining of stress and exhaustion. Probably even more passive observers are getting a little tired just watching. I imagine there will be a collective sigh of relief when I leave Rwanda!

In the afternoon, I had a brief meeting with Arthur the manager of the Union Trade Center. UTC is a little shopping mall in Kigali. There is a food court, an upscale coffee shop, a supermarket, and various other shops. We are planning a performance in the food court area with Rwa Makondera, the children’s dance troupe. I then went home to get a little recording done for the film.


2 thoughts on “Week 3: Collaborating with the locals, and sax demonstrations in the schools

  1. i was recently playing in rwanda with jazz for peace at the marathon and can completely relate to your blog. i am a bass player in ny. i even stayed at chez lando. very interesting blog. just thought you might be happy to hear someone relate and check it out.

  2. Pingback: Week 3: Collaborating with the locals, and sax demonstrations in … | burundi today

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