Today I received official permission for two important goals. Much of my reason for being here is to play for the elections, and today the police commander of the Remera neighborhood in Kigali approved my plan to perform around voting centers at Amahoro Stadium.
Even more exciting, is that I got permission from the Chairman of the Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Commision to perform at an FDLR rehabilitation center. FDLR is an acronym for Forces for the Democratic Liberation of Rwanda. This militia is composed of the same army that masterminded and executed the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda, as well as soldiers who were recruited later. After the RPF defeated them, they fled to Congo, marking the beginning of the devastating Congolese War. The RPF followed the FDLR into Congo, and then the skirmishes expanded into multi-factional chaos, including many ethnic groups other than Hutu and Tutsi and the intervention of other nations such as Uganda and Zimbabwe. The war in Congo is said to be slowly winding down, after more than a dozen years of violence, starvation, and disease.
As part of the effort to stabilize Congo, Rwanda is now repatriating surrendered soldiers from the FDLR who had been in Congo. They are being placed in Rehabilition Centers. The goal of the Demobilization and Reintegration Commission is to prepare these ex-militia for civilian life. Many of them have been in the Congolese wilderness for many years, under the impression that if they returned to Rwanda, they would certainly be massacred, because their leaders trained them to think that Rwanda was now committing genocide against the Hutu. They are also taught employment skills to help facilitate their integration into civilian life. The hope is that these ex-soldiers will join the mission of reconciliation between Rwanda’s ethnic groups, and that it will help stabilize Congo. Much of Rwanda’s future is dependent on peace across the border. The rehabilitation program has critics and proponents, but I will hold my judgements, until I have visited.
There are many reasons why I am eager to perform at the FDLR rehab center. One is that while I am here in Rwanda, it is, in some ways, wrong for me to ignore the related devastation that is next door in Congo. It would be unsafe, though, for me to do in Congo what I do here, so the rehab centers are the best I can do. Also, the inhabitants of the FDLR rehab centers are an important audience to reach. These are people who have until recently subscribed to the ideology of hatred and genocide. I believe that by performing there and telling my story of why I came to Rwanda, they might benefit, and I might learn something too.
Getting government authorization to play at the rehab center was interesting. I had to write a letter explaining my project, to which I attached some press clippings about Parade of One. Then, I had a meeting with the chairman of the Rwanda Demobilisation and Reinegration Commission, Mr. Jean Sayinzoga. Before meeting with me, he was with some American or European diplomat, who’d walked out of his office in a suit and tie. Then, I walked in, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Mr. Sayinzoga read my letter while I sat in his office. First, he said he didn’t know if it would be possible, but then he continued to look at the letter and the press clippings and seemed deep in thought. Finally, he said that it should be ok, but that the specific center I was requesting was for children only and was very small and that it might not be good. Instead, he recommended another rehab center where I would have an audience of 193 ex-militia. Then, he got on the phone with the manager of the Mutobo Rehab Center, and spoke in Kinyarwanda, at times laughing hysterically. We’ve set up the performance for Sunday, and I’m quite excited! Mr. Sayinzoga is also eager to hear about how it goes.
Today I traveled to Butare in southeastern Rwanda to have a jam session with Ingoma Nshya, an all female drumming group. When I was first planning to come to Rwanda last year, I saw them play in Brooklyn at a fundraiser for an ice cream shop, that would help fund their drumming group too. At this point, I’d never met a Rwandan person before, so Ingoma Nshya was my introduction. I was absolutely amazed. They were very skilled and well-rehearsed, bringing a theatrical act that included not only drumming, but dancing and singing too.
I’m so glad that we got the opportunity to jam. The occassion was a concert for about a hundred kids, and I’d be a special guest. We just rehearsed for about fifteen minutes, before our audience showed up, and the collaboration was very natural. As a horn player, if you can feel the beat and manage to stay away from typical habits of jazz playing, like playing too many notes, it is really quite fun to play with Ingoma Nshya. I was able to think about the saxophone in many ways as an extension of the percussion section, instead of as purely a melody instrument. And our young audience absolutely loved it. They were hollering and dancing quite a lot.
Ingoma Nshya means “New Drums” and can also be translated as “New Reign.” The mastermind is a woman named Kiki, who directs the theater department at the National University. The drummers are between the ages of 16 and 62. They make $100 a month drumming, and for most of them it is the first job/income they’ve ever had, and for many, it’s even the first organized, group activity they’ve ever been a part of, since some haven’t even spent much time in school. Kiki says that Ingoma Nshya is about new opportunities and choices for people, and she prefers to use the word “dream” instead of “project,” when discussing the group.
I’ll be writing more extensively about my experience with Ingoma Nshya in Tom Tom Magazine, a publication exclusively about female drumming.
Today I gave the world premier performance of my composition Rwandan Suite for an audience of ex-militia at the Mutobo Rehabalition Center. One or two months ago these men (and three women) were fighting in the forest in Congo. Now after twelve to sixteen years away from society, they are back, and the spirit of renewal and rebirth was so inspiring. There is no way to overstate how amazing this day was.
As I entered the room the former soldiers were standing and singing with some of them dancing in the front. The energy was incredible. I was informed that it was a welcome song for me, and it was also meant to display their discipline and spirit.
When they took their seats, I introduced myself and explained that I would be performing a 5 part composition that tells a story and in between the parts I would verbalize the story, through my interpreter Apollo. I began with the Birthday March, a song about the eagerness for new experience and a new life, themes I feel these ex-soldiers might relate to. I composed it spontaneously during my birthday parade two years ago. This birthday was also the birth of the Parade of One project. Next came Ernst, a song named for my grandfather, who told me that my parade in Rwanda needed a catchy theme song that people might remember. It is the experiences of my grandparents in Nazi Europe that in many ways led me to come to Rwanda in particular. Next is the Murambi Doina, a slow, pensive klezmer tune, inspired by my experiences at the Murambi Genocide Memorial. Then, is Gisenyi Beach, a very loose, mostly improvised number that utilizes certain themes I composed spontaneously while playing for children on the shore of Lake Kivu. Finally, there is my rendition of a traditional Rwandan song about brotherhood, which represents Rwandan peace and unity, as well as what Rwanda gave to me when I came here. For this last part, I walked through the aisles of the audience while playing.
This audience of ex-soldiers was one of my most gracious audiences ever. Their eagerness for a new life and for new experiences was apparent in that the vibe I got from them was more like the vibe I normally get from a child audience than an adult one. Some of them were leaning forward in their seats with their mouths gaping open. One man in the front row had very restless legs, and seemed so excited it was hard to sit still.
I opened it up for questions from the audience, and they had so many. They wanted to know how I felt when Michael Jackson died, how long I’ve playing sax, etc. Most of all they wanted express their thanks to me for coming to visit and perform. I also had a question for them which was what they thought my friends in America should know about them. They said they were happy to be there, preparing for a new life, and of course if America could give them any help that would be great.
As we were wrapping it up, they asked how they could get something to remember me by. They even thought maybe I could leave a saxophone there, so they could look at it and remember me. I suggested instead we take some photos, and they were extremely enthusiastic about this.
Next thing I know, I’m in a field huddled closely with a hundred people who were raping, pillaging, and killing less than two months ago. And we were having fun. Everyone was happy. Many of them even wanted to pose for individual photos with me, and as they put there arms around me and smiled for the camera, it was so hard for me to imagine these individuals doing the things they did in Congo. I will spare you much of the gore, but in Congo, the FDLR is accused of every crime imaginable, including mutilating womens’ genitals and much worse. A friend of mine who used to treat victims of the FDLR in Congo said she could never imagine setting foot in Mutobo.
There were so many lessons learned today, and I don’t know if I will ever be able to neatly verbalize what I felt. One thing is that, it is not just innocent victims who need support and who need to be provided with new choices for a new life. Just as important are the perpetrators, the people who’ve seen the dark side. They too want change and renewal so badly. I cannot describe the feeling of inspiration that was in the air at the Mutobo Rehab Center.
The residents of Mutobo only have a couple months there before they must re-enter their old communities. It is nothing compared to the years they spent in the culture of war. I’m sure very hard times are still to come for them. They are permitted to leave the rehab center once a week, to see their old villages and catch up with old friends and family. But when they try to permanently move back, I wonder if it will match their expectations. Will things be like they remembered? How easy will it be to rebuild old, broken relationships with friends and family? Will they be haunted by memories of war? I truly wish these people the best futures possible. I have rarely been moved by people as much as they moved me, and for some reason I think this means there is hope for them.
Rwanda’s Presidential Elections
I met Apollo in the morning at Amahoro Stadium, a large stadium with two voting stations. The local police precinct had authorized me to perform there on election day. The mood in Kigali was very eerie and strange. Many people left the city the previous day, because they were registered to vote in their home villages. Kigali was now the quietest I had ever seen, on one of the nation’s most crucial days! I had pictured something more bustling and crazy, and so had Apollo. We were not expecting the opposite. A sabbath-like mood had in fact taken over. Election Day is a national holiday, and I could feel that things had slown down. People were not tense, but actually quite relaxed.
I encountered a problem from the beginning: They were already blasting music at the voting centers over a PA system. The Rwandan government stole my idea! Apollo kindly asked them to turn it off, but the music at the voting centers was specifically selected by the National Election Commission. Despite having police permission to play, I was told that I still needed written authorization from the National Election Commission to have the stereo shut off. There was no way I could’ve anticipated this! It was not an insurmountable obstacle though, as I was still able to perform at the entrance of the voting centers.
Overall, I did not find voters at Amahoro stadium to be a very interesting audience. Remera is a middle/upper class neighborhood, and the people seemed more interested in taking photos of me than in engaging me.
Apollo and I took a break to go for a long walk to rethink our strategy. How were we going to reach people on election day, with the city feeling so quiet and deserted? In retrospect, it would’ve been a good day to go play voting centers in the villages, but we naturally and wrongly expected the capital to be more ideal. We walked deep into the valleys of Kigali, and along the way we encountered a small herd of cows. I took my saxophone out and started playing. The cows were strangely quite interested in the music, and as I played they, kept coming closer to me. It was a little creepy. They had very curious looking faces. It was still the sort of unchanging, dumb expression that cows make, but now it was somehow directed at me. These beasts were a very appreciative audience in fact, and it might’ve been the highlight of Rwandan election day for me!
Next, Apollo and I decided to go to Nyamirambo, a usually bustling neighborhood where I’ve often found a very curious audience. As expected the people there were more interested. This was not an area where I’d received police permission though, and I caught the attention of one officer. It didn’t turn out to be a major problem. After a short discussion, he agreed to let me keep playing, but with specific instructions not to photograph him or other people in uniform. He seemed most intent on ensuring that I was not a journalist. (The Western media has been reporting on the election with quite a bit of skepticism.)
In general, Rwandan Election Day was a less interesting day for street performance than an ordinary week day. I feel that the most interesting lesson from the day is not for me or my Rwandan audiences, but for my Western readers who had a false impression that my plan might be unsafe, that the elections here might be tarnished by riots and chaos. But the mood in Rwanda now is not one where their divisions are played out in public. I believe their recent history makes them wary of this. (I should add that two days after I wrote this there was a small terrorist attack when Kagame’s victory was officially announced. Several were hurt, but none were killed. It is thought that the attack is pertaining to a conflict within the ruling elite and not one of opposing public factions. I will refrain from more commentary as this blog’s focus is music, not politics.)
A couple days ago, I met an English gentleman named Dicken who started a record label here that focuses on local Rwandan genres and instruments. I’d been interested in what he was doing, but for some reason we only met a little before my departure! This did not stop us from getting right down to business though, so here we were the day before my departure, brainstorming about how to collaborate in bringing Sophie the inanga player to New York City. We brought her into his studio which is much better equipped than the one we’d previously recorded in, and we layed down another track. Dicken is currently editing it, and I look forward to sharing it with you!
A Few Closing Thoughts
I am now on my first full day back in New York City, a little jet-lagged and overwhelmed from my experiences. Still, I think I should discuss a few thoughts. I will resist reaching any kind of profound conclusion-like statement though, because the Parade of One project is ongoing.
I am currently occupied with how to bring the Parade of One to the “next level.” I am hoping that expanding to other regions will help, but I am not at all done with Rwanda. It is in these last few days that my thoughts have been brimming with new ideas. Street performance alone has become a little redundant here for me, because crowd reaction is usually the same. I still must remember that it might be new for the audience anyway! The most interesting new experiences for me, this time around, were playing with Ingoma Nshya (the female drumming group) and my performance at the Mutobo FDLR rehab center. It is so hard to describe the hunger for new life that was in the air at Mutobo. I still feel it, and I know I reached an audience that was eager for what I gave them. The whole trip would’ve been worth it, for that one day alone.
I hope I will continue to work with Ingoma Nshya, perhaps even bringing them for a collaborative concert to the Mutobo Rehab Center. I think it would somehow be fitting, because of the crimes against women in the Congolese war. Perhaps, some of my local musician collaborators would even like to join me for street performances. This could turn street performance in Rwanda back into a fresh experience.
There is no way for me to experience again that feeling I got the first time I played on the street in Rwanda, just a day after landing one year ago. I had no idea what would happen, and I was welcomed warmly by the people at Kimironko Market who befriended me and told me their stories. I dove into the unknown and found something new and beautiful. I am so eager to experience this again, and this is why I want to expand to other regions. I feel it is an important part of “taking it to the next level.”
In coming weeks, I will write more extensively about how I plan to reach new heights with the Parade of One project in Rwanda an elsewhere. I am very grateful to my many donors and supporters. It would not be possible without your help!
The Parade of One project relies on donations from individuals like you. For more information, please visit www.paradeofone.org.