26 November 2012

Rwanda: From Counting Notes to Playing Them

While having a job in a bank might be the envy of many, to Marcel Mico it had become a chore - he enjoyed playing the piano much more. "I have always loved music ever since I was a teenager, but because your parents have invested in your education, I had to respect that and finish with school," he explains.

And so, after his graduation in 1998, he became a banker, yet he did it with little passion. "When I was done with my day job, I would take my keyboard and perform at the Mille Collines hotel. With time, the urge to sing became too much and one day I just woke up and decided to quit my job."

That was in 2003, and Mico hasn't looked back ever since. He played solo for a long time, but about two years ago, after the first Primus Guma Guma season, he caught up with some other musicians, and the Sound of Hills Band was born.

The band consists of two vocalists, two guitarists (one of who also sings) and a bass guitar player, a drummer and of course band leader Mico on the keyboards. They still play live gigs at Mille Collines, which Mico is passionate about since, he says, live music is rich because it allows the instruments to come out in all their glory. "It also brings out the vocals very well compared to recorded music."

Which is also why he enjoys playing in a band now, after many years of doing it alone. Like many bands playing live in a hotel, they mainly do covers, but what makes Sound of Hills stand out is that they focus on African music, especially hits from popular East African artists. "This band is special because the whole crew likes African music; I am a fanatic of this kind of music, but when we first got together, I wasn't sure that the rest would enjoy it too. I guess I was lucky."

What attracts Mico in the music is that it expresses a rich culture, and that the lyrics often talk about social issues. "I for one love to sing about girls' education," he says.

On the other hand, they also have to keep an eye on their audience, and given that among the crowd at Mille Collines there are many couples, love songs also makes up a big part of the band's repertoire.

And it seems the people like what they hear, because the Sound of Hills Band has managed to build quite a reputation - they have performed at various big functions, such as recently the golden Independence jubilee party at Serena hotel. In addition, they also play at private functions, at around Frw 700,000 per gig.

That said, Mico admits that making a living as a musician is rather tough. For instance, the band is still acquiring its own equipment, one piece at a time, and in the meantime they are using that of Mille Collines. In addition, while their music is very much appreciated, apart from their gigs at the hotel their performances are few and far between.

That may change next year, though, since the Sound Of Hills Band is currently working on their first album, which they hope to launch in April. This time, however, they will play their own songs. Maybe that will help to get their sound to all of Rwanda's thousand hills.

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