22 February 2013

Rwanda: Four Decades of Orchestre Impala's Golden Music

Founded in 1974 Orchestre Impala took the country by storm as their music played on radios, TV and in every bar. People across the region knew the lyrics to their songs better than their own national anthems.

Impala became popular in the early 1980's for its unique and eclectic style, which fused elements of traditional Rwandan music with a bit of the Democratic Republic of Congo's Rumba and other genres of African music.

Impala's music today, just like wine, only gets better. A lot of people say that their music evokes fond memories. Their songs include Anita, "Iby'Isi ni amabanga", Marie Rose, Aliya Bonne Anne, Amavubi Urwererane, Naumia Moyoni and many more.

Impala Orchestre was originally composed of seven members, Sebanane Andre (Pepe La rose.) Gasasira Jean Felix (Soso Mado), Sebigeri Paul (Mimi la rose), Gasigwa Abdallatif (Toubi Lando), Rubangura Francois (Maitre Rubangi) Kalimunda Jean Pierre (Kali wa Njenje) and Ngenzi Fidele (Fidele la jacard). Later the orchestra recruited an eighth member called Semu Jean Berechimas (Semu wa semu) who died a few years later. They composed a song, Intwali yaratabaye which, like all other Impala songs, was and still is loved.

Today, almost four decades later, where are the Impala members? Do they still play music? My journey tracing these stars led me to an old school music maestro, Makanyaga Abdul. The sole founder of the 1970's jazz band called Rita jazz, which later changed to Abamararungu helped me find Sebigeri Paul.

Besides gaining a few pounds, Paul, 59, hasn't changed much. After introducing myself, he welcomed me with a strong handshake; we settled down and he told me all about the glorious impala days.

"Joining the orchestra was one of the best things that ever happened to me; I had a chance to work with not only the most talented guys but also the most humble humans ever," said the laidback veteran.

Unlike today when someone enters a recording studio in the morning and his song is on radio by afternoon, back then they wrote and played music from their hearts. "We had passion and the need to give people quality, educative and entertaining tunes," he says.

I sadly came to learn that out of all the Impala Group members, only two are still alive. Apart from Semu who died of natural causes, the rest were killed during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. "It's only Ngenzi Fidele and I who are still alive today. The rest of the members are still alive through our music," Paul said with misty eyes.

"We will never again have a band like Impala. The music was so unique and everyone loved their music - even the youth. I remember going to their concerts with my father and grandfather and we would all dance to their songs," said Munyanshoza Dieudonné, a local musician.

Together, Impala recorded over 13 albums in more than two languages, travelled across the globe, staging concerts in Canada, Germany, France and other African countries.

"Nakibuza Impala gucuranga' is a common saying that literally means 'nothing can stop the Impala from playing music'. "Whenever I used to hear someone use this saying (when Impala had actually stopped playing) I would feel my heart contract with so much sadness", Sebrigeri says.

This indicated how much people treasured and believed in us. I felt like we had let them down. This drove us to honour our fallen band members and the bands name by patching up the holes and getting young men to take the place of the deceased and restart the band again," said, Ngezi Fidele, who we found at Cana hall at Saint Famille practicing.

New members were recruited and Impalage (a group of female traditional dancers), the all new Impala is made up of nine members. Today they perform as Orchestre Impala de Kigali just like before.

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