3 November 2017

Rwanda: Jazz Music Finds a Home in Kigali

Photo: New Times
Neptunez band entertains and backs-up jazz musicians at Kigali Jazz Junction.

This month's edition of the monthly Kigali Jazz Junction is only hours away. Isaiah Katumwa, the Ugandan jazz maestro,is set to headline alongside Rwanda's own, Andy Bumuntu.

The show at the Kigali Serena Hotel will not be his first Jazz Junction appearance though. In October last year, he headlined one of the best-attended Kigali Jazz Junction concerts since its inception in 2015.

In many ways, Katumwa is to jazz music in Uganda what the Kigali Jazz Junction is to Rwandan music lovers; both can be credited for ushering many people in the two countries into the hitherto little understood world of jazz music. They demystified the genre.

Started in 2015

Today in Kigali, the influence of the jazz genre is steadily moving beyond the confines of the Kigali Jazz Junction and the Neptunez Band, which are responsible for popularizing the genre locally.

From corporate events organisers, wedding entertainment planners, private parties, even government functions, the number of jazz-oriented musicians that make it to the list of entertainers just keeps swelling.

Kenneth Agutamba is the Public Relations Manager at Bank of Kigali and an avid jazz fan who has attended his fair share of local jazz concerts.

"I love Jazz, but a certain type of jazz; I love Jazz rap. It is a fusion sub-genre of hip-hop and jazz, developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I love driving while listening to that kind of music, my favourite artists being A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, Guru, and Souls of Mischief. This sub-genre is not quite common here as we are still dominated by classical jazz which is what I think Isaiah Katumwa represents. Nonetheless, I love his shows and I will be attending this one too. Sometimes they surprise with acts that border on jazz rap, and I am hoping to be pleasantly surprised this time around," he says.

To him, however, jazz music has always had a place and a following in Rwandan society.

"I think it is not a newfound love. This love has always been here." He attributes the genre's growing appeal to a number of factors:

"Consistency, family day out (jazz music shows are typically set for family and Kigali being a family city, it fits), and finally, economy. Where everything else seems too expensive, a jazz show and a bit of fun is what most urban dwellers can afford. See even comedy nights are full these days, because we have to laugh, to forget the tough hustle," Agutamba says.

Remmy Lubega, Managing Director of RG Consult, the organisers of the Kigali Jazz Junction also concurs with Agutamba's assertion. To him, it was "merely a mindset that there was no jazz music in this town".

Lubega is talking about the time, in 2015, the year when it all began.

"I disagreed because many artistes out there are multi-talented and all they need is confidence and giving them the support they need to enhance their talent, so I knew we have jazz players, singers, and people who love jazz as a genre but like any other African music industry, apart from South Africa that has grown its jazz level to an international standard, we were meant to work a lot and bring Rwanda on board," Lubega says.

Lubega contends that at the time, only one problem paused a barrier between local jazz musicians and lovers of jazz music; the lack of professionalism.

"In terms of organisation, in terms of repertoire and presentation, and taking it as a serious job where someone has to do rehearsals, practice, and think about his or her playlist and also how they are going to dress, and to perform," he says.

With the Neptunez Band, which he founded, Lubega took advantage of a unique genre to create something unique, and one that the band owned entirely.

It was a platform where he spotted untapped potential.

"People tend to forget that Kigali is now a cosmopolitan city. It has diversified a lot in terms of its dwellers' tastes and style. We have seen people from all over the world take up space to open business and even acquire citizenship to stay, live and work in Kigali.

"So it was a case of finding out what would be a uniting social factor for people and that could only be music and arts," Lubega says.

Josh Semugabi, a keyboardist and music director with the Neptunez Band, says "People are slowly moving away from paying big sums for artistes who come with a CD, pretend to sing for a few minutes, then they are given a million."

Ssemugabi contends that more people now see sense in paying a band, which plays from the time guests arrive to the end of the function.

Eric Mugisha, a local events organiser concurs with Lubega that professionalism has gone a long way in winning the jazz genre a large following in Kigali.

"In the past, people had this feeling that bands were just trying out music. They believed that band musicians play music but are not stars like the pop artistes who they see on TV and hear on the radio," Mugisha says.

While pop artistes may be secure in their crowd-pulling abilities, their live band counterparts fair better when it comes to professionalism and overall delivery.

For local jazz enthusiasts, the genre became even more palatable when local musicians familiar to them also started embracing the jazz music stage.

Lubega believes that this new platform has earned local musicians a lot of mileage and a deeper understanding of their music from fans who never access them normally.

Some of the local artistes that have graced the Kigali Jazz Junction stage are; Mani Martin, Patrick Nyamitari, Nubian Gypsies, Green Hills Injyana Assemble, Charly& Nina, Beauty For Ashes, Hope Irakoze, and Ben NgaboKipeti.

Foreign acts that have held memorable jazz concerts in Kigali include; Mayonde Masya from Kenya, Isaiah Katumwa from Uganda, Maurice Kirya from Uganda, Seyi Shay from Nigeria, Tito Al Uribe from Chile, Christina Kamau from Kenya, Myko Ouma and Moroots from Uganda, and Lillian Mbabazi.

After his memorable performance in Kigali in December 2015, an elated Uribe could not hide his joy and promised to promote jazz music in Rwanda by opening a school to teach "real jazz music". The project is yet to take off, but Uribe revealed that it would run a seven-year course format like that at the Berkley College of Music in California, US.

"I'm proud to see Rwandans making a monthly programme to come and grace this event," Lubega says.

"The talk has grown into a more regional and continental discussion about Kigali being a destination for jazz music. Many artistes are now trying to subscribe to the event. So we are looking above us and seeing the big picture as this genre can bring the quality niche market to come around and appreciate this great country, its people and lifestyle," Lubega adds.

Regarding the future of jazz in Rwanda, Lubega says, "The industry is not defined so far, what we are doing is promoting genre and talent, we may be doing more strategically than the rest of the genres in the industry, but this is because we are passionate about what we do. The fans that come around leave happy and keep on wanting to come back for more.

"There's more to jazz though we are not faring well on radio and television; however, we are making steps towards a greater picture of this country as a destination for this much acclaimed genre of music. I can assure you there is a string of great jazz, and soul artistes that want to be a part of this because they have recognised us as one of the most consistent jazz events within the region.

"We plan to spread our wings and also use European and Asian acts, especially destinations where RwandAir can go, as we are passionate to sell and brand this as a product and service that makes us proud to be Rwandan.

"It should be noted that jazz events also give a great experience to local acts that actually have what it takes to showcase live rich music. This music exchange and experience we offer goes a great deal to instill confidence and provide a platform to learn and aspire to be where the international acts are."

Why jazz is gaining more popularity

I think music is music, any kind of music can work, it all depends on the organisation and how people promote and organise their concerts and events. Organisation has helped in jazz music'spromotion; the organisers are good for sure.

Dieudonne Ishimwe, Managing Director of Rwanda Inspiration Backup

I enjoy jazz, I can say that I wish there was more diversity in music in Rwanda in terms of what is played on the radio and what is most popular. Jazz is gaining more popularity because it's new and different and interesting to listen to. It's also relaxed but not boring, which is why Rwandans enjoy it, it's not too abrasive like hardcore rock and roll. Also, it has African roots, I would do some research on that because it's fascinating.

Katie Carlson, Woman Activist

I think it's growing because when you look at events like Jazz Junction,it has done well. The first one not so much but now it's improving, people love and can't wait for the next event. I think it's growing and to me it doesn't have to be in competition with other genres, I mean its jazz, it's a style of its own.I love jazz music and always make it a point to be present when I can for the concerts.

Jody Phibi, Musician

People like new stuff, especially if it's interesting, and jazz falls in this category. It's the new thing on the block and people have fallen in love with it.The serenity and elegance that comes with it is the trick behind its popularity.

Prossy Mbabazi, Administrator

Rwanda

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