In Exile, Burundian Musicians Create Out Of Crisis | KUOW News and Information

In Exile, Burundian Musicians Create Out Of Crisis

Dec 29, 2015
Originally published on January 4, 2016 12:16 am

Political violence has engulfed the African nation of Burundi. The U.N. Security Council has passed a resolution to try and prevent potential genocide, while refugees have been pouring into neighboring Rwanda. Among them is a group of musicians who fled their homes without any instruments.

Bertrand Ninteretse is a Burundian video artist and rapper who goes by the name Kaya Free. In April, he videotaped the death of a fellow protester shot by Burundian police. The protests were targeting the president, Pierre Nkurunziza, who'd defied the constitution and seized a third term in office. Since then, Nkurunziza's police and party militias have cracked down on anyone seen as anti-government. In this country of only six million, more than 200,000 have fled. Kaya says he had to flee because he was on a police hit list.

When he reached the Rwandan capital of Kigali, he grabbed his smartphone and started tracking down his friends.

"Now we have Whatsapp, we have Facebook," Kaya says. "We can write, 'Hey, I'm in Kigali. Hey, we have a big house — even you can stay here.' 'Oh, really, Kaya! Okay, we come.'"

Kaya and his wife found themselves hosting Burundian musicians, each a star in his genre: jazz, reggae, traditional Burundian folk. Only they now had no instruments, no money, no chairs, even. They did have plastic pots and pans, as well as beer bottles.

Back in Burundi, these musicians would not have shared the same stage. Now, in this living-room jam, over this traditional rhythm rose the voice of an R&B singer — actually the winner of Prix-Music, which is like the Burundian version of American Idol.

"It was like a dream," Kaya says. "For me, it was amazing. To see jazz people, traditional people, the winner of Prix-Music — they are together to sing songs."

In a different house, still without chairs and instruments, percussionist Omer Nzoyisaba says this new group "was about our voices only." He used to play traditional music at weddings. Next to him is a bassist accustomed to playing in nightclubs and a guitarist who performed in international hotels.

R&B singer Christian Ninteretse says the band, called Melodika, was created so they could eat. But it's become something more.

"You were just friends," Ninteretse tells his bandmates, "but because of the problems, you became family."

Melodika now performs around Rwanda using borrowed guitars and drums. But back home, it's just kitchen supplies and voices. The members refused to talk politics, but they said their message is one of unity. Ethnic unity. Regional unity. That's why their playlist can follow an urban love song with a traditional homesick lament called "Yes, Mama."

They pray, like so many exiles, for a chance to return home. They also hope to continue this journey, and to collect funds to make an album and travel the world with their music.

This is Burundi's new sound, they say, with the confidence of stars. It's just one that took a crisis to create.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Our next item is about the music of exile. Political violence has engulfed the African nation of Burundi. Thousands have fled to neighboring Rwanda, and among them is a group of musicians. They left home without any instruments. But as NPR's Gregory Warner reports, they did not slip into silence.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Bertrande Ninteretse is a Burundian video artist and rapper who goes by the name Kaya Free.

KAYA FREE: Kaya Free is the highest freedom.

WARNER: But in April, he videotaped the death of a fellow protester shot by Burundian police.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WARNER: The protests were targeting a president who defied the constitution and seized a third term in office. Since then the president's police and party militias have cracked down on anyone seen as antigovernment. In this country of only six million, more than 200,000 people have fled. Kaya says he had to flee because he was on a police hit list. When he reached the Rwandan capital, Kigali, he grabbed his smart phone and started tracking down his friends.

KAYA FREE: Now we have Whatsapp, we have Facebook. We can write, hey I'm in Kigali, hey, we have a big house, you can stay here. Oh, really, Kaya? OK, we come.

WARNER: Kaya and his wife soon found themselves hosting Burundian musicians, and each was a star in his genre - jazz, reggae, traditional Burundian folk. Only they now had no instruments, no money, no chairs, even. They did have plastic pots and pans and beer bottles.

KAYA FREE: Some day, they was doing like, (imitating Kirundi rhythm). This is a Kirundi rhythm.

WARNER: Back in Burundi, these musicians would never have shared the same stage. Now in this living room jam, over this traditional rhythm, rose the voice of an R&B singer - actually, the winner of "Prix-Music," which is like the Burundian version of "American Idol."

KAYA FREE: To see jazz people, traditional people, the winner of "Prix-Music," there together to sing, it was like a dream.

WARNER: I came to visit the musicians that are living together in a different house.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hello.

WARNER: This is the new home of Burundi music.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah. (Laughter).

WARNER: Still without chairs and without instruments.

OMER NZOYISABA: We had no instruments. It was about our voices only.

WARNER: Omer Nzoyisaba is a percussionist. He used to play traditional music at Burundian weddings. Next to him is a bassist accustomed to playing in nightclubs. Another exile is a guitarist who performed in international hotels.

NZOYISABA: We started to sing and we had an idea to form a group.

CHRISTIAN NINTERETSE: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: Christian Ninteretse is the R&B singer you heard. He says the band, called Melodika, was created so they could eat, but it's become something much more.

NINTERETSE: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: So you were just friends, but then because of problems, you became a family?

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: Yeah. (Laughter).

MELODIKA: (Singing in foreign language).

WARNER: Melodika now performs around Rwanda using borrowed guitars and drums. When I visited their house, they took me back to their beginnings - just kitchen supplies and voices.

MELODIKA: (Singing in foreign language).

WARNER: The members of Melodika refuse to talk politics. They said their message is one of unity - ethnic unity, regional unity. That's why their playlist can follow an urban love song, like the last one, with this traditional homesick lament.

MELODIKA: (Singing in foreign language).

WARNER: Omer Nzoyisaba says this song is called "Yes, Mama."

NZOYISABA: Tell them that I'm alive, tell them that I'm missing them. Go to see around if everything is good at my home. It's like this, yeah.

WARNER: When do you think you'll get to play your music in Burundi?

NZOYISABA: If Burundi come, good...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We just pray for Burundi.

NZOYISABA: We are Burundian, and we love our country.

WARNER: They pray for Burundi. Like all exiles, they hope for a chance to return home. But they also hope to continue this journey, to collect funds to make an album and travel the world with their music. This is Burundi's new sound, they say with the confidence of stars. It's just one that took a crisis to create. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Kigali.

MELODIKA: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.