ALBUM/Dominic Valonva

The Good Ones ‘Rwanda…You See Ghosts, I See Sky’
(Six Degrees Records) 8th April 2022

Once more returning to the rural farmlands of a genocide scarred Rwanda, producer polymath Ian Brennan presses the record button on another in-situ, free-of-artifice and superficial production. The fourth such album of unimaginable stirred grief, heartache and reconciliation from the country’s nearest relation to American Bluegrass, The Good Ones latest songbook arrives in time to mark the 28th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide in the mid-90s; a 100 days of massacre, the fastest ever recorded of its kind in the 20th century with the true figures disputed but believed to be around the million mark.

Triggered, its argued even to this day, by a history of tribal warfare, insurrection, civil war, foreign interventions and the assassination of the then president Juvénal Habyarimana, the events of that three month period in 1994 saw a sudden death cull, ethnic cleansing of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority at the hands of the majority Hutus: though even moderate Hutus, along with Rwanda’s third main tribe the Twa were also far from safe, with many caught-up, trapped in the ensuing bloodbath.

Barbaric beyond any semblance to humanity, victims were brutalized, raped, cut to ribbons or herded together in buildings, churches, and schools and burnt alive. Unlike so many previous genocides however, most of those victims were murdered by hand with machetes, rudimental tools, weapons and gallons of Kerosene. No family was left untouched, with both The Good Ones dual roots vocalist set-up of Adrien Kazigira and Janvier Havugimana both losing loved ones, siblings and relatives.

On the remote hilltop farm where he was born and still continues to work, but record too, Adrien managed to hide and survive. But Janvier lost his older brother, a loss felt considerably by the whole trio who looked up to him as an early musical mentor. As a healing balm all three members, including the as yet unmentioned Javan Mahoro, all represent one of Rwanda’s main three tribes: Hutus, Tutsi and Twa. And so bring each culture together in an act of union, therapy and as a voice with which to reconcile the past.

Instantly drawn to the band during a research trip in 2009, Ian recorded their debut international album and the subsequent trio of records that followed: 2015’s Rwanda Is My Home, 2019’s Rwanda, You Should Be Loved, and now in 2022, Rwanda…You See Ghosts, I See Sky. Ian’s wife and longtime partner on both this fourteen-year recording relationship and countless other worldly projects, the filmmaker, photographer, activist, writer Marilena Umuhoza Delli was the one to instigate this Rwanda field trip. Marilena’s mother herself ended up immigrating for refuge to Italy, her entire family wiped out..

In between numerous productions in dangerous and traumatized spots (from Mali to Cambodia and Kosovo) the partners recorded the fourth volume of Glitterbeat Records Hidden Musics series in Rwanda (back in 2017); bringing the incredible stirring songs, performances of the country’s Twa people (or pygmy as they’re unfortunately known; bullied and treated with a certain suspicion by others) to a wider audience.

Back again on Adrien’s farm and haven, this quintet was reunited to record a thirty-song session. Already receiving accolades aplenty in the West, working with an enviable array of admirers, from Wilco to TV On The Radio, Gugazi, Sleater-Kinney and MBV, it’s extraordinary to think that these earthy harmonic songs were produced in an environment without electricity; music that’s made from the most rudimental of borrowed farm tools in some cases.

The true spirit of diy, raw emotion, The Good Ones speak of both love and the everyday concerns facing a population stunned and dealing with the effects of not only that genocide but the ongoing struggle to survive economically. The album begins on a reflective tone of disarming hope however, with the tinny scrappy cutlery drawer percussive and rustic natty-picking bluegrass leaning, ‘The Darkness Has Passed’. From the outset those beautiful of-the-soil sagacious and honest vocals and harmonies prove moving and powerful. Whilst songs like the Afro-Cuban and bluesy bandy turn ‘Columbia River Flowers’ sound positively romantic; a sentiment that also permeates the almost childlike abandon of ‘Happiness Is When We Are Together’, which sounds not too dissimilar to a sort of African version of Beefheart or Zappa. ‘Berta, Please Sing A Love Song For Me’ is another lovely romantic smooch, which features the Orlando Julius like serenades of the noted NYC saxophonist Daniel Carter.

Often, the outdoors can be heard as an integral, fourth band member, with the farmyard, cowshed gates struck like a percussive metal rhythm, as on the poetically romantic ‘Beloved (As Clouds Move West, We Think Of You)’

Considering the themes of the last three albums, the fourth is said to be the group’s most personal yet. ‘My Son Has Special Needs, But There’s Nowhere For Him To Go’ has a more edgy tone, featuring a sort of post-punk dissonant electric guitar – almost Stooges like – and relates to Janvier’s struggle to get educational assistance for his son who has special needs. ‘My Brother, Your Murder Has Left A Hole In Our Hearts (We Hope We Can Meet Again One Day)’ makes reference to those lost in the genocide, and in this most personal of cases, a sibling but also musical mentor. Again, the sound of the rural escape can be heard, its chorus of chirping birds mingling with a banged tambourine.

Existing almost in its own musical category, its own world, The Good Ones play real raw but also melodic, rhythmic roots music that sways, resonates with vague threads of folk, bluegrass, rock, punk and even a touch of the Baroque. Ian, a man with an enviable catalogue of productions behind him, from every region of the globe, considers Adrien ‘one of the greatest living roots writers in the world, in any language’. That’s some praise; one I’m willing to believe and repeat.

The Rwanda trio expand their sound and bolster their artistic merits to produce another essential album of honest graft, heartache and longing for better times on the most incredible of songbooks.

REVIEW/FEATURE
WORDS: DOMINIC VALVONA




Various  Artists  ‘Hidden Music Volume 4:  Abatwa (The Pygmy): Why Did We Stop Growing Tall?’
Glitterbeat Records,  18th August 2017

Renowned producer (and author of some note) Ian Brennan, yet again probing the furthest, most inhospitable and outright dangerous places in the world to record marginalized voices, journeys to the post genocide borderlands of Rwanda on the latest volume in Glitterbeat Records illuminating Hidden Musics series.

Taking the unmarked, haphazard, road (less traveled) to the edges of Rwanda, avoiding the animosity and embers of vengeance that still burn and remain between the country’s minority Tutsis and majority Hutu communities, Brennan visited and recorded for posterity the Abatwa tribe’s seldom heard lament, anger and incredible soulful, if raw, blues.

Though not directly involved in the ensuing genocide that followed on from the country’s apocalyptic civil war in the mid 90s – officially and despite much skeptical revisionism over the years, this genocide was started by the Hutu and carried out with terrifying savagery upon the Tutsis, the population of which, depending on the source you use, was decimated by up to 70% (that equates to between 500,000 to a million murdered, all within a matter of three months) – the Abatwa both lost around a third of its own tribe and carried out some of the attacks.

If the Abatwa name is remains mostly unknown outside Africa, that’s because, due to their limited growth, we know them better as the ‘Pygmy’. A derogatory name loaded with infamy, yet preferred by the very people it derides, the tribe rather that put-down than (as Brennan puts it) “the official PC mouthful/post-genocidal replacement: The people who were left behind because of the facts of Rwandan history.”

In part, those size limitations have were shaped and made worse by the fact that traditionally the tallest women in the Abatwa attracted outside attention, and were taken as wives by other tribes – one answer to the album’s rhetorical title, “Why Did We Stop Growing Tall?”


Local comedian Simbuvara photo by Marilena Delli




In this environment – described in linear notes with the signature frank, un-PC, highly informative and entertaining Brennan travelogue style – peppered with teenage breakdancers that ‘could out-battle any South Queens sidewalk challenger’, a enervated surreal ‘tag-team lounge duo playing an off-key Bob Marley medley’, and plenty of anecdotes to dispel a rafter of myths and assumptions – the hands-off field recorder finds both inspiring and veracious acts of endurance and survival.


Patrick Manishimine photo by Marilena Delli




There are a number of themes that run through both this, volume four in the series, and the previous three documentations, Hanoi Masters, Khmer Rouge Survivors and Paul Chandler’s phenomenal Every Song Has Its End: Sonic Dispatches From Traditional Mali (all of which made our albums of the year lists): including the saving of traditions and voices of communities under attack from the onslaught of modernism and erosion of cultures outside the mainstream; and drawing attention to the legacy of problems arising from war and insurrection. But there is also similarities sound wise between all four volumes; namely a form of atavistic, primal, and in my opinion the best kind, of blues, that is eerily echoed in what is one of the genres birthplaces, Mali, but can also be found ringing in the deltas of Cambodia.

Sitting in for, and one of the progenitors no doubt to the six-string, are the ragtag assembled instruments of tradition: the one-string ‘Umuduli’ and eleven-string ‘Icyembe’. Practitioners of these two stalwart attenuate instruments can be heard on the scratchy, tangled spring-y Rwanda Nzizza (Beautiful Rwanda) paean by the great soulful voiced Emmanuel Hatungimana, and the caressing, peacefully played Ihorere (Stop Crying Now) duet lament by the wife and husband duo Emmanuel Habumuremy and Ange Kamagaju.

A kind of boxed canoe turn surfboard with strings the icyembe stands almost as tall as those who pluck its reverberating, sharp spindly quiver. It’s umuduli counterpart, both far less cumbersome and mobile, does despite only having the one string and repetitive scratchy twang, provide a suitable, evocative rhythm.


Emmanuel Habumuremy (husband) & Ange Kamagaju (wife) photo by Marilena Delli




Make no mistake; this is performance in its most deconstructive raw form. Devoid of embellishments and overbearing production, recorded in situ with only the rudimentary elements and atmosphere for company, it sounds great.

And so you hear some of the most stripped and revelatory of performances that make their equivalents back in the West sound sterile and bloated in comparison. Artists such as the 19-year-old female rapper Rosine Nyiranshimiyimana who improvises vividly on the stylophone clickety-buzzing sassy, take-it-to-the-yard R&B Umwana W’umuhanda (The Child From The Streets), and the sublime but humble Beatrice Mukarungi, who leads her ‘sons’ on the spiritual chorus plaint Urwanikamiheto (War Song), perform somehow different and askewer fresh takes on the music we find familiar.

Battery powered electronics and rusty, ramshackle dusty instruments come together in hybrids that evoke ritual, the ceremonial but equally the blues, soul and hip-hop; all played with an undeniably emotional Rwandan verve and lilt.

 

Once again Brennan highlights the forgotten musical legacy and voices of a traumatized community – alcoholism and depression rife in their isolated communities; allusions made by Brennan that draw similarities with the pre-casino era American Indian reservations -, recovering in the uneasy truce of one of the 20th century’s worst genocides – and as we are all aware, it had some stiff competition in those stakes.

Hidden Musics has become an unmissable and equally important series; field recordings of hope and recovery in the face of despair.





%d bloggers like this: