Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Nov 2nd 2010 2:30PM by Steve Hochman
"It was like a scene from a movie," he says.
And as in a movie, he just had a feeling about these two men. Not like a scene from 'The Godfather' or 'High Noon' but something delightful.
"I got this sense," he says. "The kind of sense you get with world-class artists. A vibe or feeling. And this was from 50 feet away – 'Oh, this is the thing.' I didn't know what I was looking for. But this had substance."
Brennan, at that point, had been on a two-week quest in Rwanda to find music that really moved him, something he could record and bring home, ideally, to release. The two men sat down and started singing a song titled 'Sara.'
And Brennan knew that this was it.
"Within 30 seconds, it was even beyond what I had expected," he says of the song, a lament for a young woman who is pregnant and distressed. "The song is quite long, and within a minute I was, 'Man, I wish I was recording this.' Then they're done and I'm communicating with them through a translator. 'We need to record! We need to do something.' And they were like, 'We're not anything. You have to hear us with our real singer.' They said, 'No, oh, no, If we're going to record, we have to do it with our third member.'"
That's just what they did, the very next night, on the back porch at the same house. Brennan was in Rwanda with his wife, Marilena Delli, and her mother, who were shooting 'Rwanda' Mama,' a documentary film on the latter's return for the first time in 30 years to the country where she was born and raised, orphaned at age 7 when her family was wiped out in the 1959 genocide carried out by the Hutu ethnic group against her Tutsi people. Using their video camera's audio elements and a couple of old condenser microphones, he jury-rigged a recording setup – not too different, really, from many things he'd done in the course of a couple decades as an artist, producer (Grammy-nominated albums from Ramblin' Jack Elliot and Peter Case) and charity concert promoter in the very-indie-rock world.
And the now-trio of Jeanvier Havugimana, Stany Hitimana and Adrien Kazigara – collectively known as the Good Ones – started singing and playing, commencing with the same song as heard in their "audition" the night before.
The Good Ones, 'Sara'
Eleven songs later, Brennan had his album. 'Kigali Y' Izahabu,' being released Nov. 9 by the Bloomington, Ind.-based Dead Oceans label (normally home of DIY indie acts), presents exactly what he recorded that day, in the order the songs were played, with just two exceptions.
"They didn't want to do any others, even with prompting," says a sad Brennan. "It was late at night and they had to travel far to this meeting, and it's not easy to travel around the city."
Brennan loved what he heard but wasn't sure what he had until he got home to San Francisco.
"I was almost afraid to listen to it," he says. "But I went to the studio to dump it into ProTools and was beyond pleased and actually shocked. In the process of mixing and shaping a little, it turned out 1,000 times better than it should have."
Brennan would have settled for much less. Before the Good Ones came his way, he'd had a very frustrating time in Rwanda. Fueled by the excitement and anticipation of the prodigal journey with his wife and mother-in-law, he had high hopes for his music explorations. He knew that it wouldn't be easy, given a very specific set of circumstances, but he still believed there were hidden gems to be found.
"There are two components to the music situation that are a little different there," he says. "The first is because of some of the political things that have happened and continue is that they strongly discourage street musicians. And because of the poverty, not many people have instruments to begin with. Originally, I thought we'd go and there would be performers in downtown areas. But nothing of that sort was happening. You go to a big public market and nobody is playing."
Beyond that was what he learned in terms of Rwandan traditions and their place on the regional and world stages: They had none. Little music made in Rwanda has been released outside of Africa, he says, or even outside of Rwanda.
"There's a prejudice against Rwandan music, which I think is unfounded and based on ignorance because the history of exporting music and being able to play is not the priority there," he says. "I've heard this voiced by quote-unquote world music experts in Europe and it fueled my fire even more. They'll say Rwandan music isn't good. To say that about any country in the world is ignorant."
He acknowledges that Rwandan music has been greatly "overshadowed" by neighbors. "Burundi has its drumming tradition and they share a border, and Congo has rich traditions, and with Konono No. 1 more recently. So that all going here made it much harder to find music."
Brennan started searching out music as best he could, finding that there was a lot of underground activity in makeshift studios throughout the capital.
"But almost all of it was mimicking bad Western R&B and hip-hop, with Kinyarwanda lyrics," he says. "We were even there on July 4, which is also their Independence Day, and they had a big music festival that we went to completely by chance. It was interesting and fun, but again almost exclusively groups that were playing basically hip-hop or urban, very commercial music with Kinyariwanda lyrics and dancers."
After listening to "easy 100 artists," Brennan finally met a musician who was doing some things he found much more interesting.
"But basically what he said was, 'I'm nothing. You've got to check these other guys out.' And I said, 'No, I think you're pretty good.' He said, 'No, these are the guys.'"
He was right.
"It's called 'street songs,' worker songs from the street," Brennan said of what the Good Ones brought him. "It's a tradition there. The group is somewhat informal. Not like they're playing and touring. Even for some successful artists there on the radio there are not a lot of outlets for them to perform live. All three of them write, all three sing and play guitar. The majority of the songs were written by Adrien."
Brennan wasn't entirely sure of what he was hearing, of course, as he doesn't speak their language.
"Part of the process was we wanted to get the songs translated," he says. "It's in a dialect, so not just Kinyarwanda, but a dialect that not everyone understands."
Getting the full nuance of the lyrics entailed a bit of a convoluted process in which Brennan's mother-in-law was able to translate the dialect first to Kinyarwandan and then to Italian: As a young woman, she married a former priest who moved her to his native Italy, where Delli was born and raised. Delli then translated the Italian to English.
"When the first translation came, of 'Sara,' it was shocking how great the lyrics were. I figured they were well-written and good. But upon reading them it was incredible, a song about a woman, AIDS-stricken, being banished from the village, so poetically written. Layers of discovery."
Given the inconsistency of Rwandan musical traditions, where did this come from? What were these young men's influences?
"If you ask them, Adrien says Bob Marley, Stany says Santana and Jeanvier says he liks zouk music, a Caribbean style," he says. "The fact that Bob Marley is the first person Adrien talks about makes sense in that there's this social consciousness. And the other thing really amazing about the recording and discovery process beyond the songs being beautiful and that they have this unique way of singing with the interweaving of the voices is that nearly every song on the album is a love song. I knew this because they told me and something like five out of the 12 songs are names of women. That's a very beautiful statement of live that omits the chaos with which they live."
The Good Ones, 'Amagorwa Y' Abagabo'
The chaos of Rwanda was something with which Brennan had become acutely aware of via his wife and mother-in-law – a history shaped by three devastating tribal genocide campaigns since 1959. That all came literally to life for him as they explored the family roots, providing a context for the Good Ones' lives and music as well. More than 90 percent of the country is involved in subsistence agriculture, he says. Transportation is almost entirely by bicycle or foot. Days for most people are spent working in the fields, carrying water and such.
But the story of 'Rwanda' Mama' added personal levels to the landscape.
"Part of the drama that made it even more poignant is that her best friend she had believed had been murdered in the most recent genocide of 1994, she discovered that she was still alive," he says, noting that the film is premiering at the South African Film Festival concurrent with the Good Ones' album release. "There were many layers to the trip, not just going back to the country to see the friend and her family."
And now Brennan has reason to return himself, he hopes in the near future, a continuing mission to bring the Good Ones' music to the world.
"The hope is that we're going to go back some point after the record comes out and work toward hopefully getting the band to tour in Europe and/or the US," he says. "There's some difficulty on both ends of immigration. It's hard to get visas. And Rwanda is conservative about granting visas and passports. The hope is to wait, and if the record has some success we can show to government officials that this is something real."
A portion of proceeds from the album will go to two Rwandan foundations: Stories for Hope and the Kigali Memorial Centre.