Interview: The Good Ones @ Womad (July 2014)

When you meet their dark, deep and imperturbable gazes for the first time, you can’t avoid locking your eyes with them; to stare, wordless, at them. Their expressive eyeballs are able to narrate a story which not even an in-depth one hour interview can disclose.

They tell a story that goes back 20 years, when the lives of the 4 members of The Good Ones and the ones of millions of Rwandan people dramatically changed for good. The Rwandan genocide, which caused the death of more than a million among Tutsi, Hutu and Twa people, it is an indelible scar which marks all the survivors, independently from their origins.

Today, the East African country is trying to expiate, to wash away its mortal sin, also through the support of music. Rwandan artists have started to tour the world again and perform on renowned stages. It is not by coincidence if, on the 20th anniversary of the genocide, a Rwandan band has played at WOMAD. The Good Ones released their first record 5 years ago, thanks to the invaluable help of Ian Brennan. “Kigali Y’Izahabu”, which translated sounds Kigali of gold, is a simple and straightforward cross section of the 4 genocide survivors’ life. But, never before their WOMAD gig, they have crossed the Rwandan borders. They have never travelled abroad nor taken a plane. This anomalous innocence would be enough to perk up one’s ears, but it is not the only point of interest behind their significant story.

The Good Ones are also exceptional artists, who recall tragic events and their emotional overcoming through a unique music style so artisanal and local that is inimitable. On stage they use elementary and improvised instruments like an acoustic guitar or the soles of shoes, they exclusively sing in Kinyarwanda (the Rwandan language) and they play their “homegrown” music born in the streets of Kigali and mirroring the everyday life of the Rwandan capital. However, they are able to transmit universal messages both to their Rwandan countrymen and to a heterogeneous audience like the WOMAD one.

As they told us during a revealing interview after their performance: “we can do so because we never think back to the genocide. We don’t even want to think about it. We just want to look forward, to transmit peace to people, love and a sense of togetherness”. Music has deeply helped them to get far ahead from that period. Every time they talk about the subject, their lost in thought eyes suddenly shine and their expression cheers up: “when we sing, when we play our instruments, we are finally free. Thanks to the music we play, we have finally come to terms with our past and we have the chance to spread our renewed zest for life to our audience”.

But music has also helped them to change the course of their career. As they underline: “the genocide ruled out our hopes. During that period, we lost our job as teachers, we had also been forced to stop playing our music”. Mercifully, after those bloody months music gave them the strength to gather together again: “We eventually decided to reunite and to call our new group The Good Ones because we would be an example for Rwandan people. In addition, without our music we won’t be here in U.K. today”.

They consider their WOMAD gig as the heyday of their career, but also a new starting point: “When we landed in London we have quickly realised that our country is far behind Western world and that our experience is just a drop in the ocean: we still have to learn many things. Thankfully, something has recently changed in Rwanda, something is moving: for example, we have never had the chance to travel abroad before this concert”.

They also describe their first flight experience as one of the most important of their life which, despite themselves, have connected them with the genocide once again: “Before taking our flight we were excited and frightened at the same time because we have never flown before, but we suddenly remembered that few days before the genocide commenced, our President fell victim of a rocket attack which blew up his plane”.

Recalling their words, something has lately changed in Rwanda. The situation, during the last years, is deeply improved, but is still a work in progress. Their opinion on the matter is bittersweet because “everything is in the hands of the governments, the country’s leadership. Now, we can see that something has changed: you can feel it. But it is still at the mercy of the people who have the power. Luckily it seems that they finally want Rwanda to obtain freedom from want, to eradicate poverty”.

Arts, and music in particular can encourage this radical change: “music is really important in this transition, not just because it lightens up people’s soul, and it can help us to forget our troubles, but it is also an earning potential and can redeem lives economically too”.

The Good Ones love to consider their example once more: they started from scratches, also playing makeshift instruments like cans, pieces of wood and farm wire, and now they have reached a globally renowned stage.

“We like to show people that everybody can play music and everybody can also make music from anything. On stage we play soles of the shoes; our first guitar was put together with a trash can and a stick while its strings were banana leaves and wire hanger. In this way we would show people that even if you have nothing, you can make big things”.

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