Prestige Band's old man of the Saxophone touches base in Kigali

I spent a greater part of Thursday August 28 night at Kigali Serena Hotel. All I wanted was to catch a bit of the action from Prestige Band, the resident entertainment group.
Lead singer, Prudence, sings at Serena. (Moses Opobo)
Lead singer, Prudence, sings at Serena. (Moses Opobo)

I spent a greater part of Thursday August 28 night at Kigali Serena Hotel. All I wanted was to catch a bit of the action from Prestige Band, the resident entertainment group. 

I had first seen them perform at The Manor Hotel’s poolside about a month ago, from where we exchanged contacts.

When I called Steve Mureithi, the group’s keyboardist for this interview that Thursday morning, he informed me that they no longer held gigs at The Manor, but that, I could catch them at the Kigali Serena, which is just what I did.

Besides Steve, there is Prudence, who is the group’s lead singer and Elliots Adwong’a, who is by far the most senior and experienced member of the trio. Indeed, he cuts a rather fatherly figure over the other two. Elliots plays the saxophone and guitar, but by his own admission, the Saxophone is his favorite musical instrument.

Prudence plays no musical instrument on stage, so obviously expect most of the singing to come from her.

All three hail from Kenya, their native country, from where at least two of them cut their musical teeth.

Together as the Prestige Band, they have been in Rwanda eight months now, and they perform strictly on contract: at the Kigali Serena, Kigali City Tower (food court and Nakumatt), and at the Royal Car Wash, in Kimihurura.

Learning the trade

At 64 years of age, Elliots Adwong’a is the most skilled and experienced member, and indeed head of the band.

“The Saxophone is my favorite instrument,” he declares proudly and with finality, before blowing away torrents of sound into the mouthpiece of his favorite Tenor Saxophone. In fact, the most appropriate title for him in musical terms is that of “saxophonist”.

Otherwise, he also plays the guitar, his second instrument of choice, which incidentally was the first for him to learn.

That was way back, in 1962, when he was a small boy living with his uncle in Tanzania.

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Elliots Adwong’a is the head of the band. (Moses Opobo)

“However”, he is quick to add, “it was a home-made guitar which I fabricated myself and which I only played in hiding because my uncle was completely opposed to it.”

Incidentally, his uncle was a big fan of music himself, particularly live band music, and indeed, on a few weekends, brought bands to play for him privately at home. At the time, Adwong’a worked as a shoe maker in his uncle’s small shoe shop, for which he earned a small wage.

“I used whatever money my uncle gave me to befriend the musicians by buying cigarettes for them.” In exchange for the cigarettes, he was exposed to the basics of strumming a guitar, and later, the saxophone.

“We would hide in a room to do this, because my uncle was totally against it. Although he loved music himself, he did not want me to get involved at a tender age. In fact, I can say that I developed my music career in secrecy.”

Moving to Uganda

The guitar “was a nice thing to learn because it enabled me to get a job in the Uganda Prisons Service Band in 1968,” he recalls fondly, adding: “Together with Eddie Ganja, who played for the Cranes Band at that time, we were the best guitarists in the country.”

He mentions other formidable guitarists in the country at the time: Moses Matovu, and Charles Sekyanzi, both with the Cranes Band at the time, and later the Afrigo Band. Sekyanzi has since passed on, but Matovu is still with the Afrigo Band, where he plays the saxophone.

Prudence

She nursed musical ambitions from when she was a little girl growing up in her home town of Mombasa, in Kenya. “I don’t remember having any musical influences in the house, but all the same I used to sing to myself at home. One day, I went to a recording studio (Ufuoni Records, in Mombasa), where I found a rapper recording a hip-hop song. I was asked if I could voice the chorus for him, and I just went and free-styled. I remember I was still in college at that time.”

In 2010, she auditioned for the fourth edition of the popular reality TV music talent show, Tusker Project Fame, but sadly, did not make it to the list of finalists.

She tried her luck the following year, and this time, was lucky to make it to the prestigious Tusker Project Fame academy, in Nairobi.

She may have lasted only two weeks in the house, but Prudence is forever grateful for the experience, which she credits for shaping her for the future she is living today.

After TPF, she recorded two singles; Shuka, and Wanaume.

“Before recording my second single, I worked briefly with Steve in Mombasa, and indeed I credit him for introducing me to the live band scene,” she explains.

Steve says: “We had this popular band in my home town, in central Kenya. It was called the Beavers. After watching a few of their performances, I decided it was exactly what I wanted to do.”

One day, he simply walked up to one of the band members and begged to be taught how to play a few musical instruments. He was lucky to be taken in as a young apprentice, and “that’s how I was introduced to the live band scene.”

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Rehearsal session at home in Kinamba. (Moses Opobo)

Armed with performance contracts from a few Kigali hospitality service providers, the trio travelled down to Kigali eight months ago, and today, they are happily doing what they do best.

Being a cover band, they mostly do renditions of popular songs, and the usual suspects are; country music, old classics, pop, blues, love ballads, funk and jazz, and what Steve fondly refers to as “grill music”, which Prudence describes as “soft music for a dinner setting.”

That’s not all, as they seem to basically do a combination of Western and African music, only varying the two according to the nature of the crowd.

At the Serena hotel, which are rather high-end, one is likely to encounter a more Western musical influence, or “music for a dinner setting”, while at Car Wash, expect anything Afro-centric, and not necessarily from Rwanda. Yes, they do belt out a few catchy Rwandan pop songs, and they do it well, for a band comprised entirely of foreigners.

However, Adwong’a bemoans the fact that the Saxophone has not yet made its entry on the Rwandan live music scene. “There is no Saxophone player here,” he gripes, adding: “I think Rwandan music needs to combine with a few brass instruments like saxophones and trumpets.”

In 1969, while working as a guitarist with the Uganda Prisons Band, he travelled to DR Congo (then Zaire) for musical apprenticeship with the Negro Success Band. He spent one year with the band, under the close tutelage of Bavon Marie-Marie and Bholen Bombo. While in Kinshasa, he also met saxophonist Verkys Veve, guitarists, Dr Nico wa Kasanda, and Luambo Luanzo Makiadi, aka Franco.

Over the years, he also backed up sensational Congolese Soukouss icon Tshala Muana in concerts in Kampala, Nairobi, Blantyre (Malawi), Lusaka (Zambia), and in the Comoros Islands.

He is married to Hellen Adwong’a, who he met in Uganda in 1973 while with the Uganda Prisons Band. He has nine children, fourteen grandchildren, and one great grandchild. One of his grandsons, Rick Otieno is a drummer in Nairobi, while a granddaughter, Fiona Akinyi is a singer, also in Nairobi. Meanwhile, three of his daughters; Sharon, Eva and Sylvia are musicians in Germany.

Returning to Kampala a year later, he returned to his job with the Uganda Prisons Service, until 1975 when he resigned his job to pursue music privately.

Currently, Adwong’a is working on a full Jazz album that will be out sometime next year.

Future plans

Here, Prudence speaks for the group: “We want to immerse ourselves a little more into the local music scene–a contract or two from local bars and clubs …we also plan to record a few songs.”

 

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