Justus Kabarega, 65, can remember vividly the kind of music he used to dance to in the early 80’s. Internationally, this was the time love ballads by the likes of Lionel Richie, Mariah Carey, the late Whitney Houston, the late Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, among a host of other musicians of that genre, ruled the airwaves.
The soul music too was in vogue at this time and top performers in this genre included the Atlantic Starr, Kenny Burke, Cherrelle, Howard Johnson and the deep voiced Barry White.
The East Africa musical scene was also enjoying a musical explosion with Tanzania’s Simba WaNyika group of Wilson Peter Kinyonga, George Peter, ZoloSaidi thrilling their fans with music such as Sikujua Utabadilika.
If Simba WaNyika was the king of the rest of East Africa music at that time, in Rwanda, it was the Orchestre Impala.
“Everywhere you went you could listen to Orchestre Impala compositions since people really loved their songs. My favourite song was Anita which I still enjoy listening even now. This was when music was music, not the kind of songs that the younger generation listens to now,” Kabarega recalls.
He adds that Orchestre Impala travelled extensively around the region and their songs took the country by storm, since they would be at all times on radio, TV and in every bar.
“People across this region came to like Orchestre Impala, and they could sing their lyrics along as if it were their own national anthems,” he adds.
The Orchestre Impala was established in 1974 and the group became increasingly popular in early 80s for its distinctive and eclectic style, fusing the elements of traditional Rwandan music with a bit of Democratic Republic of Congo’s Rumba, together with other genres of African music.
The group was originally composed of seven members; André Sebanani (Pepe la Rose), Jean-Félix Gasasira (Soso Mado), Paul Sebigeri (Mimi la Rose), Abdallatif Gasigwa (Toubi Lando), François Rubangura (Maître Rubangi) Jean-Pierre Kalimunda (Kali wa Njenje) and Fidèle Ngenzi (Fidèle la Jacard).
Later the orchestra recruited an eighth member called Jean-Berechimas Semu (Semu wa Semu) who died a few years later.
However, the cruel hand of death robbed Orchestre Impala of four of its members during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, stilling the crooning voices that had once entertained the people around the region.
“It was unfortunate to lose members of such a successful band during the Genocide. With its four founder members dead, Impala was not the same again,” recalls Faustin Hakizimana, 59.
Among the four included André Sebanani, who was the front man of Orchestre Impala. He is remembered for his famous hits, such as Mama Munyana and Urabaruta, among others.
“His song Mama Munyana still evokes nostalgic memories in me about this group,” says Hakizimana.
The remaining two original members are Paul Sebigeri and Fidèle Ngenzi.
“The rest of our members who died during the Genocide are still fresh in our minds and very much alive in our music. We had to pick ourselves through that traumatic period of losing them and keep their memories alive,” says Sebigeri.
Sebigeri adds that unlike current generation of music where what it takes to record a song is a simple visit to the studio, back then, music was a passion drawn from the heart and all they produced appealed to all generations.
Bruce Mutumwa, 36, remembers that he used to go with his parents wherever the band was playing when he was still young, and he’s still able to enjoy their songs even now.
I still follow Impala wherever they are performing and I make sure I go with my family. Their music has that evergreen messages and can be danced by everyone, age notwithstanding,” says Mutumwa.
Orchestre Impala reincarnated itself in 2012 with Sebigeri and Ngenzi recruiting new members to carry on the legacy of one of the biggest musical initiatives in Rwanda’s history.