Orchestre Impala: The rise, fall and resurrection of Rwanda’s premier band

When you ask most elders about their ideal music experience, majority may fail to narrate a recent one, but will instead take you back to the past.

They would possibly give you a list of popular artistes they listened to but the mention of Orchestre Impala comes up many times because of the fond memories they have of their songs and performances.

68-year-old Joseph Muramira, says: “The story of Orchestre Impala is the easiest one to narrate because how we know them makes it easy for us to tell their story. Probably, someone of my age who does not know Impala might not have been in the country by then. But in a few words, Impala were like the music identity of Rwanda back then.”

Arguably the most popular music band for decades, Orchestre Impala were in the same generation of popular music sensations like Masabo Nyagenzi, Abdul Makanyaga, Rodrigue Karemera and Loti Bizimana as well as big orchestras like Nyampinga, Les Fellows, Umuliri, Ingeli and Abamararungu among others.

Orchestre Impala started in 1975 with five members who included band chief and lead singer Andre Sebanani, drummer Abdul Latif Gasigwa (Tubi Lando), Trumpeter Fidèle Ngenzi (Jakari), guitarist Paul Sebigeri (Mimi la Rose) and composerSoso Mado.

They later recruited pianist Jean Berchmans Semutwa (Semu) and guitarists Jean Pierre Karimunda (Kariwanjenje) and Francois Rubangura (Maître Lubangi).

The whole idea of founding Orchestre Impala is built around Sebigeri and Sebanani after a few days of doing music together. The rest of the members left their solo careers and joined in later.

“The first day I met Sebanani, I realised he had an amazing talent. He was already doing good music and I convinced him that we could work together. That is where the journey to build Impala started,” says Sebigeri, one of the band founders.

Sebigeri, 64, and trumpeter Fidèle ‘Jakari’ Ngenzi, are the only living members of the Ochestre Impala, and part of the new band. The rest passed on including lead singer Andre Sebanani, who was killed during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

Each of the members, including the guitarist, trumpeter, drummer, pianist, composers and singers were unique in their own department and the combination of their talents were key to the band’s rapid rise to stardom in Rwanda and in the region.

“Music is all about exchanging ideas. As long as one comes up with a music draft, we were supposed to support him to better shape it in terms of melody, beat and good language until we agree the final product is worth releasing. You can’t ignore one’s idea if you want to make good music, otherwise the song will never last in people’s memories,” Sebigeri says.

One year later, they rented a house in Nyamirambo, after they decided to live together so that they could put their music aspirations together. Their union and the love that they had for music put them above other artistes and won the hearts of the public whenever their songs played on radio or performed at concerts.

They may have produced many songs which gained popularity among their audience but, according to Sebigeri, Ni Nde Undirije Umwana, and Nkumbuye Umwana Twareranywe, played a big part in sealing their identity as the most popular band.

“I will not forget how Burundians loved the two songs. It became compulsory for the band to perform them whenever we were in Burundi, otherwise our performance without both songs would make no sense to them,” he says.

Orchestre Impala were the only group of artistes who had their own studio, with audio and video production. Other artistes had to go to record their songs at Radio Rwanda’s exclusive studio.

In general, they produced more than 200 songs released on 15 tapes. They sold out countless tapes through the then music distributing house, Musique Fabrique.

A tape then, cost Rwf1000 and 30 per cent of each sold tape had to be deposited on the band’s bank account.

 “From my own experience, Impala was the best and most popular in Rwanda. They had enjoyed their career and had won people’s hearts for many years. Everywhere they performed, the venue would be packed because of their songs plus their live performance that caught people’s attention,” says Sudi Mavenge, a Karahanyuze artiste.

A story is told of a man who fell unconscious from a tree-branch as he fought to catch a glimpse of the band performing live in a Kibungo suburb. The audience were not aware of the incident as they had their hearts on the performance.

The year 1976 is a remarkable and unforgettable one for Sebigeri. He experienced the best moments of his music career while performing in Bujumbura.

“We have had lots of memorable dedications thanks to our music, but I will never forget the day thousands of people, including top officials, flocked the venue when we performed at Bujumbura Airport. It is and will always be my best experience of my whole music career,” he recalls.

“Sometimes I meet people and I hear them saying their parents gave them my name [Mimi la Rose] at birth, because they loved our music. That makes me feel emotional and I realize that our music touched people’s hearts,” he says.

Impala became so popular that they would get plenty of invitations for performances to the point that each of the band members would get at least Rwf15,000, or more, from weekly performances.

“That was a huge sum during that time,” Mimi says, adding, “We never imagined that we would make big sums of money because we never thought of doing it in a business context but for amusement. Our best moment was seeing people enjoy our music and we later realized that we had an opportunity to make a fortune from our different talents,” he says.

The band’s fame later led them to perform in European countries like France, Belgium and Germany as well as in Canada.

The fall

Music was an extra hobby for musicians of their generation rather than business as it is the case with modern music because they were doing it with passion and love. Most of them had other incomes from other jobs.

But the day they realized that their music was bringing them more money than their monthly wages, some members started thinking about it in the business context and SosoMado was the first to do so.

He released some songs in 1986 without communicating to his colleagues and earned a lot of money from it. The rest of the orchestra members were disappointed and although he apologized, he was pardoned but on condition that each of the members are allowed to record and sell their own music.

However, because each one of them was focusing on doing their own music, the orchestra ended up splitting up into two groups.

According to the orchestra status granted in 1978, majority of the members had the right to own the orchestra. As a result, Andre Sebanani, Mimi la Rose, Tubi Lando and Fidèle Ngenzi remained with Impala while Soso Mado formed his own band ‘Inyana Ni iya Mweru’

Orchestre Impala’s popularity starting declining in 1996, having lost some of their leading stars like Andre Sebanani who was killed during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi while Kari Wanjenje and Jean BerichmasSemutwa (known as Semu) died immediately after that.

Comeback

Three years later, a one Dieudonné Munyanshoza, popularly known for his Genocide commemoration songs, showed interest in reviving the Orchestra due to the love he had for it, after he met Sebigeri in 1999 at a wedding ceremony.

He approached him with the idea of helping to revive the band, but Sebigeri was no longer interested in a musical comeback. It took Munyanshoza 14 years, to convince the remaining members of the Impala Orchestra to support his idea to relaunch the band.

“Impala was the orchestra of my dream since I was young. The love I had and still have for their songs inspired me to bring it back to the entertainment scene. I am now proud that I am part of the Orchestra I supported and loved since my young age and I really enjoy every single minute of the performance with my band members,” he says.

The new Orchestre Impala comprises of 17 members, led by Munyanshoza and Sebigeri. Majority of the band’s new members have been performing Igisope, (folk music) while the band also recruited younger talents to contribute to the success of the band.

“There is no better pride than performing live, alongside the most popular band of the old days. It is an honor and a chance I cannot afford to miss as I keep learning a lot from my grandfather,” says 20 year-old Christian Semanzi, Sebigeri’s grandson.

Four years on, the band is on its journey to re-establish themselves as the most entertaining orchestra that people used to experience on the music scene.

“I took time to study Munyanshoza before approving his wish and I found out that he was a nice guy to work with. I have faith in each and everyone in the band that their talents can be instrumental in turning things around and regain the fame we used to have,” Sebigeri says.

The rebranded Impala has so far produced five songs, including a wedding song Urugo ni urwa Babiri, Amahoro Meza, Komeza Imihigo, which they performed in support of President Paul Kagame during last year’s presidential campaigns, and Umuhanzi Ntazima, a tribute song to the band’s former lead singer Andre Sebanani, who was killed during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

Prior to their revival, the band was invited to perform in Mozambique and Zambia while they have weekly performances at Fantastic Restaurant every Thursday and Sunday, Lemigo Hotel every Friday, and at Plus 9 (Nyamirambo) every Saturday.

They are also planning to renovate the Orchestra’s old songs’ visuals.

“Many of the songs that Impala released in the past years have lost their originality in terms production, especially the videos. We are planning to shoot new videos for them but we will not change the originality of the song,” says Munyanshoza.

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