In 1997, three years after the Genocide against the Tutsi, many Rwandans were looking for emotional healing; some were stranded not knowing what to do next, while others were looking for ways to earn a living in a bruised economy.
Somewhere in Kimisagara, a group of youth noticed a need: the society was very broken and something had to be done to foster healing.
They decided to contribute in rather a spectacular way- sounding an alarm – shouting out with youthful vigor by doing music that praises God and tells people that there is hope despite what had happened to them.
These are the humble beginnings of Alarm Ministries, one of the largest Gospel Music groups in Rwanda.
23 years down the road, they have about 400 songs to their name, have sung to audiences in Kenya, Burundi, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo; and have scooped both local and regional music awards.
Alarm Ministries choir during celebrations to mark their 23rd anniversary last week. / Courtesy
These are no trivial achievements for a group that was founded by 15 youths between the ages of 18 and 25 years at such a time when the country knew little about choral ministries; not mentioning the fact that the political atmosphere itself had not completely calmed.
Last week, the choir celebrated 20 years in a well-attended concert at Camp Kigali. Presently, it might not make headlines for them to have a fully packed venue, but back in the day, it would have.
According to Charles Mazeze, head of the group, one of the main challenges they faced in the early days was rejection from both the church hierarchy and community.
Their idea of starting an independent choir was opposed by Restoration Church where most of them used to go for prayers at that time,
“We tried to talk to the leadership of the church but they did not really understand the idea of going out of the church and start a choir. At that time, choirs used to belong to churches, and it was rare to see an independent choir. So our idea was opposed,” Mazeze explains.
“We had gotten a bigger vision to make a larger platform that would connect us with other churches and countries and other organizations. We wanted to do big things.”
Between 1997 and 1998, they sang in Restoration Church, but later in 1999, they took a decision to move out and start Alarm Ministries officially, a decision that would soon be hit by stern outcomes.
Barely five months after they had moved out, a hard occasion struck – one that made some of them cry.
“As the year 2000 was approaching, there was a big conference at Amahoro Stadium, and many Rwandans were gathered. We took to the stage to sing, only to be yelled off the platform by the crowds before we could finish the second song,” Mazeze recollects.
Alarm Ministries have over 400 songs to their name. / Courtesy
“People were blaming us for leaving Restoration church. We were looked at as rebellious children. We went off the stage, and Apostle Gitwaza got us a bus to take us to back Kimisagara. We went crying.”
This was not the end of the pain. The following week, they went to Gikondo to sing but were barred from singing.
“They told us: “We will not allow you here. You are scandalous,” he recalls.
The ordeal continued for some time. Mazeze says that sometimes they would even meet people in the streets who told them about how wrong their decision was.
Such a challenge was coupled with a lack of experience to run the group. They were young people, who did not know so much about leadership,
“We knew we had work to do but we did not have the expertise. We were young. Some had just finished high school.”
The situation would later start getting better.
Gradually, the church and society started to embrace them again, partly due to the way they behaved in different events where they got a chance to sing.
“When we used to go to minister in a place, we behaved well and the people started noticing that we had respect for God,” he says.
Around 2006, they returned to Restoration Church and talked with the church hierarchy, and agreed on working together.
In 2009, they registered as a non-government organization and expanded their work to even working with big organizations to deliver assistance to people in need.
The singing ministry rose. Their 2015 album “Hari Impamvu” was one of their big hits and had a large audience. They launched it both in Rwanda and in Kenya. They went on to become a famous choir in the country,
“To date, we have a big challenge of receiving many invitations that are difficult to handle. In one week we can have ten invitations,” Mazeze says.
The group has recorded about 11 albums and has over 400 songs, some of which are not included in the albums.
Mazeze delights in the fact that they have impacted Gospel music in the country, and have been mentors to upcoming gospel music groups,
“We have had a great impact on the gospel scene in Rwanda. Other groups that have come after we learn from us about music, how to organize concerts, and other things. I can say we are mentors,” he says.
Alarm Ministries have won two Groove awards for the best choir in the country, one Salax award, one Jamafest (for East Africa), and last year their song TurakomeyeNtidutsindwa was awarded the best song in the country.
Mazeze says that their songs are used in churches in Rwanda, Burundi and also in other countries where there are churches that use Kinyarwanda or Kiswahili, for example, America, Canada, Australia, and Tanzania.
The group now has plans to build headquarters worth 4 Billion Rwandan Francs. They hope to do this in 5 years. They also want to build a music school, something that they have started working on.
“We started constructing a school in Karongi, and is now at beam level. We want to roof it. We want to include in it a department of music, among other disciplines,” he says.
And, they want to leave a legacy, so, they are planning to start Alarm Junior, a team of young singers that will take over from them – since they are growing older.