Jules Bonheur Icyoyitungiye, aka Jules Sentore, 29, a blossoming traditional music artist, was in his mother’s womb when his parents were hit by a speeding car. His father died instantly. The young couple had been on a leisurely walk in Bujumbura, Burundi.
It took long for his mother, then three-months pregnant, to recover. The youngster was taken in by his doting grandfather, late traditional music icon Athanase Sentore; a man he continues to adoringly call “papa.” Last year, his mother also passed on after an illness.
Last week, the singer was in DR Congo capital, Kinshasa, during the launch of the inaugural flight there of national carrier, RwandAir. He talked to The New Times’ James Karuhanga about his music journey, his affectionate and supportive extended family, and what fans should expect soon. One of his upcoming projects is a unique concert dubbed ‘Inganzo Yaratabaye.’
In a few words, who is Jules Sentore?
My real name is Jules Bonheur Icyoyitungiye. But my stage name is Jules Sentore, a name I was given by [the late] Sentore Athanase, when I participated in a Genocide commemoration song, Twibuke Twiyubaka, some time back. We shot a video, and every artiste was required to have their names on it. So they asked Sentore for my name and he told them: ‘because he impressed me I give him my name; call him Jules Sentore.’ That’s how I got the name Jules Sentore. It was in 2009, during the 15th commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi. I was born on October 10, 1989. I have one sister.
Tell us the story of your music journey. Is your musical talent inborn, or was it nurtured…?
As a child, I was raised in Sentore’s household just like all his other grandchildren who he taught Rwandan culture. I started being taught how to dance at the age of five. At seven I was taught my first ikyivugo [heroic poem]. My grandfather wrote it for me himself. Since we are a family of cultural dancers and singers, everyone, or every grandchild, would at one point live and train with Sentore. At first, though, I thought I couldn’t ever sing.
Why did you think you could never sing?
I only used to dance. I would sing very poorly. But, later, I listened to various artistes’ songs, especially Kidum [Burundian musician Jean-Pierre Nimbona] and adored his album. I started memorising and miming his songs. By the age of around 16 or 17, I started singing. But I was then into modern music. One day, I thought; I am singing modern music but I will never really perform to the level of the likes of Usher, or Chris Brown, but I can do traditional music. This was my thinking. Something just snapped and I started thinking traditional music. I realised that I didn’t really know the meaning or origins of R&B, reggae, and all other foreign genres. But I could explain the origins of our traditional music. And that’s how I started getting more involved and enthusiastic. Grandfather accepted me and started teaching me more.
How about your formal education?
I completed high school at Solidarity Academy in Gikondo and later went to ULK [université libre de Kigali] to study finance…
Tell us more about your upbringing.
My father died when I was not yet born. But I cannot say we are uncomfortable because we have a big loving family. We have aunties and uncles. We have a culture-loving family too. People who love culture have had a big positive role in our life and upbringing.
So why study finance?
I really don’t know what to say. What can I say? I don’t know why I did it. I just did it. After high school in 2010 I craved to study music. Things such as sound, vocals and others. I searched for a good music school and realised it was extremely expensive. I found schools in South Africa, England and the USA but they were too expensive and I gave up. But now, music is my only life.
Your latest hits, Diarabi and Sine Ya Mwiza, made an impression. But, first, let’s talk about Diarabi. The word diarabi is foreign; what does it mean and Where does it come from?
Thank you. Diarabi came out of an idea between me and my cousin, a boy I grew up with and trained together in Sentore’s home. But he later joined business and he now lives in Mali where they speak the Bambara language. When he was in Rwanda last year, in February, we went to the studio and decided to do a song. It came out in 2018. I did most of the writing. Then it was three of us; my other younger cousin, called Joel Ruti, then King Bayo or Frank Ishimwe [the cousin in Mali] and me.
Jules Sentore during the interview with James Karuhanga. / Courtesy
How comes Ishimwe has a stage name too? Is he a performer?
Oh yes, he is. He performs sometimes but not so much, career wise. In Diarabi, he sings part two; the second verse [sings] intambwe kuyindi, ntawusiga undi… So our inspiration was that we wanted to sing a song that a large fan base could identify with. Also, we wanted a song that cannot categorically be called a love song or about just normal life, but one that can bring everything together.
What is the meaning of the word Diarabi?
Diarabi means an adored one. Mbife means, I love you.
A love song then?
Not really. Well, it is a song about life in general, because one doesn’t have to sing about a loved one for it to be a love song. An adored or treasured person in this sense is someone you love and they love you back. It doesn’t mean this is my girlfriend, or lover, per say. The song says [sings] ‘aho uzajya nzagukurikira, uramurikira. Nyemerera tujyane…’ We wanted to give hope to people; make them feel that they are not alone in life.
And Sine ya Mwiza?
Sine ya Mwiza is an entirely different case. When the Gakondo [Rwandan traditional music] genre started, there was a person we call the mother of Gakondo.
Interesting. Who is this special lady?
I cannot reveal her name because she has not permitted me to. But people who listen to the song definitely know it is about someone special. This is someone well off but it doesn’t mean one cannot give a gift to such a person. I made a song for her as a special dedication and gift, and called it Sine Ya Mwiza. Her nickname is actuallySine Ya Mwiza.
If she’s known, given the nickname, why don’t you just tell us who she is?
[Laughs] no, I really cannot tell you. But I made a song and surprised her on her birthday. I dedicated it to her. She was touched and I felt that my mission was accomplished. This was in 2015. This is someone who was, in many ways, so helpful and loyal to gakondo music.
Your grandfather Sentore, a person you so often call papa, is a strong personality in your music career. This mysterious Sine Ya Mwizais your second pillar or influencer. Right?
Sine Ya Mwiza is another person with a great role in the development of gakondo music. I am not the only person who she influenced because she is our mother in gakondo.
Djarabi and Sine Ya Mwizaare great hits. One wonders what better songs will come after them. It’s as if you set the bar higher for yourself. Are you really going to produce something bigger, better…?
Thank you. Yes, more and better productions are coming. No doubt about that. As an artiste, when someone says I produced something good, I get challenged. I always strive to make something better than my previous work. My third album will have songs about normal life. There is one project for a very big song and it will really require some good money to produce. We shall do a high quality video. We shall involve different people. So, it will be a song with a big target. I think this is something people should look forward to.
When should fans expect it?
Right now I cannot really say the exact time. But people should know something good is coming. And it will be out, God willing, before a special concert that I am organising.
What kind of concert are we talking about here?
It is a big project in the making and it will happen on July 5. It is a concert called,Inganzo Yaratabaye.
Briefly, the concert is known as the liberation concert. Its theme is inganzo yaratabaye (loosely translated to imply that talent came to the nation’s rescue). When I say that [inganzo yaratabaye], I guess one would perhaps conjure up the war or battle context. But the idea here is all about inkotanyi liberating the country and the fact that during the liberation struggle, many artists contributed immensely when they offered their inganzo [artistic talent]. There were many songs that brought Rwandans, in and outside the country, together. The songs made people know and love their country. Those who were outside the country yearned to see this country where there is plenty of milk and honey. In the songs, we all heard about a country of a thousand beautiful hills, and so on.
We are talking about the liberation era works of Rwandan music icons like Cécile Kayirebwa. Right?
Yes; there is Kamariza, Kayirebwa, Sentore and many others. Those still living and those who passed on.
How did the idea of such a concert come up?
From Sentore’s songs, for example, nearly every region I visited, I already knew something about. Take the case of my song indashyikirwa which was written by Sentore [sings]… ngizo ziraje…indashyikirwa zihuje ingendo..]
Whenever he sung such songs I would get to a place such as Rukari, kwa Nkubito y’imanzi, and others, and know, for example, that Nkubito y’imanzi was a king. He sung about umuyangye wera ibisabo which is also in Nyanza and other places. I knew places because of the songs.
So, to me, all these songs or creations, helped in the liberation of the country. Sentore made those in the country love the country. He made those outside the country yearn for coming home. It all this that I will draw together in the concert, inganzo yaratabaye.
Why are you doing this?
It is one of the things I feel I have to do as an artist. Our musical talent has something to offer or contribution to the nation. And to any Rwandan, there is a message and teaching we provide.
Our talent doesn’t necessarily have to offer something or liberate the nation by means of a war of guns and bullets but ours comes through good ideas. We envision a progressive Rwanda with united and peaceful inhabitants. Ingazo, to me, means a creation or art, an individual artistic creation. And giving back to our society is a bit of what gakondo should do.
What, to you, is the meaning of gakondo?
Gakondo is deeper than traditional because quite often another word must be added to it to make it clearer. Gakondo is the uniqueness of a country’s society and culture which other countries usually don’t have. We find gakondo in the way traditional music is sung. The way Rwandans of the past sung and danced is different from other cultures. Many attributes of our gakondo culture in terms of entertainment cannot be found elsewhere. These are in form of our dance and songs. In other countries, for example, people shake the hips when dancing. But in Rwanda, we use the whole body, starting from the hair down to the toes. All this uniqueness is our gakondo.