I first met Sambi T mid last year, when he and another soldier-musician popularly known as Sgt. Robert stopped by The New Times offices to drop off their latest single at the time. The song was called Cheka, which is Swahili for ‘smile’.
After the interview, all I could remember was Sambi T’s smiley, jovial face which made him look like an adolescent in military fatigue.
Sambi T and Sgt. Robert are both Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) soldiers in different capacities but that’s not all; they are also members of the Army Jazz Band, which is basically the entertainment wing of the army.
However, the two also have their own music group called Kama Jeshi Family, with two albums to the band’s name.
Last week Sambi T again came around at The New Times, this time alone. He had come to drop off his latest single, Ibohoka, a solo project.
We had no appointment so it was a sweet co-incidence that he came and found me around. Otherwise another reporter could have taken the interview just as well.
As usual he still maintained his smiley face and clad in his military fatigue went about greeting people in the newsroom without any ‘airs.’
Once you settle down for a chat, Sambi T immediately strikes you as a rapper. His speech is accompanied by gestures and he has a certain rhythm to his speech patterns. Sometimes he bobs his head while he explains a point.
This is what he does as he explains the meaning of his latest single – Ibohoka:
“Ibohoka is like to liberate. When you have trouble or problems or stress or are bored and I sing you relax and start to forget all of your problems,” he starts.
He mostly composes his songs based on memories of situations he has gone through in the past:
“I faced many problems and sorrows but like an artist I chose to be a happy man despite my problems and to advise my friends who are in a similar situation to be happy as well. In this song what I am trying to say is that in this life we have many troubles but today let us really forget it and be happy and dance because I think you understand that life is so short.”
He has been recording songs at different studios in Rwanda since 2002, and has four albums to his name.
Prior to that, his family had relocated to Dar es Salaam and it’s actually from there that he had his first recording stint in a music studio as a student and aspiring musician.
Upon his return to Rwanda in 2003 he joined the Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) where he was immediately offered a place in the Army Jazz Band, a place he has protected zealously up to today.
Under the Kama Jeshi Family with Sgt. Robert the duo have two albums; Weekend, and Army Coup.
And perhaps as a clear nod of approval from his superiors in the army, the RDF actually owns the rights to the Army Coup album.
He also has a few other collaborations with regional artists such as Big Farious and Arida from Burundi, and AY from Tanzania.
Music and the army
“You know what, to be a soldier is real work like any other work, the way you are a journalist and you do your work here in The New Times and then you may have your other talent too. So for me I am a soldier and I am an artist. I can sing and pass across an important message because I have the talent,” he explains.
“Even in the army we have other talents too. Soldiers can sing, they can play football, they can run. I am in the army jazz band and that is a department in the army which is specifically created for artists. We play many instruments in the band as well.”
And his music is not limited to just the army jazz band:
“I am available for performances at private events. All I have to do is ask for permission from my commanders because I have to go out there and communicate a message to the young generation. It’s another way of getting the soldiers to be near to civilians and to show them that much as we are soldiers we are also human like you.”
So how does it feel being a musician on top of a career in the military?
“Brother, I told you already music is my talent. Music is not just what I do. Music is my life. I love music brother. I love music and music is my talent.
I studied music in the army. But even before this I was already an artist because I was composing and singing my own songs. That’s why I can’t tell you that I love music because I studied it. I love music because music is me. It is the channel through which I pass to tell the people what I think, what I feel or what I see in the world.
That is why I love music because I have many things that I can tell not just Rwandans but even the world. Like a soldier I have many things that I can share with them, I have many things that I have seen myself that nobody has seen so I can try to explain such things through my songs.”
Which is harder – music, or army?
Here he chooses to go a bit philosophical:
“Everything is hard in this world, even to eat is really hard and I think you know that. So I can’t really tell you anything.”
After a long pause he carries on:
“To be a soldier is really hard. It’s not like being a civilian. There you have to secure your life but also that of other civilians and then you have to protect your nation.
As you know, today our mandate has stretched beyond our borders as we now even protect nationals of other countries through peace-keeping missions. So it’s really not easy.
But even music is hard, to compose something and build it into a meaningful song is not easy, but of course it’s not hard like being a soldier and I love it.”
Sambi T is well aware of the admiration that young Rwandans have for people in military service like him, but he has a word of advice for those that would like to take the next logical step:
“To be a good soldier you need discipline, you have to be physically fit, and third is to be patriotic which means love your country.
Young people who want to join the army are welcome if they meet the requirements. We are Rwandan and we have to protect ourselves. It will not be the youth in Tanzania or in the US to come here and protect us. The foundation of this country is security and I think that this country was in so much trouble just twenty two years ago. We got peace because of our soldiers. Without Rwandan soldiers we can’t be anything because we have many enemies as a country.”