The band is currently on the Rwandan leg of their Africa tour to promote their latest album, the 15-track offering, Live And Die In Afrika.
They started off with a handful of performances in their native Kenya in July, before moving to Dar es Salaam the same month.
On 13th August they thrilled their fans in Kampala, Uganda, while yesterday, they brought the tour to their Rwandan fans with a concert that was initially slated for the Kigali Exhibition and Conference Village (Camp Kigali), but that was moved at the very last minute to the Gikondo Expo Grounds.
Apparently organizers made the last minute change in anticipation of a huge crowd turn up, going by pre-event ticket sales.
That tickets were going for Rwf 10,000 (ordinary) and Rwf 800,000 for a VIP table of eight should be testament enough to the band’s huge popularity in Rwanda.
As part of their tour, they will also be touring Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, and Burundi.
Rwanda comes first
Here in Rwanda, as indeed in many other parts of the continent, the band first captured the public’s imagination early last year, with the release of their catchy and arguably biggest hit to date –Nerea, a poignant tribute to responsible fatherhood.
In the song, a man implores his woman to not abort their child, counseling her that when God gives life, he also provides for it.
A while later, in July 2015, the group’s popularity across the region and beyond soared through the roof overnight, when they performed for US president Barack Obama at a state dinner organised in his honor by host president Uhuru Kenyatta in Nairobi.
Interestingly, the day they performed for Obama, the band had been lined up to perform at the KigaliUp Music Festival.
Singing for Obama
A video clip of the US president grooving away to the band’s Sura Yako, the first track off the latest album went viral immediately after the historic performance.
I asked band vocalist Bien-Aime Baraza whether it was hard work preparing for the gig and he retorts; ‘Definitely, yeah of course. What do you mean?”
“Our story with Obama comes a long way. We have sent albums to the White House more than once way before that performance and I don’t know of any other artiste from Africa who has done that.
We just sent the songs without Obama or the White House requesting for them.”
He then jokingly implores me to visit the White House website “and you will find our contact info”.
What he seems to be saying is that though a great opportunity presented itself, it found the band prepared to seize it at once.
“We worked for it. We got a call from the president the same day we were supposed to perform at KigaliUp and thankfully the organizers managed to push our performance to Sunday so we could perform for Obama first.”
And it’s for this very reason that the band seemed to hold the Rwandan leg of their African tour so dear.
As Baraza put it: “If KigaliUp didn’t move that performance we wouldn’t have had that chance.
So we thank Rwandans for that moment because if it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t have performed for Obama.”
After performing for Obama, they just hopped on the first plane to Kigali.
“I wish we had a box for emotions where we would store those emotions. It was nice. It was the best thing ever. Unfortunately it’s past, so it’s up to us to create even better moments. But it was amazing,” Baraza concludes.
For this interview, the band stopped by The New Times Offices on Friday evening, several hours after their press conference earlier that day where they had promised fans ‘music from the heart’.
The wait was long (we had to wait from 10:00 am as had earlier been communicated to about 5:00 pm).
But it was a fruitful wait for then they eventually arrived, it was a full house, complete with entire entourage –about ten people.
They all sat down without a fuss in the conference room and the interview was swiftly underway.
It was not the usual interview involving just a reporter and camera man; almost the entire entertainment desk whipped out their pens, notebooks, cameras and recorders, and at some point it was as if the band was being hosted live on a morning radio talk show.
And the Acapella session after the interview will be talked about for a long time in the newsroom.
Baraza is the chattier of the quartet so I prod him further on why the band just keeps coming back to their Rwandan segment of the market:
“Maybe it’s better to instead ask what makes people from Rwanda to keep on inviting us,” he counters.
“I think that we simply have a good relationship with Rwandans and that’s why they keep on inviting us all the time. Well, not all the time, but every once in a while. But anyway this place is just a stone’s throw away from Kenya, a one hour flight.
People ask why Rwanda and we are like why not, man? Rwanda is a beautiful country. The people are amazing, they have good taste for music, and we love to share, so we’re here.”
Live and die in Afrika
For a group that has convincingly curved out a niche as a truly home-grown musical powerhouse, the title for their latest tour is a little provocative.
Savara Mudigi, another of the band’s vocalists sets the record straight;
“The title Live and Die in Afrika is not to mean that Africans should live and die in Africa. To live and die in Africa is for anybody. Anybody can live and die in Africa, even Europeans and Americans.
The message Live and Die in Afrika is a state of mind. After all the travels and the shows we’ve done we realized that the only thing we have is to give our people knowledge and an opportunity to celebrate themselves and an opportunity to tell their own stories.
We realized that as Africans we’re not always proud of who we are. Even here in Rwanda how many people go abroad to study? It’s like what people aspire to do –oh my God I’m going to Europe. Why don’t we make our people love here? Why can’t we sensitize our people that Africa can be self-sustainable not only economically but also socially and politically?”
Guitarist Polycarp Otieno, the last member to join the group shares similar sentiments;
“The album tells African stories and talks about Africans. For long African stories have been told by the West, and now it’s time for us to tell our own stories. This is just one way of doing it, and we encourage everybody to do the same. Even you as a journalist, by writing about Sauti Sol you are telling an African story.”
For Willis Chimano; “The album embraces the African reality. That’s why on the album cover you can see we are dressed like different African leaders or kings representative of the different geographical regions of the continent.
We realized that as African we’re the only ones who can change this continent, and we have to embrace our past, or agree with where we came from. We’ve grown up in countries that are probably not so free, maybe with poverty, so we grew up in that and that has been our reality. We are the only ones who can change it and take control of it and make sure this continent just moves forward.”
“Nerea comes from the perspective of a man being responsible in whatever setting it is –be it relationships or marriage, and it’s all about taking responsibility for the child that you’ve fathered,” Baraza chips in.
“In society it’s usually the opposite because all responsibility is given to the woman and if the woman is aborting then it’s her choice. So it’s just telling African men to be responsible.”
The Sauti Sol sound
“In this world no one owns secular music and no one owns gospel music. You sing whatever comes to your heart, or whatever you can write at that point. Whether it’s secular or it’s gospel that is for the listeners to decide, but you sing or you write what you feel at the time.”
“Music is only put into categories for distribution purposes but I don’t think fans should categorize music in the same way. Just pick what you like.
We sing what we feel, and that’s why we call it music from the heart.”
Baraza believes that being a group produces better results than slugging it out alone;
“I think we are just being us, and we’re real with one another, and Sauti Sol is bigger than all of us. Basically we’re in this thing together and can’t get out.
It’s a lifetime commitment. Being a group is easy man. You cushion the downfalls together and celebrate the ups together, you are four great minds that think alike.”
Finally, I ask if the works of any Rwandan musicians have caught their attention and what we should expect then;
Here Baraza lays it bare:
“We haven’t had any formal requests from any Rwandan artistes for collaborations. Actually we’re the ones seeking possible collaboration with them.
Give us some names of good local artistes. The other problem is the negative energy. Everybody is pointing out the problem with Rwandan music …
I was here the last time and I didn’t hear a single Rwandan song except one Urban Boyz jam. All the rest was Nigerian music.
So the problem is not just with the artistes, but also with the people, because it’s a two-way traffic.”