The band has curved out of an iconic flagship event every month where jazz lovers pay at the entrance to get a showcase of the band’s best.
And that poses a bit of a challenge; Every month management has to think of something new in terms of costume, artistes, song repertoire and presentation.
As Remmy Lubega, the band’s founder and director puts it;
“You keep on challenging their mind every month as opposed to just having a bar gig where you are bound to do the same thing because no one is going to tell you to change.”
This single event has earned the band the enviable position of Kigali’s premier jazz/live music ensemble. It was the ultimate marketing opportunity for a band, one that set it apart as a market leader on the rather sluggish Kigali live music scene.
To date, it’s the only band that has a themed monthly event of its own at a fixed venue. Remmy explains the business sense in this;
“A person who comes and pays Rwf 10.000 at the entrance will walk up to you and say you’ve over played that song. I’m bored. They give you positive criticism. But now you don’t let that happen. You go ahead and think ahead for them. It serves them better. When you go to a bar to perform, people do not come to see the best of you. They come to a bar. I want to have a beer, but I want to have it where there is live music.”
Started in 2014
Lubega hails from Uganda, from where he learnt the ropes in music management as part of the former Obsessions, a group from which Ugandan dancehall music sensation Sheebah emerged. Obsessions was presented as a high-end dance and music ensemble that gained corporate acceptance in an industry hitherto looked down upon by corporate sponsors. Other musicians and music groups followed suit.
It’s the same strategy he brought over here to revolutionize the live (and particularly jazz) music scenes in Kigali.
“Personally I had always wanted to create a band since childhood and eventually I saw the opportunity when I was here in 2014 and I made very serious observations about the industry,” he opens.
“Going by the bands that were around at the time there was something that was lacking definitely. In terms of professionalism, in terms of organization, in terms of repertoire and presentation, and taking it as a serious job where someone has to do rehearsals, practice and think about his playlist and also think about how he is going to put on, how he is going to perform, and how he gets off stage.”
At the time, just like is the case today, the industry was awash with what in industry parlance are called ‘gig men’. These are makeshift bands whose freelance members come together for gigs and part ways, until the next gig. The owner of the band might own the basic equipment –a microphone here, drum kit, a keyboard there, while the rest are hired on gig nights.
“There are many artistes out there who are perceived to have bands but they don’t,” he reveals:
“Lucky Dube never owned a band. He had people he had trained and worked with for a long period of time, but when you go to hire Lucky Dube you would hire him as a person. Then he’d give you the list of people he works with and you would go talk to them and negotiate a deal. As a promoter you agree with them and then they come together and rehearse his repertoire which they already knew, but he was a separate artiste from the band which was unlike Bob Marley and the Wailers.”
The band’s first major gig was a Saxophone-themed event dubbed Lovers’ Valentine in 2014.
Lubega recalls that pulling it off wasn’t easy:
“I had to go all the way to Kibuye where I was directed to an old man who played the saxophone. They told me he used to play it before the genocide so I tried my luck and found him. He was retired and now a farmer and when I engaged him I found out he also played the trumpet and once in a while he would get called by Abdul Makanyaga to play for him.”
He gave up and instead took his search to more familiar territory; Kampala, Uganda.
“That’s where I met Herbert Rock and shared with him what I wanted to do and he told me let’s look for talent.”
On Valentine’s Day of that year Herbert Rock performed his first gig with the band at Lemigo Hotel. Rock has since left the band to pursue a solo career.
With the moderate success of that first gig, the band embarked on scouting talent.
“We started locally by bringing on the best we could find but these are guys that had nurtured themselves as gig men so it was hard to manage them or to share with them a dream of that kind. The way they had grown up in their music is that they were hired on a one-off basis. I come and work, you pay me I go,” he explains the initial hurdles.
“It was very hard but luckily they were very experienced. The band was tight but there was luck of focus because everyone operated as an individual. Everyone thought they were stars in their own right, everyone had their own code of conduct so even getting them to dress in a certain way wasn’t easy. As a start up band you have to do trials, whereby you go and showcase at a venue and then if they are impressed you negotiate a deal but it wasn’t easy convincing people to perform without pay. We found it very hard and decided that we need to have a focus.”
He headed back to Kampala and a few other places and brought four more members on board.
Surprisingly, the pioneer members who now wanted out also made recommendations of young talent they knew that had potential before they eventually parted ways amicably.
“It was just an understanding –I need to move, this is my new direction. Anytime you need me I will be there,” Lubega quips.
“Some of the guys who came from Kampala had to acclimatize to the new environment like language which wasn’t easy but they had strong leadership to guide them because I’d done this before so it wasn’t something new to me. We rented a house where they stayed and rehearsed, and set them up in studio and then we grew together and that’s where we are.”
Kigali Jazz Junction
What the band did was take advantage out of a unique genre –jazz to create something unique, something the band owned and could be synonymous with. Today, you can’t separate jazz junction from Neptunez Band even though jazz junction is an event of its own. Call it the perfect marketing strategy.
“It was a platform where I saw a virgin market. There was no band that people could go to see which is not in a hotel. I knew there are many expatriates in Rwanda who lack where to go because they’ve done all the restaurants.”
At the moment, the Neptunez Band has four booked weekly gigs; Kigali Serena Hotel on Fridays, KGL Fast Foods every Thursday, 514 Bar every Tuesday, and at Puscha aka ka Jules every Sunday.
Between all this they still get time for private gigs.
“Actually at the moment we have a lot of bookings so we’re doing three sets of Neptunez Band right now. We did it at the World Economic Forum and again this Tuesday at the official opening of the Marriot Hotel where we had another group playing at Radisson Blu. We have the capacity because talent is always on our door and the equipment is there,” Lubega explains.
State of Kigali Events scene
The irony of the band’s foothold on the Kigali jazz and live music scene is that the Kigali Serena Hotel, their base has not been posting very good results with other music events, with Nigerian singer 2Face’s recent shocking flop at the venue.
Lubega does not mince his words when he talks about the concert:
“There are many factors at play. Timing is very important in terms of what a musician has to offer and in terms of how popular their music is. People usually want to listen to music to which they can sing along because they have listened to a couple of songs he or she has done.
Then there is the timing in terms of date. 2Face was a high class event targeting corporate but it was scheduled in the middle of month. This is a man who last had a hit song (African Queen) in 2004 for the majority of people. Since then he has had a couple of hits but not as top chart.
At that time many people had travelled for Rwanda Day in the US. Two weeks before there was Whiz Kid. The event was 10,000 and VIP was 20,000. After that you had Sauti Sol. Do you think that Rwanda is ready for back-to-back events of that kind, especially when you’re having an artiste who has no current hit? The answer is most definitely no. you have to weigh all those options.”
Then he counsels:
“If I was a promoter I would not do a concert. I would do 2Face as a Niger night and call all the Nigerians in Rwanda and their friends, put them somewhere in a cozy club, they buy tables and then god father entertains them.
A platform for all
Contrary to popular belief, the Kigali Jazz Junction is not a platform that is all exclusive to Neptunez Band.
The band actually features local artistes with a taste for live music and not necessarily jazz on a regular basis. One of the first such artistes is Mike Kayihura, who played at People Nightclub in the second edition of the first season. Ugandan singers Maurice Kirya and Lillian Mbabazi have performed, as have Mani Martin, Hope Irakoze and Ben Kipeti from Rwanda.
“Many people have a bias towards jazz, but the people who attend because of these popular artistes find that jazz is something they like,” Lubega concludes.