A popular singer, teacher, radio and TV personality in his youthful days, Phocas Fashaho was on the top of his game in the 1980s and 1990s with popular songs like ‘Gatako,’ ‘Ishiraniro’ and ‘Once Upon A Time’ but the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi halted his budding career forcing him to flee the country.
At the time, Fashaho used his influence as a radio and TV journalist on Radio Rwanda and ‘Television Rwandaise’ to make his songs popular.
“Gatako got a lot of air play and became a huge hit. Ishiraniro and Once Upon a Time were royally ignored. Personally, though, I loved Ishiraniro better and didn't care much for Once Upon a Time. So, I managed to make the video for Ishiraniro with the help of Television Rwandaise somewhere in 1992 or 1993, and it became an instant hit, to this day,” he says
Like most singers and songwriters between the 1980s and 90s, music was mostly a sideshow.
“Most of us had other jobs on the side to pay the bills. Hence, I started my professional life in 1988 as a high school teacher at Lycee de Kigali and also taught in other private schools in Gikondo.”
He also worked as a journalist, announcer and writer for Voice of America in Washington D.C under Radio Rwanda, and briefly, did translation work for UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda) before the 1994 Genocide, and briefly worked for UNHCR as a radio operator in Cyangugu right after.
“So, I did a few odd jobs here and there while my true love and passion was really music,” he recalls of his glory days which he also describes as having been ‘beautiful but also rough’.
“As part of a band group ‘The Masters’, that involved a Japanese girl, Natsumi, who played a Japanese traditional instrument called Koto, we always performed to a full audience of foreign expats at the French Cultural Center in the early 90s.”
“There were only a couple of places where one could record and hope for a decent sound at the end: Impala’s eight track studio in Nyamirambo, and 16 or so track Audiotex in Muhima. Trying to squeeze drums, baselines, vocals and synths on eight tracks was particularly brutal. That's why I was going to record my first album at Audiotex,” he says.
However, as fate would have it, just as he was starting to make a name for himself, and in the middle of recording his first album, the aftermath of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi turned his world upside down, and had a great toll on him.
“I lost everything, except my life and the clothes I had on my back. The studio, Audiotex, where I was recording was looted. Apparently, even the shelves in there were taken. I was disheartened. I gave up, and I focused on just surviving,” he recalls.
Relocating to the US
“By chance, slightly before the Genocide, I was candidate number 1 for an American Fulbright scholarship. Therefore, in January 1995, I travelled to the United States for a Master's in Journalism at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa.”
That is how he eventually settled in the US and for a long time but chose to stay in the shadows.
“Starting from scratch in a foreign country proved more challenging than I had anticipated. Therefore, all of my energy and time went to the business of survival, mine and that of my new family. My music almost died in me,” he says about quitting music.
Bouncing back on the music scene
That is, however, until singer Daddy Cassanova remixed his beloved "Ishiraniro" that it became an instant hit for him as well.
“That's when I knew I had to come back. So, here I am again. I was too busy surviving in a foreign country, and I was discouraged and truly felt like I had missed the boat. I was in my late 20s and early 30s when I was scoring a few hits. Now, here I am, in my early 50s, trying to stage a comeback. Not exactly an easy one to pull off,” he says before adding:
“I find the music scene very different today from what it was like back in my days. Most striking to me: the sound. The sound is absolutely amazing. Compare my Ishiraniro to Daddy Cassanova's remix and you'll know what I mean.”
A few weeks ago Fashaho released ‘NdihoNtariho’which means "Barely Alive". It is about someone who's badly depressed and has lost the will to live. However, thanks to the love and care of family and close friends, he hangs in there and finally dusts himself off for a fresh start.
“The song targets the Kinyarwanda speaking audience, mainly because they are my fan base. Some are older, like myself, but I have also been truly surprised by how many younger folks have grown up listening and loving Ishiraniro, or Gatako, and NdihoNtariho now. It's truly amazing.”
“I also write in English and French, but that's for a later stage, conditioned on how everything else works out now,” he says.
Unlike his fellow artists, Fashaho did not and still chooses not have a stage name mainly because he wore many hats and had to use his name everywhere.
“Those are the names everybody knows me by, so I've stuck with them.”
For now, the talented pianist’s goal is to complete the album he never got to finish decades ago although it will mostly depend on what happens after ‘NdihoNtariho.’
“So far, I feel encouraged by people's initial reaction. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. So, may story may be the comeback story of the decade after all.”