Rwandan musical band Nubian Gypsies is known to many as the old school band partly because of the age bracket of some of the band members but also partly of the kind of music they play.
Founded by renowned businessman, journalist and musician, Albert Rudatsimburwa in 1994, later be joined by Jean Mutsari, a bass guitar player, in 2004 to take the band further.
The band has been reproducing music that has been in people’s memories for a long time.
Their musical journey together whoever dates back as early as the 1980s while in Europe, where they released an album that had songs like Agasaza, Mpore, Ikobe in 1983, at the time when traditional music and instruments were a thing to go by in the Rwandan community.
Building a music profession abroad
The band shares a common history and experience with most of the members having redeveloped their professional life in Europe, Americas, and Canada.
“There we were known as professionals because the arts was our way of living. Our real life was however with European artists where we were lucky that in the 80s afro American stars from the 60s who were our idols as kids on their European tours, for them it was saving money to find black musicians and pay us peanuts.”
“That was however an academy for us because even though we were not paid for playing music for us it was enough for us to tour, enjoy and learn by being on stage and hear the whole art of entertainment, instruments and the audience,” Rudatsimburwa explains.
For him, very few people have had access to that kind of experience. He recalls that because of that, as blacks they were often invited in studios to have the feel of Europe music.
“These were the days that we played with Peter Tosh, UB40, and Steel Pulse and also toured with stars from the 60s like Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, and Eddie Floyd. For us this was the best academy we ever had and because of that, we often found ourselves in a ‘whiter’ environment being in Europe,” he adds.
After returning home, they chose to take up some people in a younger generation like Mighty Popo who they kept in touch with and shared the same culture and basics of how they began.
“Being in touch with the real professionals is not something you see on TV but you see and it feel it.”
Other members that joined in the 90s include former music producer Aaron Tunga, all round musician Ben Kipeti, ‘who share the same level of experience’ Cassanova who was in the country to support young artists, Albert Tosh also plays the harmonica specifically for blues, and singer Lion Imanzi.
It also included artists Rosette Karimba and Uganda’s RnB artist Lilian Mbabazi both of whom had just began a music career with Rudatsimburwa as their coach.
“The kind of music we play is black music which means we go for blues, rhythm blues, jazz, latin and mixing it with Kinyarwanda.”
“As Nubian Gypsies while we are here, one of our main musical influence in life is Jimi Hendrix who was also a social being in the days of youth protest against violence, and movements.”
At the time of the revolution, Hendrix one of the best American rock guitarist, singer, and songwriter at the time had a band, ‘Band of gypsies’ and the Nubian Gypsies would then become a tribute to him as one of the first modern musicians ‘whose music connected with Africa.’
“I would say that some of his lines were straight inanga. Through his music, I discovered that we had common grounds with many people including West Africans.”
“I’m sure that while we would relate to his music, even West Africa would do the same and when I studied more of it I could find that Celtic music was even that close and Europeans had African roots. We have common universal heritage but it’s still strong in Africa,” Rudatsimburwa says.
That is where the Gypsies part of the name came from.
Nubian on the other hand being an icon in African history ‘because it’s also pre Egypt’ which came in handy.
“We aren’t in Europe anymore, we are in our home. There are many African names that they could have called it (the band) such as a thousand hills band, or Afro band but it’s a tribute to our elders who taught us what we know in music and how to anchor it in this continent.”
“I come from a time where instruments were talking to each other but now we have computer music which is different from us,” he explains.
Because of the busy schedule the band hasn’t played together for a long time but just to play music and feel connected with the rest of the band, Rudatsimburwa and Mutsra get to play at least once a week at Blue Note, Kigali.
“We have been so together that we never get to practice before stage. We just play on stage.”
I ask him how it’s done.
“We play and then they take a pause and look at me. That way they feel the body language. This is old school and we are therefore story tellers. Wherever we want to go we want to tell stories and most of the time one that is common in the world.”
The plan, he reveals, is to ‘tighten’ the band by extending to other East African countries because ‘people don’t play it anymore.’
As Rudatsimburwa plans to retire sometime this year, his passion for educating the younger generation their history through music and film still remains. For this, he doesn’t intend to retire.