Nyundo School of Art and Music is one of a kind, thanks to a unique and prospering music department now set to churn out professionals every year.
The director of its three-year-old music department, Jacques Murigande, alias Mighty Popo, is optimistic that once a new modern recording studio and performance space is set up next year, they will soar.
The department opened doors in March 2014 with 30 students selected after a demanding but thorough countrywide recruitment process.
In an interview with The New Times, Murigande said the idea of the music school started earlier in 2013 as government looked to professionalise the music industry.
“The idea came from the Workforce Development Authority (WDA) through the Technical and Vocational Education and Training project. It was in a plan to alleviate poverty by creating schools that help youth create jobs,” says the man who actually put the concept together.
“I was called to work on it. I did the best I could. It is my idea, supported by government. I’ve always been part of a training movement in music, right from the start of Kigali Up Music Festival. To me, it was a natural move.”
Kigali Up – another initiative Murigande created with help from the Canadian Folk Festival community in 2011 – is a musical festival featuring world music, reggae, funk, blues, hip hop and roots artists from around the globe.
Getting the first students to the Rubavu-based school, he recalls, was no easy task.
“I wanted dedicated students. Our biggest call is to graduate professional musicians who can play music and sing live. Not the kind of play back singing stuff we see everywhere. And I thought about recruiting students from across the country without segregation and discrimination,” Murigande says.
Regarding enrollment criteria, successful applicants must: have had nine-year basic education; completed senior three (general Lower Secondary); show talent or “have passion and basic fundamentals of whatever you want to become,” plus have general or rounded knowledge.
“You don’t want to teach someone to be a professional when this person, for example, doesn’t know who the president of the country is. We don’t have to discriminate though, because sometimes you have someone really talented but who doesn’t know where Ruhengeri was, or Umutara,” he says.
As if to make things worse, right from the start, it was decided that the new department would only enroll 30 students annually. Yet applications would come in hundreds.
“We recruit 30 every year because we don’t have enough facilities. It is a capacity issue. Even these are too many because the TVET system allows only 25. We realised how hungry Rwandan youth were to learn music.”
In Kigali alone, he said, they got 600-plus applications.
“That was in 2013. And the number of applicants has been growing. We realised it was never going to be an easy task. So, the very first 30 we picked were la crème de la crème,” Murigande says.
For teachers, he thought even harder because not just anybody can teach music. “It is vocational, it is educational, and it is training.”
Putting together the team of teachers
With WDA support, Murigande engaged in some head hunting after which potential recruits would officially apply. Eventually, he got the required few and music industry specialists.
Ben Ngabo, alias Kipeti, a local star in drumming and Rwandan traditional music (Gakondo) star was brought in all the way from Belgium; Amaible Nsabayesu, a pastor who owns a private music school in Kigali, came in because “we wanted someone with enough knowledge and understanding of modern music.”
Number three was Janvier Murenzi, a University of Rwanda professor who studied music in France. Though his background is in political science, philosophy and ethics, Murenzi is the school’s expert in music composition, lyrics’ writing, music traditions, and occupational health and safety.
“He came in because he is a choir specialist who knows music, in general.”
Vincent Warui, a Kenyan production instructor, sought for his expertise in using Pro Tools software used in the west and elsewhere in the modern music world, was hired too, in addition to Honore Iyakaremye, another Rwandan expert in music industry business.
Iyakaremye later moved on but was replaced by Uwase Mutimura, an expert in marketing and music business.
Then there was Katherine Uher, a Canadian English language teacher, and Murigande.
“Although I am the manager of the school, I teach. What I don’t touch much on is music theory but I touch on everything else, especially performance. Everything people do on and off stage because what you do offstage as a professional reflects what you do on stage,” he adds, emphasising the music school’s module also instills good ethics and Rwandan ideals and morals.
The pioneer students graduated early last year.
Murigande said: “I am so happy they’re all working in studios and elsewhere. They’ve been backing up big stars such as Meddy, and performing at big corporate parties, presidential galas and high-level national events like Kwita Izina.”
“I’m happy to see them making a living as professional musicians. Two of them were retained as teachers.”
One of them, Igor Mabano, released his first single – Ndagutekereza – last Thursday.
Mabano teaches acoustic drumming, traditional drumming, music repertoire, drum notation and performance.
The other, Erasme Kamayirese, teaches hand drumming and performance in traditional music. Both are highly regarded music teachers and musicians in their own right.
“I love music. My dad was a DJ, my mum a traditional music singer. Music has given me everything I have,” Mabano said after his morning class.
Besides teaching he performs with colleagues in the alumni network at big national events and they “make very good money.”
People will hear much more about us
There is a plan to build more classes and about six cubicles on the campus, Murigande said, gesturing to indicate the area in the garden where he sat during the interview with The New Times.
A cubicle, he explained, is an isolated area similar to a small music studio where a drummer, for example, can practice without disturbing others in school.
“Everything should be in place by this month next year,” he said.
The project is supported through a partnership with The KfW, a German government-owned development bank, which pledged support for Rwanda’s vocational schools.
Once the new building is up, they will have a performance facility with 200 to 300 sitting capacity and a music recording studio, “and people will hear much more about us.”
“We are still functioning in an ad hoc situation. This is really provisional.”
His music department now has two classrooms and one store for equipment.
The first three promotions of the students were under the pilot project. According to Murigande, the WDA fully catered for their tuition and accommodation fees.
The first intake of students paying for themselves begun in January.
What they pay as tuition is same as basic secondary school fees, Murigande said.
“First term is around Rwf110, 000 because it includes uniforms and other necessities in a boarding secondary school. Globally, it is all between Rwf260, 000 and Rwf280,000 a year. And, considering what we teach them, this is peanuts.”
To make things happen, Murigande does not leave everything to chance and government support. He taps his international network by initiating vital partnerships with foreign schools such as Selkirk College, a community college in British Columbia, Canada he regards as “one of the best music colleges in the world.”
Murigande said: “We visited them about two years ago and they liked our programme so much they sent their own students here. They sent us instructors and want our instructors to go teach there too. Mid-November, we are sending three of our students there.”
“They realised we’re advanced in performance and rhythms and that’s what they want to come and study. We send our students there to study music technology and production, and we do concerts together.”
Berklee College of Music, in Boston, Massachusetts, US, the largest independent college of contemporary music in the world is another partner to the music department.
“They are commercially oriented. Just like what we are doing,” Murigande said.
“I want to flood Rwanda with professional musicians, of international standard and repute. I got upset, sick and tired of watching Rwandan so-called musicians lip-synching and doing play back. This upsets me so much.”
Lip sync, short for lip synchronisation, is a technical term for matching a singer’s lip movements with prerecorded sung vocals that listeners hear, either through the sound reinforcement system in live performances.
Though Nyundo School of Art and Music actually has other departments – including sculpture, ceramics, and drawing – only the music department has created a significant impression.
Murigande argues that this is almost certainly because theirs is “a commercially oriented” music school.
“We know how to market this thing and we want to market it internationally. We put a lot of work into marketing the music school and what we do speaks for itself.”
The main campus, he explained, is more of a conservative school run by Catholic priests and Brothers who are not too much into marketing.
“We actually teach music business. Our students go out and perform, which is not the case for the other artists in the school. We are an added value to this school, which is great,” he said.
Favor Genevieve Uwikuzo, 22, a student who enrolled two years ago after high school, said she now sees a bright music future waiting.
“My childhood dream was to be a musician. Later, I sung and performed at concerts and improved my talent and when I applied, got lucky,” she said.
“I want to compose songs. In high school, I studied History, Economics and Geography because these were easy subjects but my heart wasn’t there.”
Linda Rubango Kamikazi, 17, hails from a family that supported her aspiration to enroll and is now keen on singing and composing.
“My mum loves music. And she knew my passion for it too and encouraged me to apply. Before I joined, I didn’t know that I could do more than just sing. I discovered more options; the piano which I love most, and music production,” Kamikazi said.
The teenager, who enrolled immediately after completing Senior Three, beams on recalling her participation in the third edition of the biannual Jumuiya ya Afrika Mashariki Utamaduni Festival (JAMAFEST) held September in Kampala, Uganda.
The JAMAFEST is a mega regional arts and culture festival held in East African Community states on a rotational basis to promote regional socio-cultural integration through arts and culture.
“My very first time out of the country was a joy and huge experience; learning about different societies and cultures. We gave our all when performing,” Kamikazi said.
Good things come in small packages
Murenzi believes it is too early to give a full evaluation of the music school’s achievements as it is still in its nascent stage. But he is confident that, as the saying goes, good things come in small packages.
Murenzi said: “We’ve just put our first intake on the market and, looking at the demand; 90 percent are already employed and doing well and this means they are filling a gap. But I think we need more time, training and trainers, support, as well as local and international connections so that this job is sustainable.”
“A music course requires individualised teaching methods. The standard ratio of one teacher for 25 students doesn’t work in a music school where you need to, for example, sit with one student on a piano and maximise time.
“We can’t start thumping our chests before we attain the requisite international recognition.”
His course on occupational health and safety, a dominant one in the curriculum, he said, is to strengthen students as humans and future professionals.
“There are technical and ethical aspects and we also extrapolate into best practices and behavior. This course follows an international standard for all occupations.”