Behind the scenes at KigaliUp Festival press conference

It was scheduled for 3:00 pm local time, but like all functions involving musicians, the KigaliUpFestival press conference on Friday started late. The one hour delay was however good time for journalists to trace the conference venue, down in one of the many conference rooms at the Amahoro National Stadium, where the two-day event comes to an end today.

In its third year running, KigaliUp, this time, was bigger, and better, if only on account of the high profile nature of the headlining act, Mali’s Habib Koite, writes Moses Opobo...

It was scheduled for 3:00 pm local time, but like all functions involving musicians, the KigaliUpFestival press conference on Friday started late. The one hour delay was however good time for journalists to trace the conference venue, down in one of the many conference rooms at the Amahoro National Stadium, where the two-day event comes to an end today.

In its third year running, KigaliUp, this time, was bigger, and better, if only on account of the high profile nature of the headlining act, Mali’s Habib Koite. For starters, Koite is pronounced “Kwa-te”, a fact that was not known to many, both those hearing of the guitar maestro for the first time, and those that are his long-time fans.

The director of culture in the Ministry of Sports and Culture, Lauren Makuza, in his opening remarks sought to first clear the air about Koite’s name, leaning forward to ask the musician for the proper pronunciation.

After getting the pronunciation right, Makuza reminded the house that it was the second time Koite was visiting Rwanda, the first having been in 1998. Unfortunately, that concert was cancelled at the last minute.

Almost fifteen years later, Koite is here, sitting with us. Across town, his face towered from huge billboards announcing the festival.

Koite’s “terrible” English

Koite, who is Francophone started by apologising in advance for his English, which he described as “terrible”. “My English is really bad,” he proclaimed in the typical sing-song West African accent that actually sounds as though one is attempting to sing.

“But am very happy to be here. It’s a big honour and I’m surprised to see Mighty Popo (the organiser) seated here next to me.” 

“I am an African. I live in Bamako, Mali. My mission is to create a big musical road in Africa to link its music to the rest of the world. Africa is so big and beautiful. We have so much to show.” 

He reminded the conference that although it took 50 hours to fly down from Mali to Kigali, and just 5 hours from Mali to France, he found the trip down to Rwanda more worthwhile.

“I love Rwanda. I love the trees. There are these big trees with flowers that I had not seen anywhere else before,” he confessed, eliciting cheers and claps of approval. 

Alluding to the cancelled concert of 1998, he said: “I’m here on a revenge mission”, before hoping for a “bigger, bigger and bigger” KigaliUp festival in subsequent years.

Joey Blake, the African-American blues singer and composer was the next to speak. “It’s a pleasure and honour to come back to my motherland,” he proclaimed, before delving into the subject of what he does best – music. “Music is the one thing on planet earth with the capacity to cause positive change and create peace. When we sing together we don’t fight. When we sing together we understand each other, and when we sing together we love each other. That’s the foundation of why all of us here are doing music on planet earth. Music brings us together in that even a guitar player needs someone to listen to what he is playing. Music teaches language, listening and memory skills.”

Kenyan Maia von Lekow, who spoke next, seemed to have been ambushed, as she had just walked in moments before. Her speech was understandably brief: “I’m honoured to have come from so far, yet so near. Thank you.”

From Maia followed veteran Rwandan folk singer Makanyaga, who spoke strictly in French and Kinyarwanda, ending most of his statements with “Murakoze cyane” (thank you so much). 

Ignorant about Rwandan music 

Then it was time for journalists to pose questions. A radio scribe called Claude from Authentic Radio had a few tough questions to the world music stars:

Particularly, what did these people from Mali and Kenya and the US and Brazil know about Rwandan music?

Maia from Kenya was the first to admit her ignorance about Rwandan music, a thing that she blamed on the media back in Kenya. “There is only one station in Kenya that cares for local music. The rest play strictly Western pop music.” Then she answered the question. “The only Rwandan artistes I really know are; Sammy Kamanzi and Somi, who are both fusion artistes.”

When the microphone was turned to Koite, he did not do any better. “The first time I heard Rwandan music was when I was playing at a concert in Belgium, and a group of Rwandans came to me and said that was Rwandan music. I told them it was Malian music.”

After several futile attempts to have the mic passed to him, City Radio’s DJ Adams finally got his way. And as usual, he did not mince his words: “It’s a shame that Maia doesn’t know at least three Rwandan artistes seated here, and Koite knows none.” 

And so Maia had to rise to the occasion as she had been stung first.

Maia assured us that she was still around till Thursday, and challenged DJ Adams to a talking session. “Tanzanian radios play 70 per cent local music by law. In Kenya, only one station cares for local music. In Kenya, I have to listen to VOA (Voice of America) to know what is happening around me. I don’t know what the situation here is like.”

Later during the music interlude, as Habib Koite strummed at his guitar, Maia walked across the room to where Adams was seated, and handed him a sleek business card, perhaps as the first step towards her proposed talking session.

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