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Rwandan performs to heal

By Denise Taylor | November 30, 2006

When asked about his background, Jean Paul Samputu sounds at first like any other musician. He shares how he got his start, speaks excitedly about upcoming shows, and touts his successes -- like winning a 2004 Kora Award, Africa's equivalent to the Grammy. Then Samputu moves on to how he survived Rwanda's genocide.

"Before it started, I was performing all over in Rwanda, Congo, and Uganda. Then when the war started in 1990, before the genocide, they put me in prison. They were putting a lot of Tutsis in prison and I was a famous artist Tutsi. So they went after me," said Samputu, now 44. "Six months later, we were let out, and my father advised me to go, to leave the country."

He did, and it saved his life, but the rest of his family was not as fortunate. "I was in Uganda.... Then in 1994, then it happened, the genocide. Then 1 million people were killed in 90 days from April to July. I went back to my home in July to go see what happened to my family and found my father, mother, and two brothers and a sister were murdered," he said. "I couldn't sing anymore, or, you know, I was singing, but my life changed forever."

The loss of his father became even harder to bear when he discovered who committed the crime. As in countless cases of the genocide, Samputu's father, an ethnic Tutsi, was murdered by Hutu neighbors.

"I became a drunk. I started to drink too much because I couldn't understand. The people who killed my father, they are friends. They are neighbors. They are people we grew up with. It destroyed me. It made me angry. I was drinking to try to forget," he explained. "From 1994 to 2000, for six years, it wasn't me. I was not me."

These words come from a man who only moments before was joking about how he's been singing since birth. "My mom always liked to say I was born singing. She said I didn't cry when the doctor slapped me. I went la la la."

But just as Samputu's conversation moves fluidly back and forth from chit-chat to chilling memories, his drum-driven music ranges from joyful dance beats and stunning pygmy-style vocals to somber refrains that put his message starkly: "No more genocide. No more."

Getting to the point where he could perform again, though, wasn't easy. As he spiraled downward, friends urged him to stop drinking and took him to witch doctors, but he couldn't cope and wound up homeless. Then, a brother invited him to stay with him in Kenya.

There, he said, he met a man "who prayed for me, and I fell down. He was so powerful, I thought he was another witch doctor. But he said, I'm not a witch doctor, I'm a pastor," laughed Samputu. "Two months later, I stopped drinking and taking drugs."

And later, he "had a vision from God that I have to forgive the people who killed my family and I have to heal my country," he said. Since then, he's been trying to do just that.

Now living in Norwood, Samputu performs worldwide, frequently giving benefit concerts to aid Rwandans and, recently, refugees from the genocide in Darfur. Next month, he'll perform a stadium concert for 50,000 children in Rwanda. Before that, he makes a stop in Wayland at Temple Shir Tikva to raise money for Sudanese refugees.

Roz Rosenthal, a retired social worker and Shir Tikva member from Wayland, suggested inviting him.

"It's just such wonderful, uplifting music, and a very exciting dance troupe performs with him," said Rosenthal, who saw Samputu perform in Cambridge. " My friends and I got so caught up in it that we just started dancing in the aisles."

The concert idea seems to have tapped into a growing Darfur relief movement in the suburbs. Together with fellow temple member Jackie Rosenblum of Wayland, Rosenthal put out a call for help. An interfaith committee representing area houses of worship quickly formed to organize the show.

The sponsors are Church of the Holy Spirit, St. Ann's Parish, Shir Tikva, Congregation Or Atid, and First Parish, all in Wayland; Temple Beth Elohim of Wellesley; Congregational Church of Weston and First Parish Weston ; and the American Jewish Committee. Rosenthal credited Alan Greenfield, who founded the Needham Darfur Initiative, with sparking efforts in the western suburbs. "He donated signs for us to sell that say, 'a call to your conscience... SaveDarfur.org,' " Rosenthal said. "Before the signs were mainly in Needham, now they're encroaching in Weston, Wellesley, and Wayland. Since the fall, I've seen more and more."

An even greater surprise to Rosenthal, though, was the turnout for her Darfur teach-in at Shir Tikva last month -- more than 400 showed up.

"We were stunned," she said. "But people just seem to have a desire to do more and do something. It's just that most don't know where to learn about it or what to do to have an impact."

 

 

CD Review – Testimony from Rwanda – Afropop Worldwide

The tenth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide offers an occasion for reflection that the world has largely shied away from.

Of course, nowhere is this reflection more important than within Rwanda itself, so it is heartening to find such a strong musical voice emerging from the country with songs that remember the horrors of a decade ago, but also offer a hopeful vision for the future.

Samputu sings in six languages with a powerful, nuanced voice, part Joseph Shabalala, part Lokua Kanza, and part Lionel Ritchie. The songs on his international debut recording span soaring balladry, village celebration, and Congolese dance music. If this all sounds too sunny for a singer who lost his parents and four siblings in the genocide, rest assured that there is plenty of melancholy woven into these 14 tracks. But Samputu's main objective is not to so much to probe the causes of his nation's ethnic holocaust, but rather to help the country rise to its feet and chart a more positive course for the future, with God's help.

Born in 1962, Samputu formed his first group in 1982, so he's no newcomer to the process of crafting pop songs that benefit from the rich cultural milieu of Central Africa. The experience shows in the scope and polish of his work. On "Singizwa" (Praise Be To God), clanging ankle bells lay out pendulous 5/8 rhythm — common in Rwanda — and Samputu sings with the rough edges and articulations of a village shaman, even as a chorus of backing voices brings in the feeling of African gospel music. That complexity — the tension between roots and modernity, animism and Christianity — graces the best of these songs. "Rehema," a rolling, 12/8 number with gentle, Congolese flavor, tells the story of a Christian boy who vows to convert so he can be with his beloved Muslim girl. The arrangement builds to a satisfying peak — a tangle of three guitars against tugging polyrhythmic percussion and a harmonized vocal refrain.

Other high points include "Twararutashye," a sweet celebration of homecoming, "Rwanda Rwiza (Beautiful Rwanda)," with its bluesy vocal opening and deep male chorus reminiscent of Zulu polyphony, and especially "Ngarambe," which returns to that distinctive 5/8 feel with damped guitar, mysterious choral vocal, and theme about a man who refuses material gifts in hopes of retrieving some undefined happiness. On "Migabo" (Courageous Warrior), Samputu growls richly as he reminds us of the true role of a warrior, to serve and guide — by implication, not to kill without thought or remorse.

Less satisfying to this reviewer are Samputu's forays into more generic folk/pop balladry. The swelling sentimentalism of "Karame Mwana" (Cherish the Children) and the lullaby "Tamara," celebrating the birth of a baby girl, offer laudable messages of rejuvenation. But the music feels borrowed, like so much of Lokua Kanza's work. Samputu's optimistic message resonates most powerfully when he couches it in music that reflects the reality of his homeland. And as other tracks here show, he has the knowledge and breadth to do that.

"Ten Years Remembering," a moody chant piece that appears here in orchestrated and a cappella versions, is one song that makes explicit reference to the genocide. Another is the ballad, "Mana Wari Uri He? (God, Where Were You?)." One can only admire a survivor of such traumatic times who is able to channel hope, and deliver it with such passion, certainty and technical competence. Samputu's remembrances may not ask the hardest questions Rwandans must face, such as why the country's people — not God or the U.N. — were unable to protect one another, and resist the urge to kill. When Samputu chants, "In our hearts, let's decide, always say no to genocide," one feels uneasy. One says no to drugs or illicit sex. But genocide? We all have much to learn from remembering the events of a decade ago. For Rwandans, neither reflection nor rebuilding can be easy, and without a doubt, Samputu's music offers welcome spiritual boon as they face both past and future.

For those outside Rwanda, Samputu offers a different kind of hope. This album clearly demonstrates that he has the capacity to become the first Rwandan musician to establish true international visibility. (Cecile Kayirebwa made some headway in Europe in the '90s, but has never really broken through.) One hopes that Samputu has the artistic vision not to let his sound become watered down by generic influences, be they from Congo, Europe, or America, and that he is ultimately able to emerge from the shadow of genocide and make his mark more broadly as a great African musician.

(Afropop.org Editor Banning Eyre) —Courtesy Calabash Music

 

 

Feature Article – Cityfolk Monthly – October 2006

PROFILE: ARTIST ON STAGE: Jean Paul Samputu

Jean Paul Samputu was born in Rwanda in the early 60s, and was singing in his church choir by the time he was fifteen. He had an eclectic taste in music, soaking up not only traditional African music, but also the sounds of contemporary musicians including Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, and Lionel Richie. As a result, Samputu sings in six languages and in styles ranging from soukous, and rhumbato to traditional Rwandan 5/8, Afrobeat, pygmy, and gospel.

But sharing his take on traditional African singing, dancing, and drumming is only one part of his role as a Rwandan cultural ambassador. As a survivor of the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s, he is driven to share a message of peace and reconciliation with audiences around the world. Samputu takes us to the most positive place of humanity through his spirit and graciousness.

Samputu and his group Ingeli will be in Dayton during the week of January 29 for a residency including musical workshops, discussions about human rights and a public performance on Feburary 1.

WHAT I ENJOY MOST ABOUT MAKING MY LIVING AS A PERFORMER: Through performance I can bring the message of peace. The world needs peace. Not just music and joy but also the message of peace and hope.

TOUGHEST CROWD I'VE FACED: I've never had a bad time-people are always so wonderful. I can not think of a bad time with people.

WHAT I WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT RWANDA: Rwanda is a country that is healing. The people are forgiving and in a few years Rwanda will be a united country. People need to discover and know about the unique culture of Rwanda.

RECORDING(S) I'M LISTENING TO RIGHT NOW: Collections of Rwandan pygmies, Stevie Wonder's Innervisions and The Definitive Collection, and CeCe Winans' Everlasting Love and Throne Room

LAST THREE BOOKS I'VE READ: The Bible, The Growing Leader by Graig Jupima and The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren

FAVORITE LIVE MUSIC EXPERIENCE: Bob Marley -- the first time I saw Bob Marley I was in Rwanda and saw a live concert on TV -- I was inspired by his message of peace and how powerful his message was. People heard him.

FAVORITE COMFORT FOOD: Beans from Africa and traditional Rwandan food like fufu.

FAVORITE PASSTIMES: To spend time with music and reading the word of God.

DREAM VACATION: To travel to a beautiful ocean. There is an island named Lamu off the coast of Kenya. I have been there many times and would like to go back and eat lobster. It is the best lobster in the world!

 

 

Comments from Keter Betts – Jazz legend

"When they were playing the drums and dancing, after a while, it was like they weren't even playing the drums...but playing themselves."

Keter Betts

 

 

CD Review - Testimony From Rwanda – AllMusic.com

"Rwandan Samputu won an African Kora award in 2003 as the Most Promising Male Artist from Africa, and on the evidence of this album, recorded in the U.S. (where he now lives), it's easy to understand why. He can move smoothly from the traditional 5/8 dance music of his native land to sounds that have more to do with soul, gospel, and even a rough and ready soukous/rumba blend without missing a beat. At the core of the record is his experience during the horrendous 1994 massacres in Rwanda (he lost six members of his family); but instead of revenge, this is an album of healing. That's evident in the lovely "Twararutashaye," about returning refugees, with its lovely swooping melodies, and on the livelier "Aliokoka," where Congolese rumba peeks up its head. The aching "Mana Wari Uri He?," a gentle acoustic ballad, wonders just what could have happened in 1994, while the more soulful "Karame Mwana," with its gospel-ish touches, looks ahead to a future for the children. Samputu is the undoubted star of the show, but much of the credit here has to go to the wonderfully versatile guitar talents of Aron Niyitunga, whose bluesy work on "Migabo" is a model of economy and emotion. The more traditional material is equally strong, but the album's centerpiece is "Ten Years Remembering," written to commemorate the anniversary of the massacres, and presented in a band version where Samputu's mellifluous voice is so full of pain, and also a cappella, with layers of vocals for a lusher, radically different sound. This man has a great future."

Chris Nickson

AllMusic.com

 

Comments from Past Presenter: Jennifer Pickering – Lake Eden Arts Festival

“Samputu is an extraordinary gift! His performances enhance any event with cultural significance, exuberant dance & drums, gentle and inspiring insights into the beauty and realities of Rwanda, and his testimony. He reaches all ages and extends people beyond their cultural boundaries. Samputu & Ingeli take you to Rwanda through music and dance. His work is important and will complement any event. In my 10 years—22 festivals—Samputu exemplifies WHY I produce cultural music & arts events.”

Jennifer Pickering

Executive Dir. and Founder

Lake Eden Arts Festival

 

Comments from Past Presenter: Dr. Gayl Westerman – Pace Law School, Duke University

"Jean Paul and Ingeli were the kick-off event for the Pace Law School Genocide Awareness Week from September 19th through the 22nd. The International Law Society arranged for panel discussions and presentations on genocide, along with documentaries and films showing throughout the week. The purpose was to raise awareness of students, faculty, and staff of the genocide now occurring in Darfur and to raise funds for the victims. It was a very successful event and the performance by Jean Paul and Ingeli was the high point of the week."

Gayl S. Westerman

Professor of Law and Director of International Programs

Pace Law School

 

CD Review - Testimony From Rwanda – GlobalVillageIdiot.com

"It's Rwandan soul music. Jean Paul Samputu proves to be an excellent singer and writer, with a facility for many African forms, plus American soul. He has a remarkable voice, whether singing normally or in falsetto, and he's especially powerful on the 5/8 native dance rhythms. Wonderfully accompanied, this is a small pearl of an album that deserves much wider exposure. A record about healing, not confrontation, and far more powerful for it."

 

 

Letter from Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees – Kolude Doherty

UNHCR

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Haut Commisariat des Nations Unies pour les réfugiés

27 July 2005

Dear Mr. Samputu,

I wanted to thank you, on behalf of UNHCR, for participating in the 2005 World Refugee Day program. Your performance

at the opening ceremony of this year's events was extraordinarily powerful and proved to be the perfect way to launch our celebration of refugees. The dancing, singing and drumming performed by members of Ingeli were noticeably appreciated

by the audience, who were also joyfully compelled to join in the dance.

Furthermore, I would like to acknowledge the great importance of performers such as yourself, dedicated to providing the public with a glimpse into the grace and talent that comes from your country and its traditions. In one way, it invokes a deep appreciation for the beauty of diversity, but also reminds us how interconnected we all are, how all our cultures have interesting histories of song and dance in times of celebration, and how contagious smiles are.

Thank you again for participating in World Refugee Day. Please convey our gratitude and praise to the entire Ingeli group.

With best regards,

Sincerely,

Kolude Doherty

Regional Representative

 

 

CD Review - Voices From Rwanda – Afropop Worldwide

As a man who suffered the loss of his family during the Rwandan genocide, Jean Paul Samputu has learned a great deal about the human condition, about man's capacity for evil as well as forgiveness and rebirth. Samputu poured much of that knowledge into the Afro-folk songs—many of them in English—on his debut international CD, Testimony from Rwanda. The reception for that album taught him much about a more arcane subject, the fickle tastes of the world music marketplace. While many, including this reviewer, praised Testimony, there was a call for a more distinctive Rwandan flavor in the music, for the earthy roots quality that came across in Samputu's exhillerating live performances with his four-piece group. Here, the artist answers that call with a set of 12 songs that amount to a tour of Rwandan traditions and include just a single song with any English lyrics at all.

From the cooing vocal harmonies and pounding drums of "Ingoma" to the folksy, acoustic guitar riff blended with haunting mouthbow, and soulful, high vocals of "Umukiza Araje" this album is rich with sonic allure."Amakondeara" is named from the droning, interlocked horns that overlay pulsing drums and set the stage for Samputu's fierce, lead vocal. The song plays as a polished rendering of a deep bush ritual expressing both mystic healing and revival. The complexity of Samputu's and Rwanda's experience comes through in many ways, notably on "Psalm 150," a poignant expression of African Christianity, rendered with Pygmy vocal polyphony. "Shimwa" is one of a few pieces here that use 5/8 rhythm, highly unusual in African traditional music (the universal popularity of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" notwithstanding). This is a beautiful set of songs rendered with depth and elegance. Should Samputu return to the crossover direction of his earlier release—and I hope and expect he will—let no one say this is a man who has abandoned his roots.

 

~ Banning Eyre www.afropop.org