The three players in the Good Ones, all Rwandan genocide survivors, display a striking resilience on Kigali Y’ Izahabu. Armed with just two rickety acoustic guitars — one with only four strings — their stomping feet, and their voices, Adrien Kazigira, Stany Hitimana, and Jeanvier Havugimana deliver 12 songs that resonate deeply despite their spare constructions. These songs were recorded on a porch in Kigali, Rwanda in the summer of 2009, and the intimacy of that performance shines through every song on the record.
Even if you don’t speak Kinyarwanda, the Kigali street dialect in which these men sing, it’s easy to steep yourself in the emotion and startling joy of these songs. The singing here is strong and varied, from the playful tumble of the melody on “Sara” or “Iby’ Iyisini Ubusa” to the insistent rasp of “Kacyiry”, these men sing with a tension and power that never turns bitter. Their voices reach up and out, they never crash and fall into despair. Even on a song like “Amagorwa y’ Abagabo”, which comdemns a man for leaving his family behind, for taking the easy way out, under the disappointed lilt of their voices is a bracing hope for the family left behind, that those still working day in and day out to survive will find their own hard-earned peace.
Despite its spare, humble elements — guitar strings sound dull with rust, notes buzz off the frets, you can almost hear the arid air into which they drift — you can feel different influences creep in. Bob Marley, who Kazigira claims as an inspiration, comes out in the straightforward, beautiful delivery of the songs. At their most basic, like with Marley, these songs sound like a call to gather, and though they are humble acoustic numbers, once we’ve assembled it’s hard not to shuffle your feet to them. This may come from Santana or Zouk — a Carribean dance music — which the group also cite as influences. You can almost hear the dance beat behind the bouncing guitar work of “Egidia”, and these songs spread out and take up as much space as their few elements allow, the guitars weaving together to make the songs sound impossibly full.
In the end, these elements — the frenetic, boundless playing, the raw yet beautiful vocals — make Kigali Y’ Izahabu feel more like a performance than an album. Producer Ian Brennan, who found and recorded the group down in Kigali, does little besides present the group as clearly and honestly as he can, and the intimacy of the recording works well. The album’s title translates to “Kigali of Gold” in English, and it is that pride in their homeland, that resistance to cynicism and defeat, that makes this album so refreshing. In a country that has been devastated over the years, by genocide and poverty, the Good Ones remind us of the unflinching resilience of its people. The album is a field recording from a field many of us don’t listen to enough, and as you hear these voices cutting through the night air, as you hear the creaking of the porch under their feet, the animal sounds off in the distance, it’s clear that Rwanda is a country very much alive, very much determined to survive, and Kigali Y’ Izahabu is — aside from an entertaining and beautiful album in its own right — a fine document of a people’s strength.