With music being released at an overwhelming rate, it’s still rare for an album to cut through time and artifice and instead position itself in the deepest crevices of the human spirit. Yet, this is what Rwanda’s the Good Ones do, and on their fourth album, Rwanda…You See Ghosts, I See Sky. Their raw truths and achingly beautiful music reach staggering depths.
The Good Ones are farmers as well as survivors of the 1994 genocide that claimed nearly a million lives. Their music reflects past unspeakable sorrows and present challenges, as their children suffer from the tragedy of poverty and the whims of the weather and crop yields. The members, Janvier Havugimana and Adrien Kazigira, continue to accompany themselves on acoustic and electric guitars and percussion fashioned from farm tools. Like their other releases, this record was recorded live by Ian Brennan at primary songwriter Kazigira’s farm, a place where he managed to survive the genocide.
Though there are no available lyric translations, one can get some idea of the album’s themes from the titles. But even if the words are a mystery, the pleading in their voices, the cracks, the harmonized joy, allow any listener to imagine a fragile hope. The guitar work, largely acoustic, is infectious and delicate, complementing the sounds of their voices. Nowhere is this more in evidence than on the lead-off track “The Darkness Has Passed”, which underpins a determined guitar pattern with a metal rattle as their voices intertwine and soar.
“Happiness Is When We Are All Together” contains a joy that matches the title as percussive taps join a repeated, finger-picked electric guitar pattern as infectious as it is relentless. The album contains several musical deviations. There’s the brutal, distorted, near-punk of “My Son Has Special Needs, But There’s Nowhere for Him to Go”, a title referencing the very real issues facing Havugimana’s son, a situation that demands such a buzz-saw riff. “Every Job Has Importance” is driven by what sounds like a finger-style banjo played with a slightly warped drive similar to Kentucky’s Banjo Bill Cornett. “Beloved (As Clouds Move West, We Think of You)” drops the guitar altogether in favor of the two friends’ dreamy harmony vocals over stomps and clanking percussion.
What ties all these songs together is their ability to be transportive, not only for the listener but for the performers, who use music as a way to stare the past in the eye to move beyond it. There is no romanticization of tragedy here. Most of this record deals with personal and universal triumphs, which allows a title such as “Love Can Lead the Way” – a contrivance in the hands of any number of fly-by-night western pop groups- hard-won wisdom in the hands of the Good Ones.