Marco Werman: When this show began 23 years ago, the category world music was a thing. I have not used that phrase in a while. The internet has made the musical globe much smaller — so much so that music is, as Duke Ellington once said, either good or the other kind.
Ian Brennan travels the globe looking for the good kind. He's a Grammy Award-winning record producer and author, and he's just produced a second recording from an ensemble called The Good Ones. They're from Rwanda. The album is titled "Rwanda, You Should Be Loved."
Adrien Kazigira and Janvier Havugimana are The Good Ones, and they came to our New York studio to perform for us their song, "The Farmer.” Adrien and Janvier do not speak English or French — only kinyarwanda. That's the main language of Rwanda. So their producer, Ian Brennan, told us the band's story.
So, you have this new project out, Ian, The Good Ones. They're from Rwanda, a duo, and their album that you produced is called "Rwanda, You Should Be Loved." It goes back to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, right?
Brennan: Yeah, it does. It even goes back further. They began playing music together in 1978, as youngsters. They were taught by Janvier's older brother, who happened to be blind and a very gifted musician, and he — sadly, tragically — perished in the 1994 genocide. And that led them to feel like they didn't want to play music anymore. But after the mourning began to lessen a little bit, they decided quite the opposite. They said, “No, we're gonna go out and we're gonna find the good ones.” And they formed a trio that, organically, reunited the three tribes of Rwanda through friendship and through music and through love.
Werman: So, when they said, “We're gonna go out and find the good ones,” who were they talking about?
Brennan: The majority, the good-hearted people, the victims — over one-eighth of the population died. But it was a very small core of people, a catalyst that caused the violence, which is true of so much of the violence in the world. This is the 25th anniversary of the 1994 genocide, and the unity and forgiveness that they've demonstrated, I think, is a model for all of us to follow. To be able to live side by side with people who may have committed horrors against your loved ones is incredible.
Werman: The two core members in The Good Ones, Adrien and Janvier, are from a pretty rural area of a very rural country.
Brennan: Adrien Kazigira lives on the farm he was born on, up in the hills, without electricity or running water and he is one of the greatest Roots writers in the world. He gets put in that [world music] box because he's from Rwanda and sings in Kinyarwanda, but, in fact, if he was from Brooklyn or East Nashville and he wore a cowboy hat, people would be calling him a genius. And they should because he's a poet. He comes from the region of Rwanda that historically produced the poets for the kings. I would put him on par with the few great post-Dylan folk writers. He's a folk writer.
When we recorded the first record, we were in Rwanda in 2009. We found hundreds of bands and musicians. But to our ears, it wasn't of interest. It wasn't that it wasn't good, but a lot of it just sounded like it could have been recorded in Boston. And so we luckily met Adrien in the final days and he came to record with us at a friend's house. And these friends didn't like these guys because they speak in dialect, they were "dirty," they sing in dialect. Somehow we got through it. And it's a true back porch record, this first album.
The first song is "Sarah." It was the first song to be translated, and when it came back to us — it is such poetry, it is so well-written. And Adrien writes these in his head. He doesn't write these out. And the poetry is stunning. It's a song about a woman who has AIDS, who's been shunned by everybody — by her village, by her family — who spends what little money she has trying to get cures for AIDS. And then she's leaving forever, and a man who loves her is begging her to stay. It's just such an incredibly beautiful song.
Werman: Ian Brennan's high praise for Adrien's talent, ranking alongside the best post-Bob Dylan songwriters. It's hard to grasp that Brennan does not speak kinyarwanda. The translation of Adrien's songs, however, showed him who Adrien is and how he thinks. And having been with his recording team around the globe, seeking out other musicians like The Good Ones, Brennan says he has a good sense of poetry in any language.
Brennan: What I've learned is that, whether it's in Romania or whether it's in Malawi or Cambodia, when a song feels poetic, it usually is. We have actively sought out countries where music is underrepresented or even unheard and we've done 25 records across three continents in the last nine years. These are money-losing acts of love, labors of love. I don't know how long we can continue, but we intend to. We're trying to. And it's very important that we, as listeners, actively are seeking out music that is better for us. Ultimately, it's not them that's cheated. It's our country that would be cheated. It's the listeners that are cheated.
Werman: I'd love for us to hear one more number from The Good Ones. And this is precisely how they recorded the album at home in their village in Rwanda — unplugged. No overdubs.
Brennan: Yeah, they play at their best in this manner, up close and intimate. In fact, at the shows that they've been doing, they'll go out into the audience and just leave the mics behind. And that's really when the show begins.
Werman: This song that they're about to perform translates as, "My Smartest Friend Has Lost His Mind."
Brennan: Yeah, it's [about] a dear friend of theirs who bore the scars of the genocide on his face, and, unlike a lot of others, did not have the good fortune of being able to survive this emotionally. And they are mourning the loss of him.
Werman: The Good Ones are able to take a tragedy and turn it into art.