Ezra Kwizera was the epitome of the big fish in a small pond in Rwanda where his music still catches ears over the very airways once used to annihilate his people.
This is how he tells it when he picks up the phone mid-recording session in Vancouver to introduce himself to another new audience, those in Kelowna who might stop by his Minstrel Café concert or this weekend’s Lille Gard Festival.
“I really emphasize love and forgiveness,” he says. “It’s all about although I’m crying today, I will be smiling tomorrow.”
Kwizera belongs to the Tutsi ethnic group. In 1994, over one million Tutsi people were killed by the Hutu population in Rwanda in a genocide incited by radio propaganda and executed with unprecedented expedience.
The minority Tutsi held power in the country for centuries, but when the majority Hutu seized control of the country from the Tutsi monarchy, civil unrest ensued. Three decades into the Hutu government’s rule, Hutu throughout the country executed a 100-day killing spree, wiping out an estimated 800,000 Tutsi, including much of Kwizera’s extended family.
“Right now, when you read about Rwanda, it’s about forgiveness. We were talking about mothers killing their own husbands in front of their kids, mothers who killed their kids because the father was Tutsi…And now they’re talking about reconciliation,” he explains.
This is the backdrop for the world beat, reggae, soca and dance hall stylings Kwizera wants to continue earning his living from, though he’s now outside Rwanda.
Described as a gospel singer by The New Times Rwanda, which regularly follows his career moves, his interviews are traditionally as upbeat as his music and reflect a man trying to salvage a successful career from the other end of the earth.
Kwizera is married to a Canadian whom he fell in love with in the early 2000s as she volunteered in Rwandan orphanages and he embarked on a journey to piece together the family lineage war and civil unrest had destroyed.
The pair married and lived in Rwanda, but when he wanted children, she told him she wouldn’t know how to raise them in a nation where orphanages fill with the abandoned children with no other means to survive.
The result is a man caught between two worlds.
“My message is positive. I don’t talk about: Oh you killed us,” he says.
His latest song includes lyrics like: “Never give up because we’re all hanging on the same rock, you have to brush it off.”
He isn’t exactly hanging on the same rock on this day, mind you. He’s in a Surrey studio trying to help his backup singers negotiate their harmonies. It’s a fine line to walk, trying to replace the music in a land where vast amounts of art, culture and music have been destroyed by civil war without a daily connection to the realities of living life in that place.
To do so, he maintains an African studio, Narrow Road Production and runs a charity, Narrow Road Ministries. In January, he is also starting a music school.
Kwizera grew up in Uganda. His parents were refugees who fled the country when the Hutu seized power in 1959. They had seven children, though his father was dead by the time Kwizera was eight.
He spoke more languages than he had fingers on his hand in order to avoid being pegged as a refugee on the school ground; and he had a natural talent for music that got him hand-picked for band.
Music wasn’t always fun, but it proved a way to earn a living a DJ. It was an outlet, if not always a happy one.
His teachers had a phrase: “If you play off the bottom, you will get hit on the bum.”
And so he learned quickly and rose to the top. From the sounds of things, this is pretty well the plan for his Canadian-based music career: learn quickly and rise to the top.
To hear Kwizera’s latest album, pressed last week and ready for the two shows he will give over the long weekend, head to the Minstrel Café this Monday, July 2 at 8 p.m. There is a $5 entertainment charge.
One can also catch him at the Lille Gard Music and Arts Festival at the Bottega in East Kelowna June 30-July 1. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door.
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