In Exile, Burundian Musicians Create Out Of Crisis Political violence in the African nation of Burundi has forced an estimated 200,000 people to flee. Some are musicians who are bringing the country's diverse styles together in one band.

In Exile, Burundian Musicians Create Out Of Crisis

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Our next item is about the music of exile. Political violence has engulfed the African nation of Burundi. Thousands have fled to neighboring Rwanda, and among them is a group of musicians. They left home without any instruments. But as NPR's Gregory Warner reports, they did not slip into silence.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Bertrande Ninteretse is a Burundian video artist and rapper who goes by the name Kaya Free.

KAYA FREE: Kaya Free is the highest freedom.

WARNER: But in April, he videotaped the death of a fellow protester shot by Burundian police.


WARNER: The protests were targeting a president who defied the constitution and seized a third term in office. Since then the president's police and party militias have cracked down on anyone seen as antigovernment. In this country of only six million, more than 200,000 people have fled. Kaya says he had to flee because he was on a police hit list. When he reached the Rwandan capital, Kigali, he grabbed his smart phone and started tracking down his friends.

KAYA FREE: Now we have Whatsapp, we have Facebook. We can write, hey I'm in Kigali, hey, we have a big house, you can stay here. Oh, really, Kaya? OK, we come.

WARNER: Kaya and his wife soon found themselves hosting Burundian musicians, and each was a star in his genre - jazz, reggae, traditional Burundian folk. Only they now had no instruments, no money, no chairs, even. They did have plastic pots and pans and beer bottles.

KAYA FREE: Some day, they was doing like, (imitating Kirundi rhythm). This is a Kirundi rhythm.

WARNER: Back in Burundi, these musicians would never have shared the same stage. Now in this living room jam, over this traditional rhythm, rose the voice of an R&B singer - actually, the winner of "Prix-Music," which is like the Burundian version of "American Idol."

KAYA FREE: To see jazz people, traditional people, the winner of "Prix-Music," there together to sing, it was like a dream.

WARNER: I came to visit the musicians that are living together in a different house.



WARNER: This is the new home of Burundi music.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah. (Laughter).

WARNER: Still without chairs and without instruments.

OMER NZOYISABA: We had no instruments. It was about our voices only.

WARNER: Omer Nzoyisaba is a percussionist. He used to play traditional music at Burundian weddings. Next to him is a bassist accustomed to playing in nightclubs. Another exile is a guitarist who performed in international hotels.

NZOYISABA: We started to sing and we had an idea to form a group.

CHRISTIAN NINTERETSE: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: Christian Ninteretse is the R&B singer you heard. He says the band, called Melodika, was created so they could eat, but it's become something much more.

NINTERETSE: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: So you were just friends, but then because of problems, you became a family?

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: Yeah. (Laughter).

MELODIKA: (Singing in foreign language).

WARNER: Melodika now performs around Rwanda using borrowed guitars and drums. When I visited their house, they took me back to their beginnings - just kitchen supplies and voices.

MELODIKA: (Singing in foreign language).

WARNER: The members of Melodika refuse to talk politics. They said their message is one of unity - ethnic unity, regional unity. That's why their playlist can follow an urban love song, like the last one, with this traditional homesick lament.

MELODIKA: (Singing in foreign language).

WARNER: Omer Nzoyisaba says this song is called "Yes, Mama."

NZOYISABA: Tell them that I'm alive, tell them that I'm missing them. Go to see around if everything is good at my home. It's like this, yeah.

WARNER: When do you think you'll get to play your music in Burundi?

NZOYISABA: If Burundi come, good...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We just pray for Burundi.

NZOYISABA: We are Burundian, and we love our country.

WARNER: They pray for Burundi. Like all exiles, they hope for a chance to return home. But they also hope to continue this journey, to collect funds to make an album and travel the world with their music. This is Burundi's new sound, they say with the confidence of stars. It's just one that took a crisis to create. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Kigali.

MELODIKA: (Singing in foreign language).

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.