Coming Around Again

  Ignace (Ntirushwamaboko) Ryangoma '96

In 1994, I met Ignace Ntirushwamaboko, his wife, Marianne, and their infant son Christian as they arrived at Logan Airport from their war-torn homeland of Rwanda. Ignace, (now known as Ignace Ryangoma) had come to Boston to attend Berklee on a Fulbright scholarship. The last leg of their journey had been relatively easy as they flew from a refugee camp on an airport runway in Zaire to the tarmac at Logan. The story of the difficult first leg from Rwanda to Zaire, however, was revealed by their tired yet relieved faces, worn clothing, and tattered shoes. Ignace's once-white leather sneakers touched U.S. soil bearing the dirt and scars of a harrowing exodus from Rwanda on foot.

"I walked 100 kilometers in these shoes," he told me. As we drove to Berklee, he described the ordeal of thousands of Rwandans, both Hutu and Tutsi, who fled, stepping over bodies, dodging sniper fire, risking everything to escape the massacre of tens of thousands of their countrymen to find refuge in Zaire. At the time, Marianne was pregnant, and their second child, Christopher, would soon be born in Boston.

I was impressed that despite the holes, scrapes, and scars gained along the way, those sneakers and the man wearing them still held together somehow. Firmly on American soil, Ignace and his family had just stepped into a new life.


At Berklee and Beyond
I recently found myself wondering what had happened to Ignace and his family during the dozen years since I last saw him. Searching on Google and MySpace, I found him. When I spoke with him after all these years had passed, Ignace recounted his life since he'd left Berklee. He had battled with post-traumatic stress, abandoned his music, and seen the birth of his third and fourth children before entering the next phase of his life: a return to music, and wholeness, with a new mission in life.

In Rwanda, Ignace had been a working musician, a singer-songwriter and keyboard player. Lacking formal training, he learned guitar on his own; played with local musicians; and studied the jazz, funk, and soul masters. At Berklee, Ignace plunged into his studies, hungry to acquire musical proficiency and an understanding of music theory. He was also eager to forget the haunting memories of the genocide he'd witnessed.

But mere weeks into his first semester, the shock of his experiences began to resurface, coloring his songwriting and testing his ability to keep up with his studies. Posttraumatic stress came upon him gradually and subtly. "I didn't realize what was happening until it was too late," Ignace told me.

He persisted at Berklee, writing and producing songs with the help of Piano Professor Marc Rossi. He began presenting lectures and performances locally, recounting his experiences through his music.

"When I started writing songs back in Rwanda, I wrote about love and peace-just entertaining music," he recounts, "After the war, I began to express the anger, fear, and agony that I had gone through."

Ignace carried a full course load at Berklee - a requirement for maintaining his Fulbright scholarship and student visa - but it became increasingly difficult to keep pace. "The internal conflict I was experiencing started to impact my passion for music soon after my arrival in Boston," he says. "But it took me two years to finally realize that something inside me had died despite my physical survival." After the number of his credit hours dwindled, he lost his visa. Faced with the probability of having to return to Rwanda, Ignace found assistance through a church he and Marianne attended and decided to relocate the family to Canada with refugee status. In late 1996, Ignace said goodbye to Boston and, for a time, to his dreams of pursuing a musical career.

"I came to Canada as a way to start over, to see if I could regain my strength," he says. "I kept writing songs but avoided getting involved with music professionally. On and off, I tried to put together a few projects, but I realized I had lost the ability to write any kind of happy, inspiring music."

Ignace had always believed that music should enlighten, inspire, and make people feel good, but the music he wrote was suffused with darkness. At one point, he went for four years without touching an instrument or writing songs.

"It hurt me to realize that all I had left after the war could be summarized by this simple statement: 'I saw a lot of innocent people getting killed for nothing. The world seems to have moved on, but I am stuck with these horrible memories.' That's not something you can sing about on a Friday night in a club or at somebody's wedding.

"War had tainted the way I saw the world," he says. "Contrary to the general belief that singing helps one heal by letting it all out, in my case it just reminded me that I had lost the ability to inspire and to entertain through music."


The Call of Music
While his music career was on hold, life went on and he focused on his family. His experience as a radio DJ and entertainment reporter in Rwanda helped him land a job as a program coordinator at a community radio station in Ontario. He also worked at a bank for a brief time. Ignace and Marianne added two more daughters to the family: Victoria and Vestine. As their oldest son Christian grew, he showed a keen interest in music.

"I made sure he always had an instrument and I taught him the basics," Ignace says. By age 12, Christian practiced guitar consistently, learning on his own, and studying the music of Joe Satriani, Wes Montgomery, and George Benson. By the time he turned 14, he was itching to play with a band. Around the same time, 10-year-old Victoria convinced her father to buy a drum kit by promising that she would practice daily. "Victoria held up her end of the bargain," says Ignace. "She wanted to be a drummer for her brother."

That prompted Christopher, 12, to trade the keyboard for an electric bass. Nine-year-old Vestine started learning chord progressions on the keyboard and, a short time later, began singing lead. They called themselves the Magical Bunch.

By July 2007, through their father's tutelage and hours of daily practice, the kids were playing a blend of African-inspired jazz, soul, and pop. They felt the urge to transform the musical exercises they practiced into songs and started cowriting with their father.

Once again, Ignace began to hear music calling him. "I realized the kids had something special and it was now up to me to support them and keep teaching them. I felt very proud and had found a new sense of purpose."

While the children know few details of the war in Rwanda, their songs reach deep into Ignace 's well of experience, acknowledging past and present conflicts and offering messages of hope and empowerment.

"Some of the songs that I helped them write still carry traces of past experiences," Ignace says. "However, I am now more mindful of the need to make the message of hope the central focus."

In July, a year after their first gig, the Magical Bunch appeared at the Ottawa Jazz Festival. The group also has a tour planned to raise funds for African relief organizations like SOS Children's Villages, and the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based organization Mapendo. At 15, Christian, has already set his sights on Berklee.

As Ignace talks about the Magical Bunch, it's evident that working with his children has helped him feel whole again. "Music never dies," he says. "The whole time I thought I had lost it, it was developing in silence - perhaps to allow me to find the right channel for it. I have regained the ability to work on my own material. Now I can see some of my music spreading through my kids, becoming their own. I might not have fully been able to escape from my past, but the music in me has finally found a way out."