All ordinary artists are alike. Each special artist is special in his or her own way.
Teta Diana is, most definitely, a special artist – and a special person. Born in Kenya to Rwandan refugee parents, she only moved back to Rwanda when she was 5 years old. As a professional musician, she has travelled around the world, performing in Mexico, the USA, the Netherlands, Senegal, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and many other places besides. In addition to Rwanda and Kenya, she has lived in Belgium, and is currently a resident of Sweden. She speaks fluent French, English, and Kinyarwanda (her native language). All this, and yet she is still, amazingly, only in her 20s.
Teta’s new album, Iwanyu, beautifully reflects this diversity of cultural experience. It is an album that has been recognisably influenced by an array of different cultures, themes and musical traditions: some of the songs are in English, others are in Kinyarwanda, others are in both (some are also partially in French); some of the tracks are upbeat, others are melancholic, and a few are (somehow) able to blend both sentiments simultaneously; some of the songs have a distinctively African feel to them, others are more overtly Western and mainstream, and some are, again, a strange and beautiful fusion of the two.
But though it would be correct to say that Teta has been influenced by a variety of different traditions, histories, and cultures, it would, in my view, be incorrect to say that her music is merely reducible to them – rather, I think, through her music she creatively reimagines them. That is, there is something unique, something individual, something distinctively Teta-ish about her music. Any artist could, theoretically, be the subject of myriad musical influences; however, no one could have combined such diverse and distinct influences and experiences, and yet at the same time have created something so genuinely unique, original, and beautiful, quite like Teta.
Teta produced Iwanyu in Brussels, her goal being to work in a city which reflects the cultural diversity of the album itself. While she was finding musicians to help her work on it, she met Sander Villers – a Belgian sound producer and engineer with an interesting backstory of his own (he has lived in Greece and can speak five different languages). He, along with several other musicians, ended up recording the album with Teta.
I met up with Teta and Sander for a joint interview late last week. During our discussion, we touched on a wide variety of different subjects, including Teta’s own personal/musical life story, Sander’s and Teta’s own musical influences, and, lastly, the nature and meaning of music itself.
Thomas Moller-Nielsen (to Teta): When did you start singing? Have you always wanted to be a musician?
Teta: I’ve loved music and singing for as long as I can remember: when I was a child back in Rwanda, I used to sing in front of the bathroom mirror all the time. I never really seriously considered becoming a professional singer, though, until I was in my late teens. It just didn’t seem like a possible career for me. In Rwanda, as in a lot of other places, singing isn’t really considered to be a serious profession; it’s something that drops-outs do. But I was lucky: my father was artistically-oriented – he was an amateur poet – and he really encouraged me to pursue my dream.
TMN (to Teta): How did you end up in Brussels?
Teta: Well, in 2016 I had an experience in San Francisco on a project called the Music Action Lab. It was basically a gathering of selected musicians from all over the world, brought together to try to make socially relevant music. It was that experience of talking to and playing music with these people that persuaded me to finally create own album, one which married different musical styles. Brussels just seemed like the perfect place to get it done. Not only did I know the city well – I had been coming to Brussels on and off since 2015 – but Brussels is a multicultural city, with the largest Rwandan community outside of Africa. I could feel at home away from home.
TMN (to Sander): How did you two meet?
Sander: I remember the day very well. I had just finished a very long session at the recording studio where I was working at the time. It was Friday night, but I really felt like I just didn’t have the energy to go out: I was totally exhausted. So, I lay down on the couch and was just about to fall asleep when something inside my head told me: ‘It’s Friday night. Make yourself go out! Make yourself meet people! Make yourself socialise!’ So I did. I got up from the couch, put my jacket on, and walked straight out of my apartment toward the centre of town. I ended up at a bar I knew that had a good live music scene. Teta was sitting right next to me at the bar, and we started chatting. She told me she was planning on recording an album, and that she needed a sound engineer to help produce it. Naturally, things just went from there.
TMN (to Teta): How did you choose your band members for the album?
Teta: Well, given that I wanted to make a musically mixed album, I chose musicians from many different backgrounds: from Rwanda, from Belgium, from France, from Senegal. In general, I don’t pick a person to be in my band purely on the basis of their technical musical ability. Rather, I choose them by going with what I feel in my gut. If I feel a connection with them, I pick them; if not, I don’t.
TMN (to Teta and Sander): Who are your biggest musical influences?
Teta: Though I love listening to many different kinds of music, my biggest musical influences are probably those Rwandan singers who were singing just before and after the 1994 Rwandan genocide: one in particular was known as Kamaliza. I remember they encouraged the Rwandan people to remain unified, and they tried to get the refugees who had fled the country to come back to Rwanda. I think that’s probably the reason why unity is such an important theme in my songs.
Sander: I also love a lot of different kinds of music. When I was younger I used to listen to a lot of hard rock, but over the years I’ve also grown to love jazz, blues, hip-hop. Now I listen to virtually everything: Depeche Mode, Rammstein, Paul Simon – I love all sorts of music. And all the music I listen to has influenced me in various ways.
TMN (to Teta): How did you come to write this album?
Teta: Well, when I was starting out as a professional singer, I made a lot of mainstream pop music. I had some big hits; I was successful. But deep down, I also felt that I wasn’t really making the music that I was born to make. In a way, I felt like I was in a trap: my producers just wanted me to keep producing hit after hit after hit, to sell and to sell and to sell. But I wanted to really express myself, to make a different kind of music, an authentically mixed kind of music, one that married different musical styles, cultures, and traditions. One that really came from me. I felt that I had proved that I could make successful pop music. Now, I wanted to make an album for and from me, one that I could truly be proud of on a personal level.
TMN (to Teta): What does the title of your album, Iwanyu, mean?
Teta: In Kinyarwanda – my native Rwandan language – “iwanyu” means means “home”. I suppose it’s ironic that I’m producing an album called “home” while I’m abroad. Although my home is, in an obvious sense, in Rwanda, I also feel that I can, in a sense, be at home anywhere. For instance, I was in northern Sweden not long ago, and I ended up spending an evening with a group of Saami people [an indigenous Nordic tribe]. We got to talking, and they ended up playing me some of their own traditional music, “the joik”. What I heard really amazed me. It reminded me almost immediately of a kind of traditional Rwandan music called “amahamba”, which is sometimes also called “cow song music”: it’s a slow rhythm, consisting mostly of vocals and few instruments (claps and inanga/cithare). It was bizarre: here I was, an African girl in the middle of one of the coldest, remotest parts of the world, and yet, in a sense, I was back home in Africa. It was surreal.
TMN (to Teta): Can you say a bit more about the style of music on the album?
Teta: I like to mix and marry different musical cultures and styles, but my main influence is Rwandan traditional music. On the album, I wanted to incorporate Rwandan traditional music into most of the songs, and to talk about Rwandan traditions and culture in the lyrics. One of my goals in making this album is to introduce the West to traditional Rwandan music. However, I also want to encourage more Rwandans to listen to that kind of music, too – a lot of the mainstream music back in Rwanda has become very “poppy” and “hip-hoppy”. In a sense, I want to reintroduce traditional Rwandan music back into Rwanda.
At the same time, though, I want to demonstrate the fact that I have been influenced by Western music and traditions; I don’t want to reject that part of my musical upbringing and experience. I want to create original traditional Rwandan music – or music that, at the very least, has been influenced by traditional Rwandan music – that can be heard internationally.
TMN (to Teta): A lot of the songs I’ve listened to on the album are rather melancholic. Is it fair to say that this is the kind of music that you enjoy making the most?
Teta: It’s true that I like making melancholic songs. My background is probably a large part of the reason for that. Although I sing about different topics, I tend to think about my roots – about where I’m from – a lot. Both of my parents were refugees from the 1959 civil war in Rwanda that lasted over 30 years: that’s why I was born in Kenya, and only moved to Rwanda when I was 5 years old. And then, of course, I was alive (but very young) when the genocide happened in 1994. It affects you when you are born a refugee. Your country of origin – your “true home” – becomes very important to you. So there is an element of patriotism in my songs, of pride in my country.
TMN (to Sander): Was it a different experience compared to what you’re used to, recording African music?
Sander: No, not really. But recording with Teta was quite a different experience compared to anyone else. She was amazing to work with, but she was very protective of her music: she didn’t seem to want anyone interfering with the vision she had for her album. She seemed to be a bit suspicious that people’s advice was in actual fact intended to take away her autonomy in designing the album and the songs – and in a way, I suppose this is understandable, given her experience making pop music back in Rwanda. In the end, though, everything worked out great, and I love the album that we ended up making.
TMN (to Teta): Is it true that you were very protective?
Teta: Yes, I was very protective. I wanted to be fully independent, and to make the album without any fear of judgement. I really wanted the album to come from me. And I’m happy with the result: this album has really, I think, helped me connect with my own artistry, with myself as an artist.
TMN (to Teta and Sander): What does music mean to you?
Teta: To me, music means freedom. It lets me feel free, to be who I was born to be. It’s an incredible, unique way of expressing thoughts and feelings, and I feel very grateful and lucky to be a musician.
Sander: Music is a universal language of feeling, of emotion. It tends to have a similar effect on most people. Just look at music in the movies: when there’s a sad scene, they play music that everyone instinctively recognises as sad; and when there’s a happy scene, they play music that everybody recognises as happy. It’s amazing.
TMN: But there’s a sort of duality to music, isn’t there? It’s universal – it can induce a similar effect on everyone – but it’s also very particular, insofar as a given song can still mean particular things to particular people at particular times. No?
Sander: Yes. Music is both personal and public at the same time. That’s what is so incredible about it; that’s what makes it so magical.
For more information about Teta and her music, visit her website or her YouTube channel.
For more information about Sander and his mixing studio, Villemix, visit his Facebook page.