You could say that the Mighty Popo is a Rwandan/Burundian refugee/survivor whose music is steeped in African tradition, but you’d hardly be getting at the whole story of one of Canada’s greatest rising stars. You’d hardly be able to account for his effortless musicality as a member of the 2004 Juno Award winning African Guitar Summit, the kudos received for his genre-busting solo work, his highlight performance at the Canadian edition of Bob Geldof’s international Live 8 concerts (one of the few chosen for EMI’s Live 8 DVD) or his brilliant return to New Orleans for CBC Radio’s Maple Leaf Mojo Meets New Orleans Gumbo benefit concert broadcast live across Canada.
En route to understanding Popo’s musical and career achievements, one would do well to consider how Africa and Africans are often subjected to certain distortions in the public consciousness.
Recent history has made Rwanda and Burundi a kind of shorthand for violence, chaos and genocide. One might think that all music, dance, laughter, civility and joie de vivre in those countries had disappeared into a vortex of despair. Popo – a Rwandan born in a Burundian refugee community – is evidence to the contrary. He is a person of enormous charm, wit, resilience and, yes, joie de vivre.
The image of a hardscrabble existence eked out in isolation, despair and dislocation doesn’t take into account the richness of lives lived before and even during exile, the communities formed within it and the strength of families that sustain themselves through it. In spite of hardship, Popo and his family made connections and friendships, found jobs, expressed ideas, pursued dreams, surrounded themselves with music and managed to live and be engaged in a larger world.
There is a strain of romanticism that glorifies “traditional”African music, defining it in restrictive terms, arguing for its “purity” in a curatorial manner and citing a musician's connection to tradition as a means of authentication and validation. In reality, African tradition – like any tradition – is a floating signifier, a tough concept to nail down, part of a continuum that constantly shape-shifts in subtle ways that stretch over many lifetimes and across many borders. But as much as Popo has inherited a love of the traditional music of Rwanda and Burundi, he also has a lifelong connection with rock and roll, blues, jazz, R&B, Reggae and folk traditions. His music reflects his immersion in a world culture which he has navigated with grace, sensitivity and an enormous sense of exploration and fun. It is enriched by many traditions. It is authentically his. It is validated by its own excellence.
Yes, the Mighty Popo is a Rwandan/Burundian refugee/survivor whose music is steeped in African tradition. He is also one terrific musician and someone to watch – in Canada and around the world.