In the video for her latest single, “Yewe Africa,” Clarisse Karasira walks through a town in Rwanda, clad in a simple leopard-print dress and matching headscarf. Behind her, people throng, jockeying for position to dance along with her or film her with phones, while bodyguard-looking types in vests keep them back.
They are not extras.
“We didn’t have a choice,” Karasira said, her voice rising a little bit in The Works Cafe on Temple Street in Portland, where we met coffee. “The people just started coming around as soon as I was in the street.”
In Rwanda, Karasira is that famous, getting her start as an untrained 17-year-old with a passion for telling the stories of the less fortunate on Flash FM and becoming one of the country’s leading newscasters, focusing on children’s issues.
But her passion was music and she found herself struggling to find time to sing with the busy pace of broadcast journalism. “So I quit journalism to give enough time to music,” she said.
Before long, Karasira was a sensation, recognized everywhere she went.
Her first big song, “Gira Neza,” which roughly translates from the Kinyarwanda as “be kind” or “be generous,” came after that career change in 2018 and saw Karasira getting back to the traditional music she learned in her home, like the music of Miriam Makeba. Her mother directed the choir in the church where her father served as pastor and she and her three brothers learned to drum and sing and dance.
“Women drumming is not that common,” Karasira said. “But I grew up playing drums.”
A week after the release of “Gira Neza,” the video was already climbing toward a million views – “and that’s a big deal in my country,” she said. “To get a million views is a huge number in a country where not everyone has internet.”
The next time she went to the market, things got wild. “Everyone was clapping,” Karasira recalled. “People started reaching out to touch me. My driver said, ‘Come on. Now you are a star. Don’t ever do that again!’”
The album she eventually released in 2020, “Inganzo Y’umutima,” is certainly well done, a mix of folk songs with Karasira’s voice mixed to the fore, resonant and warm, with some ’80s-style production. It is most obviously African because of the non-Western rhythms, hard to air-drum along to for someone brought up on 4/4 timing, but it is not out of character with other devotionals and gospel that is not exactly mainstream pop in the United States.
What explains her popularity?
“People fell in love with that young woman coming up with her great message,” said Karasira’s husband, Sylvain Dejoie, who was drawn to her music’s message of compassion and unity after having studied at the University of Virginia’s Contemplative Sciences Center as a Dalai Lama Fellow and the Watson Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He returned to Rwanda on a mission to lead with an understanding of how to be mindful and a focus on ethical and entrepreneurial leadership.
“A lot of musicians are just focusing on the music of love, sex, negativity, and only that,” Karasira agreed. “To sing about universal values is very rare.”
She pointed to “Yewe Africa,” the title of which translates to “Dear Africa,” as a song that mixes Kinyarwanda and English to call for unity – “we want an Africa for every African” – and seeks to inspire with compassion. Her voice breaks as she growls “oh, mamaland … stop the lies/ Stop the violence,” acoustic guitar sprightly in the background, percussion driving the energy.
Dejoie was so taken with Karasira’s message that he invited her to perform in concert to celebrate the legacy of the legends of Rwanda, traditional performers he and others wanted to celebrate to provide the people of their generation with role models lacking in a country that still feels the weight of the 1994 genocide that saw the death of almost 10 percent of the country in 100 days.
That meeting led to marriage (how many brides’ wedding videos hit 800,000 views on YouTube?) that fuels a mission that has brought them to Maine.
“We are here,” Dejoie said, “dreaming and hoping to share our passion, our culture, our values. With these universal ethics, we want to bring people together to celebrate the gift of life and art, hoping to bless wherever we find ourselves.”
It has not been easy. Like many immigrants, they sometimes find their new home disorienting as they try to make connections in the music business. And Karasira is now late in their first pregnancy, which brings a new challenge.
But “this is our family’s mission,” she said. “We do music passionately and it’s something we want to impart to the next generation. It’s a family thing.”
In the traditional style she favors, “we sing because there is something to say, not just for entertainment,” Dejoie said. “… There are values we profoundly believe in and without those values, our world crumbles and we cannot coexist. We owe it to the next generation to help them believe in compassion.”
It all culminates in the concept of ubuntu, which is also the title of another of Karasira’s hits. “I am because you are,” Dejoie explained, “and you are because I am. And anything that affects you has a direct effect on me.”
And maybe Karasira’s music will soon have an effect on you.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
Portlanders can experience Clarisse Karasira’s talent next month as part of a show that One Longfellow Square has assembled to raise money for Partners for World Health, which is working to get medical supplies into Ukraine and to Ukrainian refugees in Poland.
Karasira will join long-time veterans of the Portland scene, including singer-songwriters Jason Spooner, Caroline Cotter, Dominic Lavoie, and Jeff Beam; bluegrass artist Joe K. Walsh, and the exciting young R&B singer Angelikah Fahray, with more to be added.
(One can only hope we get a bit of collaboration with that many musicians in the house.)
Karasira will distinguish herself by leaning heavily into traditional southern African song styles and dress. While only a few of her songs contain English lyrics, it’s generally hard to miss her messages of spirit-raising and hope. It should be a particularly good fit for this event, reminding Mainers that we are but a piece of a much larger world.
• Concert for Ukraine, April 9, 8 p.m., One Longfellow Square, Portland, www.OneLongfellowSquare.com.
• For more on Partners for World Health, visit www.partnersforhealth.org.
• To donate directly to the Ukraine effort, text help4ukraine to 207-656-5261.
— Sam Pfeifle