The second thing that strikes me about Nneka is her stillness. The first, naturally, is her voice. It makes its stage entrance before she does and immediately takes on a body of its own, soaring across and around and beyond the bouncing crowd and iron walls, with power and precision. It demands conversation.
Friday night in Kigali, and it’s going down at Amahoro Stadium. Far from the hype that surrounded the closing of the African Nations Championship the week before, this opening event of the Isaano Arts Festival hosts a couple hundred people in a smaller hall behind the more stately stadium next door. The hall was built for sporty practicality, not soul. Concrete, steel and corrugated iron wrap around empty stands that cascade down to the centre, where a big stage with bright lights and Mutzig banners stands, and Nneka Lucia Egbuna is making her entrance. Dressed in a black overcoat, colorful scarf and guitar, her afro cascades into an almost-360 degree crown around her head, reminding me of clouds that would roll down Table Mountain as the weather shifted, clouding its intensity with picturesque ease. Nneka, too, seems at ease as she walks to the mic with all the chilled out swag of a Sunday afternoon. The band is already in motion and it’s about to be church, but we knew that already.
Isaano Arts Festival quietly appears once a year in Kigali, with African artists from all over coming through, en route to or from the Amani Festival in Goma, DRC. Last year, a packed hall came alight with uninhibited energy as the crowd roared along to Tiken Jah’s Plus rien ne m’étonne, with all the irony and defiance that history inspires. “Ils ont partagé le monde / plus rien ne m’étonne — They divided the world / nothing surprises me anymore”. The mood is different tonight, the hall not filled, the stage more still. A few seconds into the first song, I realize that while the sound feels like an exquisite explosion, Nneka is barely moving. But there is no stiffness to this stillness. It melts casually into dance as the performance carries on, her face bends with emotion, her voice goes high and low with equal strength, and I swing between dancing and standing still to try catch every word.
There is a gripping spirituality in her music, which spans from messages of love to the uncomfortable political realities of our world today. Around Nneka, the band channels an intense, steady energy. They look like they’re having time of their lives – sometimes playing and laughing with each other, sometimes lost in individual but perfectly synchronized orbits of song. Now and then they quieten their instruments as Nneka picks up her guitar and approaches the mic, and at one point, they fold into a hush as she begins to speak about the power and necessity of self-love. The audience keeps whooping. I move closer, but still can only hear every other word over the chatter and selfies. It feels like we’re missing something. Soon after, she takes a seat towards the back of the stage to perform Heartbeat, probably her most well-known song, then thanks the crowd and walks away.
My friend and I turn to each other like sad emojis on legs. Is it over? Just like that? It can’t be over! Come back! Around us, similar sentiments in the crowd build up into an encore call. Whatever happens backstage happens, and a minute or two later, the band calmly returns and plugs in, and Nneka reappears, then suddenly it’s like the music never stopped, and they’re playing my favorite jam.
When the performance ends it leaves us intoxicated with beauty, and like a hopeless music addict I want more, more, more. So on Sunday afternoon, my brother and I are on our way to Goma to see Nneka perform for thousands at the Amani Festival. Though a willing recruit to this last-minute mission, he hasn’t heard of Nneka before. I play a few of her songs for him, and they immediately strike a chord. “This is her??” “Yes!” I respond excitedly, happy to see his enthusiasm. “It’s going to be amazing!”
Wapi. A few hours later, we arrive in the lakeside town of Gisenyi and approach the Rwanda-DRC border with all the hype of successful pilgrims ready to turn up on this breezy afternoon. An official on the Rwandan side points us to the immigration booth where we need to get processed, then asksconversationally if we’re spending the night in Goma. No, we respond, we’re just going to a concert then we’ll come back in a few hours. He looks at us with a face that says “Eh heh?”
Eh heh. The border closes at 6pm. Been closing at 6 since a surge of political tension a couple years back led to restrictions on movement between the two countries. The officials, seeing my disappointment, try to offer some explanation. “Here we stay open,” one of them points out. “It’s the DRC side that closes early. It might change soon. But not today.” Three days later, the Congolese government reinstates 24-hour operations at the border. But not today. I do the math. By the time we clear the border and make it to the festival, we wouldn’t have much time before having to leave in order to get back before 6pm. We toy with the idea of spending the night in Goma, but logistics are too tricky. Eventually I surrender to turning back, mad at my lack of research based on the naïve assumption of free movement between neighbors, as though I’d forgotten all of history.
As we hang around for a few minutes, stretching and gathering ourselves, a convoy of large white buses rolls past in a random order of numbers – 3, 1, 10, 9. The buses are full of men in blue turbans and military gear. We take a closer look at their uniforms as they go past: Indian Army. On their way to DRC as part of the UN’s peacekeeping force, or whatever that thing is, I presume. The soldiers stare blatantly from behind the glass and I stare back, somewhat resentful. They pass through smoothly and I trudge back to the car, feeling like my mama felt that day she unintentionally saw the Thong Song video – utterly unimpressed with the world.
But what can you do? We are, after all, in beautiful Gisenyi. Later that evening, as we sit on a bench afew meters from the lake, eating and sipping and chatting in the quiet night, I can feel my worries melt intothe water. We stare at its ripples, just visible in the dark, and guess at the contents of large boats in the distance whose sparkling shapes look like fairy lights hovering over the lake. This is the most peaceful I’ve felt in a long time, and I find myself musing over how, in missing the show, we found stillness. It’s some kind of perfect serendipity.