I didn’t know much about Niyomugabo Philemon prior to listening to his melancholic, introspective, and altogether beautiful song “Nimunsabire”. The Kinyarwanda title of the song can be loosely translated in English as “Pray for Me”. I can recall, in brief flashes, seeing him on television performing the song. I was too young then to pay it any mind. I would rediscover1 the song years later through Agatoni’s blog.

The song, which plays with a stoic self-acceptance, tells of the singer’s struggle to reconcile intention and action. The saying ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’ seems to capture the theme of this song perfectly. And so, the singer begs, “Pray for me”, from which the listener can deduce “before it’s too late”.

The melody soothes, the delivery is purportedly innocuous, but the message is serious and Philemon appears to use the calm as strategy, as diversion. You need only listen to some of his other songs to discover the recurring technique. When critiquing racial injustice, when offering advice, Philemon is unchanged in tone. But if the tone gives nothing away, if instead of disturbing, it invites, then Philemon, I would wager, has done his part. His words, after all, are unmistakably unambiguous.

If you enjoyed Philemon’s “Munsabire”, you’ll love this compilation of his lesser known but equally rich songs. It is testament to the versatility, the mastery of form, and skilled storytelling that marked Philemon.

  1. Agatoni, who makes magic out of letters on her blog, has written about this song in the past. I’ve failed to find a link to her piece and so I’ll add it if and when I chance upon it. Pray for me. In the meantime, I write about this song as an ode to her writing and to the calm but powerful artistry in Philemon’s music.