Rear Give Me Hope, second album by JP Bimeni & The Black Belts, it would be tempting to see only the unusual story of a French-speaking singer from East Africa who took refuge in London and joined forces with Spanish musicians to play the soul from the United States. But if their musical meeting does not go unnoticed in live like in the studio, it’s first of all because it gives off rare shivers.
A few moments after leaving the stage at the end of a once again incandescent performance, JP Bimeni takes the air from the terrace which overlooks the concrete sea cast instead of the Mediterranean at the foot of the Principality of Monaco to win precious acres. Relaxed, when he has just honored the last commitment of the year 2019, the Burundian singer takes advantage of the moment to chat with those around him. Peaceful and blissful post-concert atmosphere. A spectator ends up advancing towards the artist, with a step that is both borrowed and determined. The fifty-year-old European begins by sending his congratulations but the emotion, palpable, soon overwhelms him when he suggests a military past, comrades in arms who died in Africa. JP gets up, spreads out to his full height and takes the man in his arms, whispers a few words of comfort to him.
He saw the pain in his interlocutor, he who survived the Kibimba massacre during which 150 students from his high school were burned alive in October 1993 when the civil war broke out in Burundi. He who was shot, on the ground, and owes his life only to a miraculously empty magazine after taking a bullet in the lung. He who was poisoned by a criminal Belgian doctor and lost half his weight, staying two hundred days in Nairobi hospital in Kenya where his family had been able to send him. He who can also tell of the terror and horror of fleeing for hours to reach the surrounding hills, alone among others, horribly mutilated bodies, flowing blood. The unspeakable.
Hope and utopia
If his first album Free Me emotionally freed him both personally and artistically, it has also opened many doors for him since 2018. Yet Jean Patrick Bimenyimana Serukamba finds it difficult to consider that his current success is legitimate. “I know lots of people in the country who are more talented than me, who have suffered more than me, I say to myself: Why me?, asks the forties. Especially since the soul, with which he stood out, is a music he holds in high esteem. “Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, I see them as gods”he exclaims.
For a long time, his new project was almost called Guilty & Blessed, from the name of one of the songs present. He refers to this inner tension, between the chance to live his dream and the guilt of the survivor. But that sent him back to an old reflection on the meaning of his musical approach. London, early 2000s. The Burundian student in economics, politics and philosophy refuses the professional future for which he was trained in Great Britain, this individualistic system which does not suit him.
With his guitar, he frequents the circuit of “open mic” evenings in the British capital and one evening discovers the power of music: “I was on stage, and suddenly I left my body. It scared me”. The experience troubles him. Once home, he asks himself: “If I can’t find the reason why I make music, other than for myself, I don’t want to continue. Because it can kill me”. The answer will impose itself after several years: to inspire the youth of his country. Out of fidelity to this guideline, he therefore preferred ultimately title his album Give Me Hopeanother piece. “I am a utopian in a skeptical world”he justifies with lucidity, repeating his need for“to be light, no matter how heavy things are, so as not to get lost”.
To reconnect with his history, with his continent, he evolves under the nickname of Mudibu, as he was called in his childhood. His priority is not the music but the family he has just founded. For a decade, he nevertheless multiplied collaborations in rock, funk, soul and reggae: with Mantilla, a group of ten instrumentalists; with the Jezebel Sextet which takes over Otis Redding; with Saints Patience author of an album in 2015… The same year, he exploits his personal repertoire on Insatza, in Kirundi – the language of his origins. Despite the proposals he receives, he plays the card of caution, considering that he does not know enough about the functioning of the music industry. “Music is therapy for me. Risking everything being destroyed by business is like taking what’s left of me”he explains today.
The meeting in 2017 with a team of Spanish musicians, during a festival where he had come to hold the microphone for the English soul band Speedometer, changed the situation. Between them, the agreement is immediate. “We work in community, like in a kibbutz”, says the singer about his partners gathered within the Black Belts. The cosmopolitan adventure echoes the universalist values he imbibed during his schooling after arriving in Wales in 1995: thanks to the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the young man was welcomed by the educational NGO United World Colleges in its 12th century castle worthy of an episode of Harry Potter. “More than 80 nationalities were represented”, he recalls. Already a way to visit the world, as he hoped when he was still on his native land. With soul, travel has become geographical. In sight, the United States. And a concert in Burundi.
JP Bimeni & The Black Belts, Give Me Hope (Lovemonk) 2022
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→ Also to listen: Cultural meeting “Music: JP Bimeni the survivor sings of hope on soulful notes”