In contrast to most Western music, the songs of Rwandan trio the Good Ones are humbling in their honesty and improbably optimistic considering the group's stark realities. Made up of three farmers -- all survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide -- who live without electricity in a rural hilltop village, it's remarkable that their simple yet powerful folk music has been heard at all outside of their home, let alone across multiple international releases. Released in 2019 by the Anti- label, Rwanda, You Should Be Loved is the group's third album and third to have been recorded by Ian Brennan (Zomba Prison Project, Tinariwen), an American producer known for helping under-represented musicians -- often inexperienced ones from third world countries -- gain global recognition and financial aid. Formed as a sort of coping mechanism in the years after the genocide, the group's de facto leader and primary songwriter is Adrien Kazigira (vocals, guitar). Joining him as co-vocalist and guitarist is Javan Mahoro, with percussionist Jeanvier Havugimana adding harmonies and occasional guitar. Using largely homemade acoustic instruments with farming tools often contributing to percussion, the three musicians create a sparse, rustic sound that while occasionally mournful, is also surprisingly buoyant.
The Good Ones' songs are a direct reaction to their immediate surroundings and situations, singing with forthright candor and aching poignancy about death, love, friendship, hardship, and family. With plaintive harmonies and a springy circular guitar riff, "The Farmer" is both a celebration and lamentation of the farmer's role in a society where the very providers of food often go hungry. Other bleakly themed songs like "Where Did You Go Wrong, My Love" and "A Long Sad Journey Watching You Die" still manage to harness unlikely moments of resplendence in spite of the anguish they portray. More often than not, though, the Good Ones live up to their name, acknowledging life's pain, but choosing instead to see its beauty and hope. After forgiving a friend's betrayal on the luminous standout "Despite It All I Still Love You, Dear Friend" and urging another to recognize her own self-worth ("Marciana, You Should Love"), Kazigira devotes not one, but two consecutive songs to his wife's beauty. As with their two previous outings, Rwanda, You Should Be Loved is essentially a field recording, captured live on Kazigira's farm. Where it differs is in its collaborative nature. Pairing Western artists with rural African musicians is a time-honored practice and generally yields mixed results. Nels Cline (Wilco), Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney), Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio), Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine), and Joe Lally (Fugazi) may come from various rock disciplines, but fortunately, they exercise a good measure of taste and restraint in their overdubs. Of those five, Shields' jarringly lush synth wash and Tucker's experimental noise textures stick out the most, though neither inflict lasting damage to the material, which already packs plenty of emotional resonance into its minimalist architecture.