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Corneille Nyungura shares his personal story of surviving the Rwandan genocide and what reading "My Parents' Bedroom" in Say You're One of Them meant to him. Watch this video clip, then watch the entire webcast
Corneille scored a big hit with the French public following the release of his début album "Parce qu'on vient de loin" (a moving account of his personal experience in the Rwandan genocide). The singer, who recently became a Canadian citizen, continues to attract a wide following of fans thanks to his vocal talent and personal charisma.
Corneille Nyungura was born in the German town of Freiburg on 24 March 1977. His parents were living in Germany at the time completing their university studies. The family moved back to Rwanda while Corneille was still very young, however, and he spent his entire childhood there, getting in touch with his roots. Corneille developed a passion for music at an early age, listening to the giants of black American music such as Prince, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Meanwhile, he also rifled through his parents' record collection, discovering old French 'chanson' classics by the likes of Brassens, Aznavour and Brel.
By his early teens Corneille had proved to be a budding singer and musician. In 1993, the talented 16-year-old ended up going into a studio in Kigali to record his first compositions. Shortly afterwards, he went on to triumph at the "Discovery" awards organised by Rwanda's national television. Corneille's fortunes appeared to be on the up and up, but a few months later tragedy struck. In April 1994, a bunch of soldiers broke into his house and massacred his entire family, slaughtering his Tutsi father, his Hutu mother and all his brothers and sisters. Corneille managed to survive the massacre by hiding behind the sofa, but he still bears the mental scars of this harrowing ordeal.
Following the killing of his family, Corneille fled to Zaire (the future Democratic Republic of Congo), joining the crowds of refugees in exodus on the roads and enduring several long, exhausting days of walking before reaching his destination. Once in Zaire, he managed to make contact with a German couple who had been close friends of his parents. They immediately offered to take him in and act as his adoptive family in Europe.
A New Life in Canada
In 1997, Corneille decided to venture further afield and try his luck in Canada. He moved to Montreal and began studying for a degree in communications. But he soon returned to his first love in life: music.Teaming up with two friends from Haiti, Corneille went on to set up his own R'n'B group, O.N.E. The band's career took off fairly quickly after they scored a big hit on the airwaves in Quebec with their single "Zoukin’." Before long, O.N.E. found themselves in major demand as a support act, playing concerts with leading stars such as Isabelle Boulay.
In 2001, Corneille decided to break away from the group and launch his own solo career. While he was working on material for his début album, he also wrote music and lyrics for "Ce soir" (a track which featured on the compilation "Cocktail R&B 2002") and "Si seulement on s’aimait" (which appeared on the album "Hip Hop Folies.") Meanwhile, Corneille also honed his skills on the live circuit, performing extensively in Quebec and then France where he caused a major stir at the "Francofolies" festival in La Rochelle in July 2002. In October of that same year, Dave Stewart (ex-half of The Eurythmics) invited the young Rwandan singer to perform at Le Réservoir in Paris. Corneille jumped at the chance – and all the more so, as it gave him the opportunity to get up on stage with one of his all-time idols, the reggae star Jimmy Cliff.
Corneille scored his first hit in France in 2002 with the single "Avec classe." Meanwhile back in Quebec, music fans discovered Corneille's début album "Parce qu’on vient de loin" (on which the singer spoke out about his personal history and the Rwandan genocide). The French public would have to wait until the following year for the album to appear in record stores. When it did, the first single release "Ensemble" rocketed to no.39 in the charts. But it was in 2004 that Corneille exploded on the French music scene. Two successive chart hits, "Parce qu'on vient de loin" and "Seul au monde", boosted sales of the album which rapidly topped the 300,000 mark. Meanwhile, Corneille found himself in great demand on the live circuit. He supported the American singer Cunnie Williams in concert in January 2003 and performed countless dates in France as a solo act. Meanwhile, he also recorded the song "Laissez-nous vivre" for the soundtrack of the French film "Taxi 3."
Spokesman for the Red Cross
In February 2004, Corneille was nominated in two categories at the annual "Victoires de la musique" Awards. ("Best Newcomer of 2003" and "Best Album of 2003"). Between July and September of that year, the Rwandan singer hit the festival circuit with a vengeance, performing at countless events such as the Nice Jazz festival and the "Francofolies" in La Rochelle, Spa and Montreal. Corneille also gave a memorable performance in La Réunion (where Bernadette Chirac, wife of the French president had a front row seat).
In October 2004, Corneille brought the house down at Le Zénith in Paris on two successive nights. A few weeks later, he went into the studio to record a duet with Youssou N'Dour which featured on the fund-raising album "Dix ans ensemble," made by the collective "Ensemble contre le sida" (All Together Against AIDS). In November of that year, Corneille triumphed in Quebec, receiving a prestigious "Félix" award for "Best Male Artist of the Year." Meanwhile, at a special ceremony organised at La Citadelle in Quebec, Corneille became an official Canadian citizen.
Corneille currently combines his singing career with humanitarian work. He is a spokesperson for the Canadian Red Cross, campaigning on behalf of child soldiers used and abused in conflicts all the way from Sierra Leone and Colombia to Sri Lanka. He has not returned to Rwanda since the tragic events of 1994, but claims his greatest dream would be to organise a reconciliation concert in Kigali stadium one day.
Committed to humanitarian causes, Corneille went on to become an ambassador for Unicef, spearheading the organisation's "Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS" campaign. For the first time in almost ten years, the singer returned to Africa in March 2005 to perform at "Africa Live", a concert organised in Dakar by Youssou N’Dour to raise funds for malaria victims. Corneille later admitted that setting foot in Africa again had stirred a sea of emotion in him and made him want to pay tribute to the continent and its people.
2005: "Les marchands de rêves"
Corneille made a comeback on the recording front in November 2005 with the release of his second album, "Les marchands de rêves" (The Dream Sellers). The album, on which Corneille appeared to be more at peace with himself and his past, was intended as a message of hope to African youth, painting a more positive picture of their homeland. Unlike Corneille's first album, "Les marchands de rêves" was a much more acoustic affair with tracks composed around simple guitar and percussion, then filled out with African and Afro-American arrangements featuring n'dombolo, Afrobeat, zouk, reggae and soul. All compositions were overlaid with Corneille's soft, velvet vocals.
Lyrically speaking, women are omnipresent on the album on tracks such as "Dieu est une femme" (God is a Woman) and "Petite soeur" (Little Sister). Corneille also comes to terms with his past, paying tribute to his family, who were killed in the Rwandan genocide, on the particularly moving ballad "Reposez en paix" (Rest in Peace) and sharing his doubts and emotions on "Sur la tombe de mes gens" (On My People's Grave). Both lyrically and musically speaking, Corneille's second album confirms him as an increasingly interesting and mature talent.
Corneille spent the entire first half of 2006 on tour, playing an extensive series of concerts which included an appearance at the legendary Olympia, in Paris (10 - 12 January 2006).
Corneille was also solicited to write the French entry for that year’s Eurovision, held in Athens on 21 May 2006. He penned a catchy ballad for a young female singer by the name of Virginie Pouchain, but the song failed to impress Eurovision voters.
On 14 September 2006, Corneille celebrated a happy event in his personal life, marrying Sofia de Medeiros at a small private ceremony in Montreal. Corneille met the model/actress during the shooting of his video clip "Ensemble". After their wedding, the couple moved to the outer suburbs of Montreal, setting up home together in Lorraine where the singer enjoys living out of the showbiz spotlight, in what he calls a ‘healthy’ state of anonymity.
During the winter of 2006-2007, Corneille devoted most of his time and energy to writing and recording a new album between Montreal and New York. "The Birth of Cornelius", recorded entirely in English, marked a new period of serenity in Corneille’s songwriting as he moved away from his tragic personal history and changed his musical style, assuming his soul influences and his ‘60s and ’70s R&B inspiration. Corneille also tried to distance himself from his squeaky-clean elegant image, admitting he was becoming increasingly tired of being pigeon-holed as some sort of urban pop dandy.
For "The Birth of Cornelius" Corneille recruited the services of producer Russel "The Dragon" Elevado (renowned for his work on D'Angelo’s album "Voodoo" and his collaborations with the likes of Erykah Badu, Keziah Jones, The Roots and Alicia Keyes). "The Birth of Cornelius", released in July 2007, marked a clear soul shift in Corneille’s sound as he made a conscious attempt to reach out to new audiences and conquer new markets. The album was brought out by Sony Music Japan and the first single release, "Too Much of Everything", proved to be a huge hit with Japanese fans.
"The Birth of Cornelius" was marketed in the United States under the Motown label in the autumn of 2009, at the same time that Corneille returned to France with a new album. He entitled it "Sans titre" (untitled), as a way of criticising the way he’d always been labelled throughout his career.
This, his fourth album, was very much focused on the lyrics and on the singer’s life today: his role as contented husband and future father; his problems with the music industry; his nomadic wandering between Germany, Rwanda, France and Quebec; the cynicism that he detested. All lyrics were written by Corneille’s wife Sofia de Medeiros. If there is one track that is particularly significant, it is "Voleur de endemain" (tomorrow’s thief), which evokes the sexual abuse the singer suffered as a child. An emotional injury he long denied, but which he now found himself able to talk about. The first single from the album was "En attendant" (waiting). With lyrics such as "Je ne suis pas noir, je ne suis pas blanc…" (I’m not black, I’m not white), this is a song about identity.
On this album Corneille also focused on the melodies, which are more funky and festive than on his two previous French-language albums, which veer from variety to soul.
Corneille began promoting "Sans titre" in January 2010, and played the Grand Rex in Paris on 13 January.
2011: "Les Inséparables"
In mid-2011, a new Corneille track started to fill the airwaves entitled “Le jour après la fin du monde”. The track was taken from “Les Inséparables”, an album released only in France in October. The reason that Corneille was unable to commercialise the collection in Canada was his ongoing dispute with his former record label, which prevented him from putting new records on the market.
The singer admitted that the arrival of his son Merik in April 2010 had brought new responsibilities and a degree of maturity. Although the global financial crisis was present in his lyrics, Corneille’s new disk shone with familiar rays of hope, fraternity and love. Along with hip hop and r’n’b influences, the singer called on the great Lokua Kanza to play his guitar on the track “Les Inséparables” and on his duet with Soprano, “Au bout de nos peines”. Corneille was clearly as inspired as ever and his fans weren’t disappointed.
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