Remembering William Leonard Niyomwungere (1976-2020)

William Leonard Niyomwungere, who passed away this April, is deeply missed by his family and by all those who knew him in the WUSC network. His loss is also mourned by music fans worldwide who came to know Willy through his songs and performances.

At just five years old, Willy began the musical journey that he continued on his entire life. He grew up in Burundi in the home of his paternal grandfather, who was a pastor. Every Sunday, his grandfather brought him to church where he sang in the choir of the youngest children. To wake early in the morning and stand before the group of adults required discipline and courage, and as he grew up, his confident, melodic voice was noticed by his community.

He soon picked up a guitar and learned to play. By secondary school, he founded and led his own band, Relax Band, which gave weekend performances. Forced into exile by war in Burundi in the early 1990s, Willy made his way to South Africa and then Kenya. A true musician, Willy kept his ear open for new sounds, despite the hardships of exile. South Africa in particular exposed Willy to new cultures, melodies and musical styles, the influence of which would forever be felt in his music.

Willy soon found his place in Canada, where he studied at the University of Laval and continued making music. He played at his own shows as well as in festival lineups, including the popular Festival des journées d’Afrique. Up to this point, Willy sang in Kirundi, a language largely spoken in Burundi. He repeatedly heard a desire from his francophone audience to understand his lyrics, so he rose to the challenge. Not only would he sing in French, but adapt his music to the new language while keeping true to its roots. After a few years and much hard work, Willy began collaborating with a producer and recorded an album of ten songs, all in French, called “Merci la vie.”

Willy enjoyed a great musical career that gave him the chance to travel abroad to perform, and have his work enjoyed by thousands of listeners. His music is known for its rhythmic variety, and the touching, human themes he addresses in his lyrics. In his own words, Willy said, “People sing in different styles and for different reasons. Me, I don’t sing to be liked or to become a millionaire, no. I sing because it is a natural gift, and I have chosen to sing about what moves me most deeply, namely the disappointments, sufferings and misadventures of humankind.”

Willy is survived by his wife and two daughters, who have our most sincere condolences.