Clarisse Karasira’s Favorite Maine Place

The Rwandan-American singer on Waynflete’s Joan Sayward Franklin ’46 Theater.

Waynflete’s Joan Sayward Franklin ’46 Theater
Photo by Brian Vanden Brink
Clarisse Karasira
Made in Maine
In 2022, Karasira sang “Kaze Neza” (“Welcome”) in English and Kinyarwanda at Portland’s Victoria Mansion and Cape Elizabeth’s Fort Williams Park. It was her first music video recorded entirely in Maine.
A Call to Music
Karasira gave up a career as a TV news reporter to make music. Her editor begged her to reconsider, asking if her decision was wise. “I don’t know,” she replied. “I only know I have put out what I have in me.”
International Star
Karasira is juggling a move to a new home, in Saco, with music-video production and invitations to perform internationally. Her next Maine concerts are in summer 2024.
By Virginia M. Wright
From our December 2023 issue

Before she released her first music video, in 2018, Clarisse Karasira asked for her friends’ opinions. “They said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? It’s so poor!’” she recalls, laughing. But she was 21 and eager to launch her career, so she put the video on YouTube anyway.

In it, Karasira sings her Kinyarwanda-language composition, “Gira Neza” (“Be Kind”) as she strolls her Rwandan neighborhood in a long orange dress and flip-flops. She interacts with locals stacking bricks and collecting water and steps between two rice harvesters in a heated argument. The exchange ends in smiles. “The next morning, I  saw that 10,000 people had watched it. The next, 20,000. Then 100,000, then 500,000, then 1 million and 2 million, and oh, my goodness!” The lack of polish that had worried her friends touched Rwandans, as did the simple appeal for kindness delivered in Karasira’s warm, melodic voice. “Fans told me they saw something that was missing from the music scene: I was focusing on content, not fashion and other distractions,” she says.

In 2021, with two albums exploring themes of compassion and unity under her belt, Karasira married humanitarian-programs developer Sylvain Dejoie Ifashabayo, and moved to South Portland, where Ifashabayo and other members of his family are among a wave of Central African immigrants. Though she was consumed with thoughts of the family she’d left behind, Karasira nevertheless had a favorable first impression of her new home: “The people in Maine were so welcoming.”

Karasira’s Rwandan audience continues to grow even though she now writes and records her songs thousands of miles away. She’s also found an appreciative local audience for her contemporary spin on Gakondo, the traditional music of Rwanda. “Even though they don’t understand the words, people say they feel the meaning of the songs,” Karasira says.

Karasira has performed at several intimate Portland-area venues but, this summer, chose to launch her third album, Bakundwa (“Beloved”), at Waynflete’s Joan Sayward Franklin ’46 Theater, where she had earlier enjoyed her first concert-hall experience. “It’s so big and beautiful — my dream come true,” she says, “and the people there are super, super kind.” 

Headshot courtesy of Sylvain Dejoie Ifashabayo

Down East Magazine, March 2024 cover

Get all of our latest stories delivered straight to your mailbox every month. Subscribe to Down East magazine.