Music is one of the cultural aspects that define any African culture. In the case of Rwanda, music is one of the things that you will visible see as a true definition of a mild and descent society.
Though Rwanda has different kinds of music today, tradition music still stands as a very essential aspect of the Rwandan culture and if you ever visited the country, you will be welcomed by the rhythms of drums, harps(inanga), music bow (Umuduli ), violin-like instrument (iningiri) and a music box with acoustic strings on it (icyembe ) and definitely you will not miss live dances and beautiful sounds of music from the traditional troops.
The Inanga is a traditional oval-shaped harp that is made out of wood with strings tied at the edges and one of the oldest traditional music instruments in Rwanda, which originates from the time of the Kingdoms.
In organology the inanga is known as a ‘trough-zither’, which gives an indication of the shape of the instrument, namely a flat soundboard (resonator) with slightly concave sides reminiscent of the shape of a trough or raft.
It varies from 75 to 115 cm in length and 25 to 30 cm in width. The soundboard itself is slightly smaller as there is a rim all around it.
At the narrow ends the rim is much wider and has eight to twelve deep notches cut into each end to hold the strings in place. One striking feature is that not all the notches have a string, so that the number of strings is always smaller than the number of notches. The preference is for instruments with six to eight strings, and this group accounts for nearly 90% of all inanga.
The soundboard has two types of decoration: star-shaped or oval incisions, ‘the eyes of the inanga, the function of which is to distribute the sound, and burnt-in geometric motifs on the ends of the instrument. The strings of the inanga are made from natural fibres, and used to be made from animal gut.
The person who works the hides into clothes is responsible for producing strings of animal origin. Each instrument actually has a single continuous string, which is stretched from one end of the soundboard to the other and looped through the notches, resulting in several strings. The rest of the string is fastened to a wooden peg. A protective strip is sometimes placed between the strings and the rim of the soundboard to prevent the tightly stretched strings from getting damaged. Nowadays nylon or metal strings are also used.
The performer remains seated while he plays, resting the inanga vertically on his lap. Holding the instrument with the little finger of his left hand, he uses the other fingers of his left hand to pluck the top four strings and the fingers of his right hand to pluck the bottom four strings. The strings are plucked using the fingertips. Only open strings are used, hence one fixed note is produced for each string. One technique sometimes used, however, is to lightly touch the string at certain points and then pluck it to produce harmonics. Tapping on the soundboard with the fingernails adds to the rhythmic sound.
The inanga is usually played solo and the performers sing their own songs-that are mostly about historical events, personal experiences or everyday incidents. The literature of lyrics used by the inanga player are not simple Kinyarwanda expression- they are mostly expressions (or words) which need to be interpreted in the view of the listener and sometimes have hidden meanings, that sometimes need to be researched by the composer.
Although not all members of the audience understood the Kinyarwanda lyrics, the music transcends language and cultural differences and most times it is the sound of the strings and the movement of the body of the Inanga player that send the universal message to the viewers.
The inanga is also played during rituals and was played for the Kings in the palaces. It is mostly played by men, but in very rare cases- it may also be played by a woman.
The range of the instrument is usually pentatonic, which means that not all of the six to nine strings are used. Tuning is carried out by tightening the string slightly (higher notes) or loosening it (lower notes).
The Inanga, which is a lyre-like string instrument, is played among other instruments such as ingoma, ikembe, iningiri, umuduri in the Ikinamba dance- which is accompanied by instruments. This dance is also arguably the most exalted musical tradition in Rwanda that tells the stories of heroes and kings of Rwanda,
The Inanga is produce very gentle music sound from the strings. If you like to imagine, it can be called the ‘Traditional guitar’ of Rwandan music. When it is played in the mix of traditional dancers and drums, it adds grace and percussive emphasis to the traditional music as the dancers extend their arms in the air and stomping feet.
This instrument is not like any kind of instrument of music in Rwanda, it was affiliated to the Kings and queens. The members of the kingdoms had special days in which they would travel to the King’s Palace in Nyanza district (southern province) to play for the king.
The inanga, which is a lyre-like string instrument, has produced several Rwanda’s finest known performers internationally, such as Sentore Masamba (RIP), Maitre de Rujindiri, Thomas Kirusu (RIP), Sebatunzi, Sophie Nzayisenga (daughter of Thomas Kirusu), Victor Kabarira, Daniel Ngarukiye, Jules Sentore, and Emmanuel Habumuremyi
Vianney Mushabizi, 62, is one of the elderly traditional harp (Inanga) players today. He has played with famous traditional composers and musicians like Thomas Kirusu and was the one who trained Kirusu’s daughter Sophie –who is currently Rwanda’s renowned female Inanga player. He narrates that essence of Rwandan music was for communal purposes such as entertaining the king, and during the communal events- such as weddings and harvest seasons when the community had to share a brew from the harvest.
Mushabizi says that Rwandan music has come to change through the years and some of these aspects have been lost along the way, however, he and many other traditional musicians are doing their best to pass on the legacy to the young generation.
“Rwandan traditional music is more than just making money. It is an art that was valued by the society and required more commitment and practice for an individual. Today, things have changed and it is more commercialized unlike in the past when it was a time for community to share its values” he says.
Apparently, Mushabizi has is involved in a training program for youthful traditional artists and has groomed his own siblings to carry on his legacy in the years to come. “I am proud to be teaching others youths, and even my children who are now learning to play traditional music, which is the only way to pass on the legacy of Rwandan music” he says.
One of the talents trained by Mushabizi, is Sophie Nzayisenga. At the age of six, Sophie started playing Inanga. She was also trained by her father, the late Thomas Kiroso, who was a very famous Rwandan Inanga player.
“We were many children at home and our father tried to teach each one of us but I had more interest,” Nzayisenga narrates. “One of the most memorable moments was seeing my father and his siblings playing Inanga. There was nothing that could out stand the rhythm of the Inanga and the dances. These were my greatest joys.”
Every time her father put down his Inanga, Nzayisenga would reach out for it and begin playing with the strings. The instrument was traditionally played solely by men, but after sensing Nzayisenga’s passion, her father offered to teach her.
By the age of eight, Nzayisenga was participating in various musical competitions. Her first ever foreign musical competition was at the 1989 Children Festival held in Bulgaria; since then she has gone on to appear in several competitions, including the Lake Of Stars festival held in Malawi in January 2012. “Other participants in these festivals acknowledge my style of performance and are usually thrilled with the rhythm the Inanga produces,” says Nzayisenga.
But the fact that Nzayisenga played a man’s instrument continued to engender controversy back home. “At the age of eighteen, I started feeling that it was not the right for me to play a man’s instrument,” she says. “My peers always discouraged me into playing Inanga because they thought I was not classy. But when I looked at the benefits, I overcame my fears and discouragement from other people and fully played the instrument.”
Today, Nzayisenga is a mother and says that she is greatly supported by her husband and her two children. “My daughter even asked me for a smaller Inanga since mine was so big. She always plays along every time I’m playing the instrument at home.”
Moreover, just like her father, Nzayisenga is passing on the tradition of playing Inanga by training young children at the Kigali Music School. The school, which was founded by Baptist missionary Marlene Lee, first opened its doors in 2000 with the aim of teaching traditional dance and instruments such as drums, Inanga, Ikembe to vulnerable children.
Nzayisenga came to the school seven years ago with the intention of learning how to play other musical instruments But after the school’s founders unearthed Nzayisenga’s Inanga talent, they enquired whether she would be willing to teach students that instrument.
“I didn’t care even if they had said that I do it as a volunteer. I would not have minded. I’m thrilled when the youth approach me to teach them how to play Inanga. With the dedicated time and trainings I have given several people, I’m happy that now we have more great Inanga players,” she explains. “The fact that there were only a few people playing Inanga, an instrument of our heritage, was so disappointing. It felt like our culture was dying out while we were embracing foreign culture. It was because of this that I decided to teach and train the young people.”
The main mission and vision of the school is to produce professional musicians with the knowledge of how to blend with the different musical instruments. For those students who can afford to pay, the school costs Rwf20,000 for three months. Otherwise free training is available.
“Music trainings are expensive but in order to raise Rwandan music stars a lot needs to be sacrificed,” says Aimable Nsabayesu, the school’s director. “Most of our students here are from poor families and some are orphans who can’t afford to pay for the trainings. But since most of them are yearning to learn how to play musical instruments, we train them.”
The school trains children from the age of five because at that age, their hands are mature enough to play the instruments. Even if a child doesn’t know how to read and write we train them.
“Music is a language that can be understood by everyone. It’s important to learn music at a tender age. The greatest musicians and legends learn music at a tender age” Nsabayesu says.