38-year-old Sophie Nzayisenga has been playing the inanga musical instrument almost all her life, something she’s done out of a strong passion for her culture. The mother of four has travelled within and beyond to give the world a glimpse of what Rwanda’s culture is all about. She spoke to Women Today’s Donah Mbabazi.
You are a song writer who can play an instrument. What influenced your path?
I think I got my talent from my father. I’m not just praising him, but aside from the fact that he was my teacher, he was also among the best music composers, and whenever he was writing, I was always by his side. I used to be so close to my father because my mother passed away when I was only four years old. Even when I’m composing music, I use some words my father used in his songs.
Have you always been passionate about playing the inanga, or was it something you got interested in along the way?
I’ve always been passionate about it. I started playing the inanga when I was six years old and it has always been a part of me, it’s in my blood if I may say.
How did you overcome the stereotype that such instruments are for men?
Being with my father taught me a lot of things, even when I was about to give up, he always stood by me. He stood up to people who used to blame him for teaching such skills to a girl and he always told them that there was no law that prohibited a woman from playing instruments. That made me proud and even stronger to overcome any stereotype.
You are passionate about preserving the Rwandan culture. How do you plan on using your status as an artist to accomplish this?
I took a decision to share my skills with others, especially the youth, because my wish is that some day, when I am not in this world, I would want someone to follow in my footsteps.
Our culture is evolving, alongside other aspects, and we shouldn’t shun changes, apart from those that violate our beliefs. Our culture still exists, it’s developing and it’s preserved and I only wish to continue developing with it.
You have been playing this instrument for years now, what keeps you motivated?
When you gain nothing from what you do then its best you leave it. I still play this instrument because I enjoy what I do and it also supports me because I earn a living from it. Aside from that, I have achieved a lot from it; I have visited many countries. I have gone to over 24 states in the US; I have been to Asia, Belgium, and England, among others, and with this, I am proud to say that I have represented my country well.
What is that one thing that people don’t know about local music instruments?
Our traditional instruments are very much loved, especially the inanga, because it has all the requirements that other musical instruments have. It can even be played alongside instruments like the saxophone and produce good music.
Local artistes embracing local instruments, what is your take on that?
I can’t say that they should all produce traditional music, but at least they should have a notion on our culture and add a piece of that in their music. This will even help promote our music worldwide, that’s why music from Nigeria, South Africa and Ethiopia is doing well.
Rwanda’s culture is a unique one; how can the youth be guided in preserving it?
They should never forget who they are. I remember when I was still young, I used to admire people who used to mix French with Kinyarwanda because they seemed to be the ‘styled up’ ones, and yes, one can learn all that, but you shouldn’t forget who you are. Culture comprises of our values and beliefs and I believe they are worth preserving.
Apart from your musical path, are there other ventures you are into?
Nothing. I only play the inanga and that’s how I earn a living.
Who do you look up to?
They are many people but I get my inspiration from my father. I also have many musicians who have set inspiration for me in many ways.
What are some of the challenges you have encountered?
This has been a long journey for me. I stopped playing along the way for 10 years in the Genocide aftermath but my husband gave me courage and support to play again.
When I had just turned 18, my friends teased me that I wouldn’t get a husband, not with me carrying a huge instrument meant for men. I almost gave up but my father stood by me and I ignored the view.
If you compare Rwanda today to what it was 20 years ago, what would you say about its transformation?
I’ll just talk about music because for the rest, even the blind can be witnesses. For music, especially the traditional kind, it has developed a lot to the extent that it can be one’s sole source of income; more women have also embraced it.
As our country develops, as we construct elegant buildings and beautiful roads, that’s how the fruits of our hard work are recognised.
You performed at the AU Summit. What was the feeling of performing for over 30 presidents like?
Saying that I was happy is an understatement; I was honoured and humbled to perform for such an esteemed audience. It improved my CV.