When you first see Ibrahim Cyusa on stage, singing and dancing, with his Inkera traditional dance troupe, you instantly spot a man being seduced by instant fame.
At the end of his usual three-hour performance fans usually beg for more. But the show eventually ends and they go home looking forward to another Friday evening of ‘gakondo’ (Rwandan traditional music) fun.
The energy of his songs is conveyed in his singing and not just in his fans’ and dancers’ dancing. Watch him close in on the audience, moving to the front of the stage to engage and connect with them and you see a man on his way to bigger, greater things.
But it was not until he had an interview with Sunday Times that much about this budding musician came to light.
The 29-year-old is the son of Pierre Rutare, a victim of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Cyusa’s father was an architect who designed and set up the first model of the roundabout in the centre of Kigali. Rutare is also known to have been a dedicated basketball fan.
“He is the one who designed and built the old roundabout in the city centre which had a fountain. Maybe he also had some inert musical talent because there is no way you have two children with this passion for music,” Cyusa said.
Cyusa is a half-brother to Rwandan-born Belgian star, Stromae – real names, Paul Van Haver.
And he is not your typical destitute school dropout as common stereotype might have it. Six years ago, the singer graduated from the then National University of Rwanda, in Huye, with an accounting degree. But he feels more of a Gakondo singer and dancer than an accountant.
Inkera, the name Cyusa (right) chose for his gakondo group, was inspired by experience from an overnight traditional dance performances during his childhood. Courtesy.
“I am more of a gakondo musician than an accountant. Having an education is a way of trying out all things in life because you never know what actually works. My accounting knowledge helps in my operations but I am first and foremost, and happily, a gakondo singer.”
Asked how his love for gakondo blossomed, Cyusa reminisced about how his formative years, his grandfather’s home and grand cultural evenings. The entire family so often enjoyed late night singing and dancing.
Music, in a way, runs in the family. His aunt, Fanny Umwali, is best known for her famous song, Ibyiza by’u Rwanda.
“Other aunties love ‘gutarama’ [cultural evenings] but never really pursued a professional career.”
“If something is in your blood you cannot run away from it. After the Genocide, I lived with my grandmother who loved traditional music. She enrolled me in a dancing troupe but mum always discouraged it.”
He was a dancer before he started singing. In his formative years, Cyusa often performed alone at weddings and, surprisingly, pleased many. When he turned 20, in 2009, he joined the Inyamibwa Cultural Troupe, one of those cultural troupes intent on preserving the country’s unique dancing tradition.
During the seventh edition of the Pan African Dance Festival (FESPAD) in 2010, he caught the eye of Serge Nahimana, head of Inganzo Ngari, a traditional dance troupe that now officially reigns as best in the country, and moved on.
Two years ago he formed his own troupe, Inkera, and they are taking the Gakondo industry by storm.
Traditional music icon, Butera Masamba Intore, commonly known as Masamba Intore, regards him highly. Masamba said: “I know him very well. He has just started but he is destined for great things because he loves gakondo so much. And he has talent”.
Cyusa has, so far, composed 14 songs.
“I haven’t officially produced all my songs but I am soon going to release two. All my songs are traditional music since other genres are not my calling. I perform at Grand Legacy Hotel on Friday evenings but due to demand by fans I want to find other concert venues such that if you don’t find me at Grand Legacy you have another chance.”
The mood at his late evening concerts is always magnificent. Fans sing and dance with his troupe for about four hours every Friday.
Quit bank job to focus on gakondo
After graduation, Cyusa worked as a banker for five years, first as a cashier and was later promoted to head teller.
But he threw in the towel in November 2017. The job was so demanding and allowed no room for his gakondo passion.
“Juggling my passion in gakondo with work at the bank was difficult; getting time for rehearsals was risky. Besides, a bank overworks you; you can’t think and compose a song. You are pressed hard to think only for the bank’s interests.”
“It was a burden. I never concentrated at work on Fridays. People would approach me about wedding performances for the weekend and I rejected offers. I was busy. I couldn’t perform on Friday evenings as I do currently since, in a bank, you finish your shift late night.”
When he quit his bank job he was earning Rwf400,000 a month. Nonetheless, Cyusa has no regrets.
He was reluctant to disclose his current earnings but one thing is clear. He is happier, and much better off, now.
“How much I earn now depends on the season but all is well,” he said, grinning.
Last year, he bought a car and a good quality sound system for his concerts.
“All I own now is from gakondo music. If you have passion, and discipline, things work out; it’s not because I am a better singer than others in this area. But, respecting your work and being creative and innovative have a big role. You must have creations that touch the hearts of people.”
Cyusa goes out with friends but, he emphasized, that does not imply mindless and wasteful drinking sprees.
His troupe’s name, Inkera, was inspired by experience from overnight traditional dance performances in his childhood.
“We used to sit and sing all night. This habit continued with friends in Inganzo and elsewhere. I used to lead the singing and we started thinking about making this marketable, or profitable. This was around 2014. We were a team of about five; a few singers and dancers. Now we are 14 including dancers.”
He has four dancers, three drummers and instrumentalists, and seven singers. Most, he said, are students and university graduates.
Work worthy of respect
Cyusa admits there are challenges. The most important, he thinks, is that many youths are not aware of gakondo music’s positives. The young generation, he said, is so much influenced and distracted by western music.
“It hurts that right now it is few of us doing it yet those singing RnB, soul or all these other genres are so many. I think this is a problem caused by colonialism because westerners corrupted our brains to think that only their creations are good, and not our gakondo.”
Despite all, unlike what many people might think, he said, theirs is work that is worthy of respect and with a reward that is bigger than just a paycheck.
“When people hear gakondo singers, they consider them more brilliant than those who emulate western music. In the past, the word gakondo was equated to losers or good for nothing people lacking real talent. This has changed.
“Gakondo dancers have master’s degrees today. They are smart, wise people with talent, jobs and so on, and are doing well.”
According to Masamba, gakondo is flourishing in Rwanda.
“Those doing it have increased and they are trying to be better; more creative. The journey continues and I will achieve my mission,” he said.
Masamba’s mission is to boost the number of traditional music lovers as well as up its style and quality.