As the Rwandan cultural drums reverberated in the near empty exhibition hall at Laico hotel, the joy and energy of the relentlessly pounding Rwandan drummers could be felt.
The sound of the beat as if calling out, attracted passersby and visitors who were chilling luxuriously outside the hotel’s gardens.
In a matter of minutes the hall was filled with amazed, almost hypnotized guests who were glued to the drumming.
The reason for the hypnotic drumming was to celebrate the launch of Epahrodite Binamungu’s latest ‘Ngoma’ paintings.
A display of 50 finished drum paintings showed the work of a painter who invested an enormous amount of time and patience to get his product on the walls.
With a precise touch and twist in colours, the ‘Ngoma’ series depicted what everyone heard late that evening, the significance of the Rwandan drum.
“Each drum carries different beats and meanings and this is what I have tried to show in my paintings. I invited the drumming troupe to emphasize the theme of the exhibition as a way of reminding fellow Rwandans and foreigners about the significance of Rwandan drums in our culture,” Binamungu said.
Decades ago in Rwanda, around the 15th to 17th centuries when the Nyiginya Dynasty was founded by the Nyiginya clan of kings, Rwanda’s drums carried importance beyond their sociocultural context.
It is said that the ‘Kalinga’ (royal sacred drum) became the symbol of political power in the Rwandan Kingdom. Consequently, lesser royal drums known as ‘ingabe’, surrounded the ‘Kalinga’.
“Different cultures have different meanings to their drums and drum beats. Rwandan drums, are unique and different because they are used in the art of music and dance, and previously they carried authority that is why they are of different types, with different names and have meanings to the beauty of their beats,” Binamungu explained.
A Rwandan saying explicitly states that, “He is king who has the drums.” As a way of demonstrating the power of the king, it was often said that, “The drum is greater than the shout.” The drum represents the king while the shout refers to his subjects. This culturally means that the shout of the people could not be louder than the voice of the drum.
Royal drums were marks of identity and authority. Each king had royal drums that were carried wherever he went. In times of instability and war, royal drums were jealously guarded to prevent their capture by enemies because the loss of the royal drums meant the loss of authority to rule. In other words, drums were a political symbol.
Exposure and storage
One of Binamungu’s paintings named, ‘Au chaud’ (In the Heat) depicts the ancient method of drum storage—drums lying on the ground as they surrounded a simmering fire.
Traditionally drums were stored in a house where sacred fire kept burning. They were sprinkled with bull’s blood to honour the drum and to enhance its power.
Drums were rarely brought out to the public and they were beaten only on special occasions, for example during the celebrations marking the beginning of the planting season to symbolize the rhythm of life.
Today, the difference is not so distinct. Drums are brought out during various special occasions in the country for example when celebrating Liberation Day, ‘Itorero ry’Igihugu’ and are also a common sight during weddings ceremonies.
According to Richard Karekezi, a local Rwandan artist, drums are a source of amazement.
“Those day’s drums were made of zebra skin. This meant that the special drum makers who were employed by the king had to go zebra hunting before they could make the royal drums,” said Karekezi excitedly.
However, in modern Rwanda, cows’ skin is what is used to make the drums.
“Newly made drums were laid around the fire and the heat made them sound better,” Karekezi explained, “…but old drums, after being used, they were kept on the side in these warm rooms to rest.”
In the silence of the resting rooms, cracking sounds from the drums can be heard. This meant that the drums were rejuvenating and restoring themselves back to their original conditions.
Restrictions and breakthroughs
Sitting on drums is forbidden. Just like laws that govern a state, drums too have laws and regulations. These are mostly cultural beliefs or preservation rules.
“Women never drummed, they were never allowed to touch or beat the drum,” said Joseph Habineza, the Minister of Sports and Culture (MINISPOC).
“Today, our elders would never understand if they heard that women are drumming,” Habineza said amidst applause, “… and this is a sign that we are achieving gender empowerment in all sectors of the country including our culture.”
Habineza was impressed by the fact that the women who drummed had acquired more drumming techniques.
“This is the first time I am seeing them playing with their brothers and it’s astonishing.”
When performing usually two dozen tall drums are placed around a central drum (‘Kalinga’) and the drummers move around the drums in a circle each taking turns to beat the central drum.
According to Leaonard Mutwarisibo, a professional drummer and who is president of ‘Inkomezamihigo’ drumming troupe, comprised of women drummers from Butare and men from the Rwanda’s National Ballet, the ‘kalinga’ is the most expensive and important of all the drums.
He said that on the local market drums cost between Rwf165,000 to Rwf10,000 depending on their value, size and significance.
“Drums were used to express people’s way of life through rhymes, praise songs and poetry. These educated the younger generations of the heroic accomplishments of their kings. Drums taught about patience, bravery, success and social life,” Mutwarisibo said.
However, Mutwarisibo said that most youth of today do not know or understand their culture. For this reason he has a dream of putting up an international music school that will teach a wide range of African ultural music.
“I intend to go around the whole continent performing. For Rwanda, the focus will be teaching about our culture,” he said.
His love for drumming has motivated this young man to establish an organization called ‘Mizero LEAF’ that cares for street children in the city centre.
We feed and clothe them with the help of sponsors. They are also trained in various music and cultural income generating skills that will make them self sustainable in the future because we don’t want them to go back to stealing and taking drugs,” he said.
By creating a new way of life for these children as compared to their previous ones on the streets, one could say that the drums have the power to build lives, empower and open doors for Rwandan drummers as they storm the entertainment world.