His name belongs right up there with the legends of Rwandan folk music/culture; we are talking about names like Sophia Nzayisenga, Viateur Kabarira, Bernard Rujindiri, Joseph Sebatunzi, Thomas Kirusu, JMV Mushabizi, Emmanuel Habimana among others.
What really separates him from the rest is his relatively tender age coupled with an undying passion for a music instrument–the inanga that is fast disappearing from the minds of today’s young generation to which he belongs.
Inanga is to Deo Munyakazi what a bible is to a preacher. So much so that it has become his preferred mark of musical identity and point of uniqueness.
The 23-year-old has been studying Modern Languages, Arts and Creative industries at the University of Rwanda’s College of Arts and Social Sciences (Huye Campus), and is set to graduate with a degree at the end of this month.
Though I’d heard about him for a while, I first saw Munyakazi play his inanga at the Hotel des Mille Collines last month, at a workshop organized by the Rwanda Arts Initiative and the Rwanda Society of Authors to raise awareness about music rights among local music stakeholders.
There were several Rwandan musicians in attendance, both from the old and the new generation.
Among the flurry of musicians that took to the stage on that day, Munyakazi was a stand alone act with his inanga, which ensured that he was the day’s resident entertainer. A few of the musicians later took to the stage for their own performances and Munyakazi gladly backed them with his favorite instrument.
One of his last major performances was back in April, at folk musician Cecile Kayirebwa’s Inganzo ya Kayirebwa concert held at the Hotel des Mille Collines. That he would play inanga (or an instrument for that matter) for Kayirebwa, widely considered a legend and a guardian of Rwandan traditional music was in itself a powerful statement on Munyakazi’s side.
Some of the titles to his name so far include; Urakwiriye mwami , Ikaze ikibondo, Ngwino urebe, Si impanuka, and Twimakaze umuco.
When we meet for this interview on Tuesday, I ask him what Munyakazi means and he retorts:
“It means a worker, a great man on the job”.
One of the first things that strikes me about him is his strong sense of family lineage. He actually gives me one of the most elaborate personal introductions I’ve heard:
“I am Munyakazi wa Habihirwe, Habihirwe wa Mukorukarabe, Mukorukarabe son of Ssekidende, Ssekidende son of Mutarataza, Mutarataza son of Zirimu abagabo, Zirimu abagabo son o Kagirima, Kagirima son of Mpanga.”
Then he continues:
“Mpanga is my great, great, greatest grandfather. I know all my lineage. I know, yes.”
He considers himself lucky to have grown up in a musical family:
“My elder brother Albert plays guitar and Rwandan gospel/country. Sometimes we perform together. We are a large family of eight siblings -two boys and six girls and most of us are musicians, some sing in choirs. The eldest is a girl and a good guitarist in church. I also play piano and bass and acoustic guitars in my church.”
As a little boy growing up in Gakenke, Munyakazi was bitten by the music bug and occasionally he also wrote some poems.
After completing high school, in 2012, he decided to learn the inanga professionally. For this, he headed to Nyanza district in the Southern Province where he sought apprenticeship from veteran inanga maestro JMV Muhabizi, a man whom he speaks about highly:
“We met at one of his concerts and I saw that he was very passionate about sustaining our culture and I asked him to teach me. He actually taught me for free. He is a great man. He knows how much someone has to be courageous to be a musician.”
All that the young apprentice had to do was buy his first inanga at Rwf 50,000, and on which he perfected his craft.
Currently he owns two inangas but hopes to acquire even more:
“A musician must have more than one music equipment which he can play comfortably. I would like to acquire more inangas, as many as six if possible, so that when somebody visits me I can teach them a bit of inanga. Owning many inangas is my dream and it’s my pleasure.
Inanga is very different from other music instruments. It is our dignity as Rwandans. It’s our prosperity not just in Rwanda but even in Africa.
F example I can say that Americans can play the guitar well because it’s their prosperity, it’s their dignity and it’s their beauty and their culture but me when I decide to play the guitar I find that I’m not perfect because it’s not my gift I think.
Folk music is our own. The almighty gave us our folk music so as to sustain it. You can’t find it in America but you can find it here. It’s like diamond. That’s why I like it so much and it sounds unique somehow. When you play it, it gets into the heart and the mind and the whole body.”
Besides his favorite instrument Munyakazi also plays piano, acoustic and and base guitars.
“My audience is mainly mature people. Sometimes when I go to the countryside I play with grandmothers because this is their culture and they know our culture better than me. They even teach me inanga songs.
Slowly the younger generation is also beginning to accept my music because they recognize the passion which I have.”
At his concerts, Munyakazi likes to occasionally surprise his audience performing cover versions of popular Rwandan folk songs that date as way back as the 1970s, way before he was even born:
“I look out for the songs with great messages about peace, love, health, culture, history. I sing them so as to remind myself and to remind Rwandans about our history and culture. Singing these old traditional songs helped me to learn inanga techniques. I would not have learnt inanga with my own new songs. I had to start by doing cover songs so as to develop my own original touch, but now I’m singing mostly my own songs.”
I ask what his own songs usually deal with and he explains:
“I sometimes think about our social life or what I see while travelling on the road, then I get the image of what I want to say, then when I get home I take my inanga and find a melody and sing and write.”
As we wind up this interview I ask him to explain the difference between inanga music and igisope music:
“Igisope is Rwandan songs which were played by the first Rwandan musicians who played modern instruments. Igisope is a word which means folk music.
Inanga is full of Rwandan traditional spirit more than igisope because igisope uses modern instruments, sometimes over folk lyrics, but inanga is the most pure musical culture of Rwanda.”