Inanga: Rwanda's centuries-old music instrument

Inanga has been rightly described as Rwanda’s most important music instrument. It is a traditional oval-shaped harp that is made out of wood with strings fastened at the edges and that are plucked to produce musical notes.
Sofia Nzayisenga collaborates with a visiting musician during the Ubumuntu Arts Festival in Kigali in July. / Moses Opobo.
Sofia Nzayisenga collaborates with a visiting musician during the Ubumuntu Arts Festival in Kigali in July. / Moses Opobo.

Inanga has been rightly described as Rwanda’s most important music instrument. It is a traditional oval-shaped harp that is made out of wood with strings fastened at the edges and that are plucked to produce musical notes. 

It is one of the oldest and most revered traditional music instruments in Rwanda, dating back to the time of kingship. 

It generally varies from 75 cm to 1m in length, and 25 to 30 cm in width.

In organology (the science of musical instruments and their classification), the inanga is classified as a ‘trough-zither’ after the shape it assumes- a flat soundboard with slightly concave sides just like a trough.

The player simply repeats a short melodic pattern over and over again, though in a surprisingly non-monotonous way. To tune the instrument, one simply tightens and loosens the strings to taste.

Perhaps the most definitive mark of the inanga is the uniqueness and richness of the sounds it emits from its pentatonic scale. It’s like a perfect match of organic and acoustic.

Like Dr. Peter Stepan, the former Director of the Goethe Institut once told me in an interview, the inanga touches the heart. 

Save for very rare occasions, most inanga players assume a sitting posture when working the instrument, with the inanga nestled on their lap. 

Content and playing styles vary greatly from player to player. 

Over the years, the country has produced some fine inanga talent in the likes of; Thomas Kirusu (RIP), Victor Kabarira, Sentore Masamba (RIP), Vianney Mushabizi, Jules Sentore, Joseph Sebatunzi, Daniel Ngarukiye, and Sophie Nzayisenga, who is a daughter of the late Thomas Kirusu.

Today, Nzayisenga is the leading female inanga player in the country, and owes her skills to two men; her father Thomas Kirusu, and veteran inanga player Vianney Mushabizi. 

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The inanga can be strummed by two pairs of hands. / Moses Opobo.

She started playing the instrument at the tender age of six. 

Her extra ordinary talent and commitment to the instrument would see her father devote more time grooming his daughter as opposed to his sons, for an instrument that was traditionally a male domain. 

In 1989, she participated in her first foreign music competition at the Children Festival in Bulgaria.

She has since played at several other local and international gatherings and until recently, used to give back her skills to young inanga apprentices at the Kigali Music School. 

Nzayisenga is not the only inanga player that sings the praises of Mushabizi. The other is Deo Munyakazi, a diminutive, humble and fast-rising inanga star. 

Munyakazi is just 23 years old and is a fresh graduate of Modern Languages, Arts and Creative industries at the University of Rwanda’s College of Arts and Social Sciences.

In 2012, after completing high school, the young man decided to learn the inanga professionally, and headed to the Southern Province district of Nyanza, where he sought apprenticeship from veteran inanga maestro Mushabizi. The former offered to teach him free of charge. 

Munyakazi only had to invest Rwf 50,000 to acquire his first inanga, but today he is the proud owner of two. 

When we met for this interview, Munyakazi assured me that, contrary to popular belief, the instrument can be played meaningfully by two people simultaneously, and actually proceeded to demonstrate his assertion. 

He explained that the main strings that are actually plucked are nine, although his own inanga has eleven such strings, and he explains why.

“The rest are just to make sure the inanga stays in perfect tune. The strings used are nylon strings, like the ones cobblers use in mending shoes.” 

It is also equipped with a microphone to receive and transmit the sound produced by the strings, and a smaller microphone with a jack pin port through which it can be connected to an external PA system for amplified sound. This is controlled using a volume knob. He reveals that these extras cost him another Rwf 30,000. 

He further explained that the instrument is curved out of special wood from a rare kind of tree called umwungo, which is found in the Gishwati forest in Gisenyi. 

I ask how one can acquire it and he retorts. “You make contact with the forest men and they deliver the order to you.”

Since it is ply wood, the instrument is inherently fragile to some measure and, like a smart phone, will break at the slightest fall. Once broken you can either use adhesive fluid or pieces of tin to patch it up. 

But for guaranteed safety one needs a pouch in which to carry the instrument around, Munyakazi explains, before hastening to add: “The ancestors carried their inanga around without any protective cover. They just held it under their arm and moved with it. If he encountered children who wanted to touch or strum it he would just chase them away and move on.” 

Munyakazi’s dream is to own as many inanga as possible and to become an inanga musician of international repute.

“If Joel Sebunjo from Uganda can become the master of the Kora yet the Kora is a West African music instrument, then why not me to be a master of inanga since inanga is our own Rwandan instrument?” he asked rhetorically. 

One of the biggest misconceptions about this instrument is the perception that it belongs in its own little rigid world that is unadoptable to modern music trends. Far from it, the inanga is as versatile as musical instruments get, and with it, an artist can do practically anything –from slam poetry to any music genre of your choice.

Go to any spoken word or slam poetry event in town and you will find one or two young men fiddling away at the strings of their instrument somewhere in the background as the poets take centre stage. 

At a music rights awareness workshop organized by the Rwanda Arts Initiative at the Hotel des Mille Collines in May, one of the highlights of the musical freestyle session that followed the workshop was a Hip-hop/Inanga collaboration between rapper and poet Eric1Key and Munyakazi, who was the only inanga (or only instrument player for that matter) in a sea of local and international musicians, singers, composers and song writers, music producers and promoters. 

Another inanga player Umushakamba (real names Maurice Maniraguha) got his musical initiation from school and church (Catholic Church of Muramba Parish, Nyundo Diocess) at the tender age of eight. 

In high school he created a club, the Rwanda-Africa Identity Club (RAIC) to do both traditional and modern styles of African music.

During a music competition in which he emerged 3rd, he was told he did not win because he had not played a single traditional music instrument. 

It is from then that he vowed to learn inanga, the most popular traditional music instrument in Rwanda. 

His first inanga was actually a gift from an old man called Mugabunyuzaha.

Then he heard of Sophia Nzayisenga’s free inanga lessons to youths at the Kigali Music School during holidays. 

“When I played some Inanga songs for Sophia, she immediately accepted to help me for free. From then on, I stopped miming other people’s songs, and started making my own inanga music.”

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