‘Inanga’ masters revitalise Rwanda's musical heritage

When Sophie Nzayisenga touches the ‘Inanga’, her fingers float across the lyre-like string instrument as if it is an appendage of her body. There is no interruption between her movement and the throbbing opening notes of the musical insutrument.
Sophie Nzayisenga performs the ‘Inanga’. Photos by Soenke Matschurek.
Sophie Nzayisenga performs the ‘Inanga’. Photos by Soenke Matschurek.

When Sophie Nzayisenga touches the ‘Inanga’, her fingers float across the lyre-like string instrument as if it is an appendage of her body. There is no interruption between her movement and the throbbing opening notes of the musical insutrument.

“You are about to witness something that does not belong to the ordinary,” said Peter Stepan, Director of the Goethe Institut, which sponsored the “Thunder and Lightning of Inanga” performance, on Friday evening, at the Ishyo Arts Centre in Kacyiru, Kigali.

The Goethe Institut is a non-profit German cultural association that aims to promote culture in Rwanda, build up a network between cultural organisations and institutions on the African continent, and foster cultural ties between Rwanda and Germany by sharing information and exchanges between both cultures.

“Thunder and Lightning of Inanga” paid tribute to Rwanda's ‘Inanga’ tradition – a musical art form that is threatened by the influence of modernisation and the loss of its great masters – through performances by young Rwandan artists.

“The traditional music that will be performed and presented tonight is a phenomenon that has come ti risk,” said Stepan, “Thank God that there are some who still practise, who are still in the tradition of the country.”

The performance featured the instrumental and vocal prowess of legendary local artist, Sophie Nzayisenga, as well as the musical talent of Daniel Ngarukiye, Jules Sentore, and Emmanuel Habumuremyi. Several acts also featured performances by traditional dancers.

Sentore and Habumuremyi opened the concert with a vocal number followed by an instrumental duet and solo performances by Nzayisenga and Ngarukiye. All four artists then joined voices and instruments in pieces that incorporated traditional dancers who added grace and percussive emphasis to the music with extended arms and stomping feet.

Although not all audience members understood the Kinyarwanda lyrics, the music transcended language and cultural differences.

“Of course, I wish I could understand Kinyarwanda,” said one young woman, “But I really appreciated hearing the reaction from the Rwandese audience. I liked how all the performers seemed to enjoy themselves and their collaboration with one another.”

Several pieces transformed the entire auditorium into a stage through the active involvement and engagement of the audience. Audience members clapped in rhythm and hummed along to the familiar lyrics of traditional songs. Ngarukiye's solo performance, in particular, drew roars of laughter when he sang about romantic woes in the traditional style of Inanga but with English lyrics.

“You have really made fire on our hearts,” Stepan told the artists during the closing bows.

Audience members were impressed and inspired by the performance.

“It is awesome seeing young people of my age singing in the same way [as the traditional masters],” commented Dida Nibagwire, “It gives hope for the culture that we'll still have the traditional music for our children.”
Soenke Matschurek, an assistant at the Goethe Institut, calls the concert a success. “We achieved both visibility and awareness for the endangerment of Rwanda's cultural heritage.”

Stepan is optimistic about the future of traditional Rwandan music.

“This concert is a perfect demonstration of the continuity between the great masters and the talents capable of receiving the legacy of these masters,” he observfed, “I am not afraid that the chain of tradition will be interrupted.”

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