In the days yonder, I used to hold one of Christopher Matata’s songs, “Amaso Akunda” in the same breath as the West African classic’s of Salif Keita and the like, simply because the language was incomprehensible, but the melody was simply out of this world.
You can imagine my delight when with my newly constructed but still halting Kinya-rwanda, I was able to decipher the song recently when Rwanda television played a few clips of this familiar dreadlocked man, doing a thing or two like the late South African reggae sensation Lucky Dube.
I later stumbled into another of Matata’s songs, Nyegera Cyane, a woman with a smile that accentuates the traditional aspects of beauty, gums, cheekbones and intore music, “You will be Juliet and I will be Romeo, Uri mwiza, uri jitego.”
In Matata’s music, like in many other ageless, songs, an innate human sense is expressed without necessarily being in the understanding of the language or the words, the lifestyle or the social conditions in which such a song is composed.
It is perhaps the same thing that anyone who is unfamiliar with Rwandan culture and customs perceives the message in intore music, aside from the artificial movements or expressions of the music and dance. Rwandan traditional music and dance is in itself interesting to watch.
I have always liked to equate it to the modern ballet where men and women wear sharp tiny shoes, stand and rotate by only the support of their toes.
They gracefully move their bodies and actually become a sort of art. In Intore music, I was fascinated by the wavelike movements of their hands, like birds flying even though the two ‘wings’ flapped in turns instead of simultaneously.
The meaning of the outstretched arms and the extended skirts now makes sense. I never thought that the shape of the long curved horns of Ankole cattle and the flapping of elephant ears is all what it tried to imitate.
The men’s hands movement took away actually from the movements of the cattle’s front limbs, doing a slow walk before turning awkwardly but beautifully in a different direction just like a bull that has suddenly been jerked away from its casual grazing.
It then gallops away, the pair of hind and front legs leaving and landing on the ground alternatively.
Like in traditional Rwandan music, all good music must have the power to move people of different cultures and languages, of different races irrespective of whether they understand the language or genre of the song or not. Just like the sound of birds is sweet in Rwanda, China or Hawaii, the sound of good music must appeal to the ear. No wonder good people, in places like Germany will dance to techno music which to the unaccustomed ear will sound like noise until one sits down and listens keenly.
For example it is never an unfunny spectacle, to see a white man trying to dance to African music, especially with the lack of perceived coordination to very African genres like reggae.
So is jazz, which in spite of being a very American genre, originated from African slaves and no wonder, people like South Africa’s Hugh Masekela are some of the world’s Jazz greats.
So it is not a surprise if people like Christopher Matata are more celebrated in the west than in their own communities.
It only proves that he, like many other musicians have deciphered the simple powerful musical emotions that need no words and that are universal and expressed them wonderfully in the rhythm of their music.