Songs of praise: How Rwanda got its groove back

In 1994, Africa's worst genocide was conducted to songs exhorting the Hutu majority of this small African country to murder 800,000 of their Tutsi neighbours. Today, the sound of peaceful music – traditional and gospel, hip-hop and reggae – has returned to the streets and fields of Rwanda. And one young producer from Sussex wants to turn the volume up...

Adam Stone
Sunday 17 January 2010 01:00

A decade and a half after the genocide that decimated Rwanda, the country appears quite peaceful; prosperous, even. Aid workers in shiny 4x4s may still be conspicuous on the streets of its capital, Kigali, but more cheerful are the guys in bright-yellow tabards flogging pay-as-you-go airtime on the street corners, cashing in on Africa's mobile-phone boom. And, if you listen closely, there is another hopeful sign that this small east African republic is attempting to put the horrors of 1994 behind it: the sound of choirs and the inanga, the region's zither-like instrument; of hip-hop and rootsy reggae.

The music of Rwanda, with its danceable rhythms and complex vocal patterns, is not nearly as well known as that of other parts of Africa. In the violent upheavals around its declaration of independence from Belgium in 1962, much of the country's musical talent was forced to flee to bordering Burundi and Uganda where its traditional (or "culture") music was kept alive in refugee camps.

Under government repression, these ancient sounds struggled to be heard over the ensuing decades, but pop, influenced by sounds as diverse as Congolese funk and country, thrived. In the 1990s, though, new music was increasingly used as propaganda against Rwanda's Tutsi minority. Indeed, in the aftermath of 1994, many were arrested on the charge of inciting genocide through music. (Over the course of 100 days in 1994, around 800,000 of the Tutsi ' ethnic group, formerly the country's ruling elite, and other moderates were systematically murdered on the orders of the Hutu-dominated government.)

But after the genocide, people began, slowly, to return home from exile, and there was a resurgence of traditional music and choirs at state events, weddings and other social gatherings, as well as people singing in the more modern, US R&B style. Today, all sorts of music are vying for the attention of Rwandans – and in part the country has a 29-year-old music producer from Lewes, Sussex, to thank.

Dicken Marshall is an accomplished musician and producer who has been writing music and playing in bands since he was a teenager. At 22, he built his own studio from scratch. Marshall knew he had to do something after hearing about a Rwandan choir being ripped off. "A friend [from Rwanda who had stayed with Marshall's family during the genocide] told me about a choir of orphans who'd paid a lot of money to record an album, had their recordings stolen, then had to spend a lot of money chasing it down. The story stayed in my head."

Marshall realised that the choir could have bought basic recording equipment for the amount they were conned out of. "I don't like doing things by halves, so I decided to come to Kigali and build a state-of-the-art studio for local musicians. It quickly turned into a big project, with all the publicity I got for fundraising concerts in the UK and then getting manufacturers involved, who gave me heavy discounts or gifts of equipment." Marshall and his volunteers eventually raised £15,000. "Then I came over in January 2009 and built the studio and had a week to record the choir." Marshall brought the recording back to Britain to add music. "I had been told there were no musicians in Rwanda, which of course was rubbish."

The Solace Studio was built as an income-generating scheme for the charity Solace Ministries, which owned the building where it was located. When the choir's album was finished, the studio, Marshall realised, needed proper management. So he returned to record other musicians and work with local producers. "This was when I realised that a lot of musicians couldn't afford to use the studio, and there was actually no music business to speak of in Rwanda that could work sustainably. I tried to get the charity and local musicians to set up their own collective, but they said, 'No you do it!'"

Marshall set up Rafiki Records first in the UK, then in Rwanda, and began giving out development contracts that split earnings 50:50 between artist and label – a rare deal in the recording industry. "I'm really passionate about setting up an ethical music industry in Rwanda, not just taking artists abroad, but setting up something that will create a sustainable and ethical industry for the community now and in the future." The Solace Gospel Choir album Songs of Solace has had a small amount of international distribution and Rafiki re-released it with a compilation album featuring all the artists on the label when its website launched last month.

"East African musicians are wonderful and the talent out here is phenomenal, but they need support," says Marshall. "We are all about getting the best, most genuine music out of the talent. Instead of the musicians thinking they need to sound like someone else, it's about digging deep inside."

For more information: For a short film on Adam Stone's visit to Rwanda, see

Sophie Nzaywenga

The new inanga hero

The rising star of the inanga, (the traditional Rwandan stringed instrument) 31-year-old Sophie Nzaywenga is keeping traditional Rwandan music alive and giving it a modern appeal with her amazing live performances.

"I started playing music when I was six. I get this from my family – my father was a musician and my mother a singer, so music and singing was a way of uniting and entertaining the whole family. It has always been my job.

"When I lost my brothers and sisters in the genocide, the pleasure and enjoyment I got from music disappeared. Afterwards I was not able to return to school; I had no money, I lost all self-confidence and I stopped playing completely. But many other artists, including my uncle, visited me during this time and encouraged me to play again. It's them I have to thank and in 2005 I began again. When I realised I was the only female inanga player in Rwanda I wanted to share my knowledge – that is why I began to teach others to play."

Nzaywenga, like many other Rwandan musicians, is fiercely loyal to all the country's home-grown artists, even the ones now working abroad. "Everybody in Rwanda likes culture music [the traditional Rwandan music] and they were playing the inanga and the drums long before I was born."

She is ambitious, too, about her own future. "I have only just begun recording, and look forward to my music getting out into the world. My vision is that when you play you become known all over the world – and there are some that become well known. I want to be one of those." '

Jah Doves

The reggae boys

Freetown is a township-like area of Kigali where you can buy anything you want, no guarantees. It's also home to Jah Doves, six rastas in their twenties and thirties who have won over Rwanda with their positive image and vibrant reggae.

"I started playing music at primary school," says drummer Ras Kimeza. "I was playing drums one day in the family compound when some kids showed me how they made music from traditional drums that they had made themselves. That was the beginning; I played in many groups but they all fell apart because of war. Now I'm in Jah Doves."

The band is a symbol of modern Rwanda, as many people living in Kigali now come from Burundi, which was once part of Rwanda. "I was born in Burundi," explains fellow Dove Ras Pat. "I started playing guitar at home, as my dad was a guitarist. I was still a student in Burundi and I used to come here in the holidays and jammed with some musicians. When I finished school in 2002 I moved here permanently and began playing in the Cadillac Club [for a long time the only decent club in Rwanda], and worked as a DJ. At the same time I got together with the guys. That was three years ago. Most people think that reggae is from Jamaica," he adds, "but its true origin is Africa. So we now make African reggae, Rwandan style.

"Before the genocide, people from different ethnic groups would play together. After the war, we want to teach people about love, unity and change; the message we spread with our music is about being together."


The charity worker

Apollinaire, 34, is a musician, youth leader and founder-director of the self-funded charity Shemeza Music Ministry. Based in neighbouring Burundi, he works in both countries with street kids, drug addicts and ex-child soldiers, helping them realise their own self-worth through music, and the roles they can play in society. He also goes into schools, colleges, universities and prisons to spread his message.

"The feelings they have are of being rejected, and this comes from those who have misused them in the past – politically or whatever. These are kids who have killed others, who are outside of society. We show them how much we care, and begin from there," he explains. "We do a tour of the areas and play music and they come to listen.

"If you go to a funeral, party, wedding, any ceremony, you will find music there. So through music we deliver a positive message of love, unity, and reconciliation. I have struggled to see music here being given value, because we don't have copyright or nice studios. But we do have 10 radio stations and three TV stations, which is a good platform to effect change.

"Music is everywhere, but how that music is made and then looked after is still in question. When the music starts being made in the right way, then we will bring the standards to an international level. Local musicians have to understand the riches they have in themselves. When they express themselves properly, that will produce much."

Jean Bosco

The hip-hop artist

Jean Bosco began as a traditional singer, but is now crossing into new territory with his use of loops and samples. He also uses the amakondera, a type of flute, to add layers to the loops, over the breaks and his vocals, which consist of soaring scales and vibrato. Now 19, he lives with his grandmother, mother, sister, a niece, nephew and two adopted orphans in a hut in a suburb of Kigali. Born in a refugee camp in Burundi, he began to sing and dance aged four. "My father was an important traditional artist, but our neighbours were not happy about it. One of his enemies put some poison in our compound and along with four of my brothers, my father was killed."

At seven, Bosco began to teach other children to sing and dance and formed a troupe, which came second place in a culture music competition. It was after this that Sentore (see page 18) heard about him and asked the nine-year-old to return from exile in Burundi. "As he was a friend of my father, we came. He taught me to play the inanga and I sang in church and eventually toured the US with an orphan's choir. When we came back I met with Dicken [Marshall] as I was coming to Solace to train other kids, and he began to record me.

"Because I went through many hardships as an orphan [the Rwandan definition of orphan is someone who has lost one or both parents] I want to tell others that they can also sing and make something fantastic. I want to help make Rwandan cultural music to be known around the world, but also I want to sing for God, as it is he who gave me this gift." '


The grand old man

Coming from a long line of royal musicians, Sentore is one of the last living Royal Court Musicians and inanga players, and was an integral part of the Ballet National – a group of the best traditional dancers originally attached to the court of the Rwandan kings. He lived in exile from 1959 to 1995, but was determined to keep Rwandan culture music alive in the refugee camps. Today, Sentore (who believes he is 72) is still one of Rwanda's most respected musicians and scholars.

From his small house on the outskirts of Kigali, this lively and enigmatic septuagenarian tells his story. "The whole of my time at secondary school was spent dancing, and then after I left, I danced for 15 years, making many tours in different countries. I started travelling to Europe with the Ballet National, in 1956.

"After 1958, because of the political hardship, we had to escape Rwanda. I was a refugee, exiled in Burundi, and there I created my own troupe, because I wanted the new generation to remember the Rwandan culture. When I came back from Burundi I helped to recreate the Ballet National because before the genocide in 1994 there were many troupes, but none were genuine – they were all for tourists. From then we were invited to perform and take part in competitions – we began to tour the world again and visited many countries: Spain, Germany, France, Italy, America, the Czech Republic.

"I cannot dance any more, so these days I train other dancers, but I have my own troupe, and I would love to travel to the UK because my music and dance is not known there. I want them to see our culture, to show them properly, and for our songs to be heard."

Sentore is also renowned for his playing of the inanga, of which he is the last player to know and play the unique and complex royal traditional style. "With Rafiki I have recorded some of my inanga music; it is very important for the old Rwandan cultures to be remembered."

The Solace Gospel Choir

The singing evangelists

The Solace Choir was formed 10 years ago by orphans from the charity Solace Ministries. The idea was to use their collective voices to offer comfort and hope to other widows and orphans, as well as helping their members. The line-up has evolved over the years but there are currently 12 members. The day I met them, the choir – including members Manzi, Alvera and Hervé – were travelling in an old Land Cruiser marked up like an ambulance and a minibus into the countryside, to be filmed singing. Workers in the surrounding fields downed tools and, with a crowd of street kids, mothers and babies and teenagers, listened to the music.

"I was born in 1982 in a family composed of seven people," says Manzi, 27. "My parents, two brothers and two sisters were all macheted, burnt and the remains were thrown into the Nyabarongo river. When the genocide started, I stayed with my aunt, who lived in Nyabarongo. She was killed with six of her children, while her husband survived with their four other children. I fled to the orphanage of Gisimba with one of my aunt's children. The Interahamwe [the notorious Hutu paramilitary force] threatened to burn the orphanage because of the refugees who were hidden in the compound."

"When the genocide started," remembers Hervé, 26. "I was 10 years old and I was aware of what was happening in my country. I lost my entire family. Afterwards I went through each day looking at death, but I think I coped. I continued my studies but I used to go to school without even books to write on. I did finish my secondary studies in maths and physics and got a scholarship to continue. And then I joined the choir."

Alvera, 24, takes up the story. "From the beginning of the choir to 1999 we were many children singing to each other. We had no equipment and used one small drum. But since 2005 we have had members who can compose songs. Some members have got married, some have moved to other places, but others have taken their place. The first choir went all over the country to comfort people and to deliver the message of the Lord – that opened the gate for us."

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