Inanga: the century-old musical instrument of Rwanda | New times
The inanga has rightly been described as Rwanda’s most important musical instrument. It is a traditional oval shaped harp that is made of wood with strings tied around the edges and which are plucked to produce musical notes.
It is one of the oldest and most revered traditional musical instruments in Rwanda, dating from the time of kingship.
It generally varies from 75 cm to 1 m in length, and 25 to 30 cm in width.
In organology (the science of musical instruments and their classification), inanga is classified as a “trough zither” according to the shape it takes – a flat soundboard with slightly concave sides, all like a trough.
The player simply repeats a short melodic pattern over and over again, but in a surprisingly non-monotonous manner. To tune the instrument, just tighten and loosen the strings to taste.
Perhaps the most definitive mark of inanga is the uniqueness and richness of the sounds it emits from its pentatonic scale. It’s like a perfect marriage of organics and acoustics.
As Dr Peter Stepan, the former director of the Goethe Institut once told me in an interview, inanga touches the heart.
Except for very rare occasions, most inanga players adopt a seated position when working the instrument, with the inanga tucked in their lap.
The content and styles of play vary greatly from player to player.
Over the years the country has produced fine inanga talents such as; Thomas Kirusu (RIP), Victor Kabarira, Sentore Masamba (RIP), Vianney Mushabizi, Jules Sentore, Joseph Sebatunzi, Daniel Ngarukiye and Sophie Nzayisenga, daughter of the late Thomas Kirusu.
Today, Nzayisenga is the country’s leading inanga player and owes her skills to two men; his father Thomas Kirusu and veteran inanga player Vianney Mushabizi.
The inanga can be scratched by two pairs of hands. / Moses Opobo.
She started playing the instrument at the age of six.
His extraordinary talent and commitment to the instrument would see his father devote more time to preparing his daughter rather than his sons, for an instrument that was traditionally a male domain.
In 1989, she participated in her first foreign music competition at the Children’s Festival in Bulgaria.
She has since performed in several other local and international gatherings and until recently used to give her skills back to young inanga apprentices at Kigali Music School.
Nzayisenga is not the only inanga player to sing the praises of Mushabizi. The other is Deo Munyakazi, a tiny, humble, and thriving inanga star.
Munyakazi is only 23 years old and is a recent graduate in Modern Languages, Arts and Creative Industries from College of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Rwanda.
In 2012, after graduating from high school, the young man decided to learn inanga professionally and headed to the district of the southern province of Nyanza, where he sought an apprenticeship from the veteran maestro. from inanga Mushabizi. The first offered to teach him for free.
Munyakazi only had to invest 50,000 Rwf to acquire his first inanga, but he is now the proud owner of two.
When we met for this interview, Munyakazi assured me that, contrary to popular belief, the instrument can be significantly played by two people simultaneously, and effectively demonstrated its claim.
He explained that the main strings that are actually plucked are nine, although his own inanga has eleven, and he explains why.
âThe rest is just to make sure the inanga stays in perfect tune. The cords used are nylon cords, like the ones shoemakers use to mend 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 sound system for amplified sound. This is controlled using a volume knob. He reveals that these extras cost him an additional 30,000 Rwf.
He further explained that the instrument is curved in a special wood from a rare tree called umwungo, which is found in the Gishwati forest in Gisenyi.
I ask how we can acquire it and he retorts. âYou come into contact with the men of the forest and they deliver the order to you. “
Since it is plywood, the instrument is inherently fragile to some extent and, like a smart phone, will shatter at the slightest drop. Once broken, you can either use adhesive liquid or pieces of tin to fix it.
But to ensure safety, you need a pouch in which to transport the instrument, explains Munyakazi, before hastening to add: âThe ancestors carried their inanga without any protective cover. They just held it under their arm and moved with it. If he encountered any children who wanted to touch or scratch it, he would simply chase them away and move on.
Munyakazi’s dream is to own as much inanga as possible and become an internationally renowned inanga musician.
âIf Joel Sebunjo from Uganda can become the master of the Kora while the Kora is a West African musical instrument, then why not 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 to its own rigid little world which is unsuitable for modern music trends. Far from it, inanga is as versatile as musical instruments, and with it, an artist can do virtually anything from slam poetry to any musical genre they choose.
Go to any spoken word or slam poetry event in town and you’ll find a young man or two playing their strings somewhere in the background while the poets take center stage.
During a musical rights awareness workshop organized by the Rwanda Arts Initiative at the HÃ´tel des Mille Collines in May, one of the highlights of the musical freestyle session that followed the workshop was a Hip- hop / Inanga between rapper and poet Eric1Key and Munyakazi, who was the only inanga (or the only instrumentalist for that matter) in a sea of ââlocal and international musicians, singers, composers and songwriters, producers and promoters of music.
Another Umushakamba inanga player (real name Maurice Maniraguha) received his musical initiation at school and at church (Catholic Church in Muramba Parish, Nyundo Diocese) at the 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 came out 3rd, he was told that he had not won because he had not played any traditional musical instrument.
It was from there that he set out to learn inanga, the most popular traditional musical instrument in Rwanda.
His first inanga was actually a gift from an old man called Mugabunyuzaha.
Then he heard about Sophia Nzayisenga’s free inanga lessons to young people at the Kigali music school during the holidays.
âWhen I played a few Inanga songs for Sophia, she immediately agreed to help me for free. From that point on, I stopped miming other people’s songs and started making my own inanga music.