Searching for Music in Rural Rwanda
Story by Ian Brennan, photos by Marilena Delli

A music producer seeks out isolated musicians in the inland African nation of bad memories, but in a country where you are 78.5% less likely to be murdered than Louisiana

Rwandan musician

Entire places end up defined by tragedy.

Mass shooting site, Sandy Hook, NJ is not likely to be seen again anytime soon as a leafy suburb. Auschwitz and Hiroshima remain stigmatized almost a century past WWII’s end.

For many, Rwanda will forever be known for its genocide.

In actuality, there are no violent nations. Nor are there violent cities or people. Not even close. These are reductions— oversimplifications that help people feel the world is safer and more predictable than it actually is.

Rwanda is known as the “land of 1,000 hills” and few places are more lush and green, which probably in large part is why the Mountain Gorilla troops decided to call it home long ago.

Rwanda holds a special place in my heart, in part because it resembles areas of just inland northern California where I was born and raised. This was a sensation that hit me before even leaving the tarmac on my first landing in Kigali. More importantly, my mother-in-law is from Rwanda. She lost her entire family during the two genocides (1959 and 1973) that preceded the infamous one that came to overshadow those other atrocities. Due to Polio experiments carried out on rural children, my mother-in-law was left with a disabled right leg and the lifetime need for a brace and crutch to walk. In a more than bittersweet twist, it was because of this affliction that the attackers leant sympathy and unlike her kin she was spared.

Coffee beans and gorillas— not Presidents— are featured on many Rwandan Francs. Still, rumor has it that select highways in the country have been paved specifically to smooth passage for the preferred weekend getaways of the man who has single-handedly ruled the nation since emancipating it in 1994. Fortunately for us, our route to the southwest abutting Burundi appeared to be one of the chosen.

Rwandan scenery

Into the Wilds of Rwanda

In a land where men lead each other hand-in-hand, but nonetheless homophobia runs rampant, we drove off the main road and miles up the ridge just shy of the border to one of the pockets hardest hit by the genocide. It was the first place where the residents stopped waving back. It is an area so very isolated, it seemed almost as if the slaughter might never have ended. Topping that, we were traveling this dirt trail with two Tutsis in an area where there were recent reports of “hunting Rwandans.” A sense of discomfort became tangible, as if an invisible line had been crossed and we’d entered ibiwa (“problems”).

Rwandan drum

Dead-ending into a stream, we stopped to ask directions. The dude on the tricked-out bike with “One World, One Love” mudflaps sent us toward our destination.

Outside the village where the band said that they were too fatigued to sing due to Malaria, residents don’t have to be “taught” recycling. Every last item is reused, some purpose found. The rural population remains as it has always been, eons ahead of western “progressives” in many ways. There, plastic bottles can lend prestige, and children fight over these remnants if cast out by passing cars, so much so that our local companions did not consider it littering.

It was here that we found the hunchback, teenage break-dancer that with his Intore arm-twist and foot-stomping moves, could out-battle any south Queens sidewalk challenger.

In Butare, we’d already survived a Taylor Swift pummeling at the machine-gun guarded mall—her sound still sterile even when blasted through cracked and tropically humidified speakers. Worse was the tag-team lounge duo playing an off-key Reggae medley, as the local audience kept straightening out the beat, clearly entrained to European 4/4 mechanical rhythms.

At the end of our meal, I had to step up onto a rickety bench to clear a restaurant urinal that was inadvertently mounted too high for even an NBA star. It was a fixture that had simply been left that way upon installation rather than corrected.

Music of the Abatwa

The Abatwa (“pygmy”) tribe are identified as one of the most marginalized, voiceless, and endangered populations in Africa. In fact, their name is frequently taken in vain as a generalized slur towards others unrelated to them. Still, many among their group prefer the term to the official, PC mouthful/post-genocidal replacement moniker that they have been straddled with out of clear overcompensation. That one roughly translates to: “The people who were left behind because of the facts of Rwandan history.”

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Read this article online at: Searching for Music in Rural RwandaE

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