In Mali they have the Kora, in Kenya there is the Nyatiti and in Rwanda there is the Inanga, a traditional stringed music instrument, currently a favourite of young Rwandan musicians.
“We started using the Inanga sound with modern instruments such as the guitar in 2012. Although we were among the first to do so, we were not the pioneers,” says Benoit Bana, the founder of Inzora, a traditional music band.
According to him, this combination has attracted attention from music lovers and the trend is gaining momentum.
The Inanga is carved from a single piece of wood, with a flat box with concave sides acting as its resonator and is about one metre in length and around 70 centimetres in width.
Eight cuts are sliced at each end, articulating seven digits called Amano or Amenyo literally translated as toes or teeth respectively.
A single very long string — traditionally made of cow ligament but nowadays often made of nylon or metal strings — is threaded evenly in and out through these cuts to allow eight chords spread across the length of the Inanga and tuned to a pentatonic scale.
Inanga chords are grouped into high tones and low tones. The high tones are called imiyuki, or inzuki, literally translated as bees. The name relates to the buzzing sound made by bees when flying. The low tones on the other hand are called ibihumurizo.
Recently, more young Rwandan musicians have taken to playing the Inanga, fusing its sound with contemporary music. The resulting fusion is a new, modern sound that is typically Rwandan.
Deo Munyakazi, a Rwandan traditional musican, says, “It resonates well with many other contemporary instruments.
“I have tried a mix with a number of modern instruments in collaboration with international artistes and what we got was amazing,” he added.
In a recent jazz concert in Kigali, Munyakazi performed his track Urakwiriye mwami, accompanied by Jef Neve, a Belgian jazz and classical music pianist and composer on keyboards, while the Chilean jazz guitarist, Tito Al Uribe, was on guitar. He has also collaborated with the renowned French saxophonist Guillaume Perret.
Other young musicians who have taken up the Inanga are Habimana Emanuel, and the Romania-based Daniel Ngarukiye, both of whom have released tracks featuring the Inanga and other instruments.
But not everyone is happy with the Inanga’s newly found fame. Mushabizi Jean Marie Vianney, who has trained most of the younger Inanga players, is afraid that the fusion of Inanga and other instruments will dilute the uniqueness of Rwanda’s traditional music.
“Inanga should be played alone or alongside other traditional instruments to maintain the unique identity of our traditional music,” he says.
But to young musicians, the Inanga is a positive development in Rwandan traditional music.
“When somebody comes from far away inquiring about the Inanga, it is clear that the instrument has a place in the international music arena,” Munyakazi assures.
The instrument was made popular by legends such as Bernard Rujindiri, also known as the master of Inanga, Viator Kabarira, Joseph Sebatunzi, Jmv Mushabizi, and Thomas Kirusu and his daughter who also happens to be the only famous female inanga player, Sophia Nzayisenga.