The other day I was reading an article by this young lady who was bemoaning the ‘death’ of ‘real’ music, only to realize that even during her time, music had ‘died’! Time was when a sweet melody wafted smoothly and soothingly through the air and caressed its way into your ears to create an ‘ear-worm’ that would be in your whole system for weeks.
Let me explain what I presume this ‘ear-worm’ to be. For instance, you have timed your bedside radio to wake you up with the first BBC Network Africa programme at 05.30 a.m. So, at exactly that time, a childish jingle interrupts your agonized dreams about the insufficiency of your serumu: “Wake up, wake up! This is Network Africa…” That jingle will keep ringing in your head and you will find yourself humming it the whole day. That, I am told, is called an ‘ear-worm’.
In the early fifties, we depended mostly on the daily doze of the herdsman for our musical nourishment. Whenever evening fell, all the Balera in the ridges of Bukamba used to spread their mats outside their houses and make themselves comfortable so as to listen to their music maestro uninterrupted.
As the herdsman brought his herd of cattle home, he knew his adoring audience was patiently waiting and so he brought out his well-worn flute, umwironge, and treated us to his sweet melody. By the time he concluded his entertainment, on arrival home, we would have been carried to our beds, humming the tune in our dreams.
When it came to our dancing sessions, this New Cadillac dancing hall in Kigali has never boasted such an attendance. The dancing sessions usually came in the form of wedding celebrations, which were often attended by the who-is-who of Bukamba, apart from the rank and file. At such occasions, the celebrity entertainer was usually the legendary bard of Rwanda, Sebatunzi himself.
In between dancing the vigorous ikinimba strokes and the graceful intore dance, we would listen to the enchanting rhythms of Sebatunzi’s harp, inanga, and his narrative and poetic lyrics. On less glorious occasions, there were many other less talented singers who entertained us with their melodies to the accompaniment of different versatile instruments like ikembe (no translation!) and iningiri (violin?).
Music evolves very fast, however, and within a short time we had been forced to embrace a radically new kind of music. This and the fact that the history of our country seemed to be in the hands of the devil, and we found ourselves in exile, meant that we no longer had any organized group of entertainers.
Those who had the means resorted to listening to radios, and those who did not have the means had to pay homage, in evening visits, to this new class of nouveaux riches. Fortunately, Radio Ruanda-Urundi and Voice of Kenya — the only two radio stations that could be captured in our area – hardly had any news to report and played music most of the time.
On Radio Ruanda-Urundi, sometimes you could nostalgically catch the sweet melodies of Sebatunzi, while we were introduced to the ‘modern’ music of the great Congolese musician, Bosco wa Bayeke, on Voice of Kenya. These and a mushrooming crop of young musicians from Bunyole in Kenya kept us in touch with music throughout the early 1960s.
By mid-1960 we had learnt some ‘approximation’ of the English language, like a certain former president, and could listen to the greats of musical history: Jim Reeves, Louis Armstrong, Skitter Davis, Elvis Presley, The Beatles and others who even included the original genuine Michael Jackson (before he replaced his nose with a plastic piece) that had just hit the scene in a family group.
At about this time too, a revolution had taken place on the music scene with the arrival of the gramophone! This was something that looked like a cross between a kitchen cabinet and a refrigerator on spindly, pointed legs (a reason why many similarly disadvantaged girls, like Giti Mujisho, had earned the name ‘Gramophone’). It had a lid which when lifted revealed an arm that had a head with a needle in it.
When you placed a disc (something similar to a CD but bigger) in the middle and the needle on the disc, then you could listen to two of your favourite records. To listen to twelve records, you placed there what was called an album, something like a disc but twelve times bigger! The gramophone was a treasured preserve of the extremely rich, and so it took pride of place in the sitting rooms of the proud owners. Behind it were usually placed two car batteries that powered it.
However, the mother of all revolutions came in the form of what was known as a jukebox. The jukebox was much bigger than a gramophone, but it brought independence that was totally unknown to us because it was placed in public places, like bars and nightclubs. All you needed was to steal a coin, walk into any bar that was blessed with electricity, insert the coin into the giant box and you could select any of your favourite songs. Alternatively, you could just sit and ‘poach’ — listening or dancing — on the music paid for by the bar patrons, such was its power of being public.
For obvious reasons, the compounds of these bars became the favoured venues for many a wedding, and most times we attended the weddings without the least interest in knowing the happy couple! From there, we became champions of what was known as ‘ballroom dancing’, which has nothing to do with today’s dancing that looks rather like controlled madness.
There were thus champions of rock-n-roll, waltz (maybe you have espied the magical footwork of a certain General concerned with aero matters!) and their African version, rumba. Our tastes in music had by then acquired an international flavour, and we listened and danced to the music in other languages by mega stars like Adamo, Mouskouri, Rochereau, Franco, Morogoro Jazz Band and umpteen others.
Come a dancing weekend and the champions could not miss the event even if it meant covering tens of kilometres on foot! On Friday you could see a musururu of champions traversing the ridges of Southern Uganda, setting off very early from Nshungerezi to trek the 50 kilometres to Nakivale, dance the whole night and shamble back home on Saturday, tired and hungry beyond words.
When music started to take other forms like calypso, reggae or rap, and dancing became bump, electric bugalo or ndombolo, our champions literally withdrew into their cocoons. When you talk about music these days they curse quietly under their breath and quickly change the topic. Chez Lando has not helped either; it seems to have an offering of only single-guitar Rwandan oldies.