Introduction: the country and its inhabitants

Rwanda, one of the ancient kingdoms of southern Interlacustrine Africa, is now a republic with 7,568,207 inhabitants (according to the population census of 31 December 1999). The country covers an area of 26,338 km2 and is divided into 12 provinces. Its language, Kinyarwanda, belongs to the Rwanda-Ha linguistic-cultural group, which belongs to the Bantu language family. Kinyarwanda has great similarities with the other two languages in this group, Kirundi and Giha (a kind of dialect of the first), which are spoken in Burundi and Buha respectively, two ancient neighbouring kingdoms that have many cultural similarities with Rwanda. Besides Kinyarwanda, Rwanda has two other official languages, English and French. A small proportion of the population speaks Swahili.

Rwanda is bounded on the west and the north-west by the Democratic Republic of Congo and on the north by Uganda, as well as by Burundi on the south and Tanzania on the east. Its orographic relief ranges from 1,000 m to 2,000 m above sea-level (its range of volcanic mountains reaching more than 3,000 m high). This volcanic mountain range (Birunga) stretches from the far eastern border of Congo to the north-west of Rwanda and comprises six volcanoes, the highest, Karisimbi, reaching 4507 m high. Rwanda's main cities are Kigali, the capital, with more than 300,000 inhabitants (1999 estimate), Butare in the south, Gisenyi in the north-west and Ruhengeri in the north. One of its five rivers, the Akagera - also known as the Kagera River - is the longest headstream of the Nile.

The population of Rwanda is made up of three main ethnic groups: the Tutsi, the Hutu and the Twa, who share the same language and the same culture and share the same habitat of hills. These groups are mainly engaged in agriculture: subsistence farming (beans, bananas, manioc [cassava], sweet potato, sorghum, peas and potatoes), a few industrial crops such as coffee and tea, and livestock (cattle: Ankole cows, and small livestock: goats, sheep, chickens and pigs [particularly in the south of the country]). In the past some also practised a trade - some of them still surviving today, although most of these now belonging to the past - and there were also some secondary production activities, such as beekeeping, pottery, woodwork, metalwork, alfa grass weaving and basketry, hunting and jewellery-making. Most of these have disappeared or are disappearing as products made in the West are often more practical or efficient. These various activities and trades have left Rwanda with a wealth of music and literature, which are examined more closely below.


a) Cultural variation

As soon as you begin to look into Rwandan culture you are faced with the fact that this culture does not present itself as one monolithic entity, even though a valid description for the whole country could be conceived. There are two systems of cultural variation in Rwanda (d'Hertefelt, 1962: 22): there is a vertical variation based on the differences that exist between the three population groups, one which has been subject to considerable changes since the end of the first monarchy; and a horizontal variation, that of the regional differences, often studied from the cultural model of Central Rwanda. But these two variations are correlative as, at the time of the monarchy, this was the region where the élite Tutsi cultural and artistic model was concentrated, with the royal court which developed a form of patronage in some areas of the arts and which was the place to which zither-players, bards or singer-storytellers were invited and where they stayed for a relatively short time, where tambourin-players and insengo whistle-players and royal dancers stayed for prolonged and regular stays, and where certain musical and choreographic genres developed (Gansemans, 1988: 27). This is also the region where a form of acculturation rapidly developed between the three population groups, particularly between the Tutsis and the Hutus. And cultural variation increases the further one moves away from the centre towards the peripheral regions, where the central administration was unable to establish itself so strongly and achieve the same model.

The different regions in respect of this cultural variation and in relation to this treatise are, roughly speaking:

In all these regions, the prevalent cultural traits were determined by the population group that was represented in the highest proportion and by the various occupations and traditional trades that were practised.

b) The arts

The traditional Rwandan artistic sense can be defined as expressing the 'beautiful' and the 'utilitarian'. D'Hertefelt (1962: 73) says the following on the subject: "Art was intimately linked with the trades people practised, with technical and professional competence… The imitation of existing models was normative, particularly in the literature of the court, which was the richest branch. Art developed through the repetition and development of existing themes, motifs and techniques." It is not the aim here to examine Rwandan art in general but to look at Rwandan music and dance, as the title suggests. However, although decorative art is more closely linked to the 'utilitarian' (decoration of household objects, decoration of weapons of war with painted, engraved and poker-worked drawings, etc.) music and dance also fit the 'utilitarian' label. Music and dance were linked to historical events, celebrations, rituals and ceremonials, which were enhanced by them. Only much later on did the royal court patronize artists and groups of artists whose sole purpose was to give pleasure to the eye and ear with their performances.


foto1 foto2 In Rwanda there is music that gives rise to dance, Imbyino, and music that is simply for listening, Indirimbo. This art was often associated with poetry and eloquence. Music, dance and poetry have always been the most spectacular expressions of Rwandan culture. They constitute elements of identity and socialization and as such have pervaded the lives of this nation of farmers, shepherds and herdsmen, potters and other craftsmen. They are transmitted orally and reflect the history, the fundamental values, the view of the world and the customs of the Rwandans.

1) The Imbyino dance songs

The term imbyino is a noun that is derived from the verb kubyina, which has a multitude of meanings: to perform a song accompanied by dance; to dance by stamping one's feet on the ground to the rhythm of a song performed by the dancer and/or others. The noun imbyino can therefore be defined as: popular song generally accompanied by dance (The INRS Rwandan-French dictionary, abridged by Jacob). Dance songs were performed at the royal court and gave rise to the dance called Umushagiriro, which has a slow tempo and is danced with sliding steps. It is usually performed by women, with an emphasis on the elegance of gestures and movements and showing off the body. According to some Rwandan choreography experts this song is highly characteristic of Tutsi music with its refined complication of tones, voices that are often high, its ornamentation and melismatics. (luister)

The other category of Imbyino songs are those that give rise to the dance called Umudiho, a dance in which 'the feet are stamped on the ground with a certain degree of force'; it varies depending on the dancers who dance it and in particular varies from region to region (luister). This variation, which can be said to be horizontal, makes dance songs in Rwanda one of the richest genres in the sphere of music and choreography. Dance songs possess the characteristics that are inherent in the cultural traits of each of the three population groups. There is a Tutsi type of dance song, there is a Hutu type of dance song and there is a Twa type of dance song, defined by the subject matter, the melodic texture and the choreography. There is also a female type of dance song and a male type of dance song. The richest horizontal variation, however, is the regional variation. Each of the regions listed above possess a certain number of characteristics that set one dance song apart from another. In choreographic terms and with respect to the various regions, it has been noted that the umudiho dance can be subdivided in two categories: 1) that with powerful steps and movements of the ikinimba dance that is characteristic of the mountainous areas of the country (Ruhengeri, Gisenyi, and Byumba in the north, and Kibuye-Gikongoro in the southwest and west of Rwanda) and 2) that with less accentuated steps and movements in the rest of Rwanda, which maintains the name umudiho. As such, since dance is a stylization of the everyday activities and way of life of the group performing it, we have:

foto3 foto4 dia1 dia2 dia3 dia4
These activities and ways of life, however, are determined by a certain number of factors that are related to the physical environment: the orography, hydrography, the climate or the social environment, which the group concerned has had to deal with and harness, so that their dance reflects and relates the way in which they went about dealing with and harnessing these.

a) Themes and contents of the dance songs

In the Imbyino dance songs, the steps and movements of the dance only become true forms of expression and only take on the power of language through the song, which gives them their name and their meaning. Indeed, it is by the name of the song, the style and the melody, and the meaning of the words sung that the dances can be classified into one or other theme or sphere.

When do Rwandans dance? The Imbyino are performed at particular events in Rwandan social life. A substantial repertoire of songs and dances is associated with marriage ceremonies. Dance songs were also performed at the rites of the First Fruits, Umuganura, at evening gatherings when friends or family were visiting, at drinking sessions after certain community activities such as ploughing, putting a thatched roof on a hut, after a hunting expedition, at the childbirth blessing ritual and at the naming of a newborn. The Imbyino dance was also performed at other rituals and ceremonials at the royal court (D'Hertefelt et Coupez, La Royauté Sacrée de l'Ancien Rwanda, RMCA Annals, 1964: pp. 21-23, 67-71) and among the population, where dance served as a ritual element that enhanced the celebration or as an act of magic associated with other curative, preventative or incantatory acts or acts of jettatura. Among these rituals celebrated among the people, there are the dances performed in the cult of Kubandwa or Lyangombe (luister) (luister) and in the cult of Nyabingi (luister), the latter being performed particularly in the north of Rwanda. Bourgeois (1954: 628-269) describes other settings in which magic ritual dances were performed, some of which have only been reported on by the author.

The people gathered at such occasions gave free rein to their creative genius. And here these dance songs had several functions and addressed a variety of issues:

b) The structure of the dance songs

Dance songs have a responsorial structure, with a chorus that remains the same throughout the song and is repeated by a group of singers. The chorus comes after each verse, of which there are usually many and which are started by a soloist (luister). Dance songs have a simple or complex measured rhythm, with metric accentuation (strong beats and weak beats), pathetic accentuation or expressive accentuation (a qualifying rhythm 'expressing the inner-most feelings of the soul' (Mbonimana, 1971: 41). They are traditionally vocal. The melody, either in unison or polyphonic, is accompanied by the clapping of hands, which supports the rhythm and indicates the time to the singers and dancers. A number of musical instruments have gradually been added to this type of percussion with the hands: first the ingoma drum (small in size), but also the inanga zither, the ikembe sansa (a type of lamellophone), the umuduri (umunahi) musical bow, the indingiti fiddle and the ihembe horn. In some regions of Rwanda, the ikinyuguri, agakenke or agahubano rattles, the igicunda cruche and all the insengo whistles have always accompanied dance songs. It is worth pointing out that except for the island of Nkombo, where the ikinyuguri rattle accompanies the secular dance songs, in the other regions of Rwanda, this same rattle, together with the inzogera bell, supports the rhythm of ritual songs, those of the cult of Lyangombe in particular. The small amayugi bells traditionally worn by the Intore warrior dancers around the ankles are increasingly worn by the imbyino dancers (luister).
Some vocal polyphonies of Twa dance are supported by amakondera horns (luister). The recordings held by the RMCA, which date back to the 1950s, contain dance or danceable melodies and rhythms supported by a harmonica or by an accordion (luister) or even by a whistle of Western origin (luister), all of which were gradually abandoned after the independence of Rwanda, for reasons that are not very clear. Today the dance songs in the urban areas are supported by a variety of Western instruments: the guitar, the electric organ, drums, saxophone and trumpets. J. Gansemans writes about the interaction between Rwandan music and the instruments that are used in it in Les Instruments de Musique du Rwanda (1988), which now serves as reference on the subject, and is in fact the only one to give an overall view.

The dance polyphonies of the Twa have a lavish melodic and rhythmic richness that is coupled with an indescribable choreographic richness. The songs of the Twa of the ancient royal court (Urwiririza, Ishyaka, Abangakurutwa) are true gems in the collection of the RMCA.

foto18 foto19 foto20

2) The Indirimbo songs

Besides the Imbyino dance songs, the Rwandans have always sung Indirimbo songs, which differ from the first in that they almost always have a free rhythm, in other words 'one which, instead of having equal time divisions, obeys the general movement of a sentence or part of a sentence as imposed by the text. Indeed in Rwandan music the tonality of the words and vocal input play an important part in the musical composition as the words help create a rhythmical emotive state' (Mbonimana, 1971: 40). Although this rhythm is not used in dance songs or by drums, it is found in a certain number of other musical genres called Indirimbo, which are briefly discussed below.

The songs mentioned in the first two points here could be sung either without instrumental accompaniment or accompanied by a solo instrument such as the inanga zither, the indingiti fiddle, the umuduri musical bow or the ikembe sansa (luister).
foto9 foto10 foto11 foto12 dia5


Up until now we have only dealt with dance that stems from the Imbyino songs. Now we shall - succinctly - discuss a type of dance that follows other canons than those connected with these songs. This is mainly dance connected with the warriors' parades or dance whose choreography obeys the rules of these parades.

1) Imyiyereko

The old Rwandan armies performed Imyiyereko dances, which, according to Curt Sachs's classification (World History of the Dance, 1957) are both individual and group dances, armed and pantomimic. They were performed by groups of paraders-cum-dancers famed for their fitness, who entered the stage in single file using the Ururenge step to the rhythm of a song, an ingoma drum or an ihembe horn and stood in a line facing the spectators. A number of dancers would then come out of the line to dance solos supported by cries and encouragement from the group behind them. There was a parade for every war weapon and every parade had its own steps and movements; there was a parade for the bow, for the lance, the shield, the sword and the combat knife (luister).

foto21 foto22 foto23 dia9

The military code of old Rwanda (Kagame, 1952) refers to the training undergone by the young recruits drawn from the aristocracy. Article 25 of the code specifies the daily activities of these recruits, the main one being the Umuhamirizo warriors' dances described below, but also parade exercises: with the bow, the sword, target-shooting, javelin-throwing and various jumps, which went together with learning the paeans and odes to war and many other disciplines.

2) Dance in warriors' rituals

A certain number of rituals were organized at the royal court and among the population of Rwanda during times of war. Among these rituals, organized by people who were not taking part in the fighting, there were songs and dances performed by the women of the group called Banyamhumbya, those-in-charge-of-the-magic-herbs, at the royal court around the sacred fire.

3) The Umuhamirizo dance

Alexis Kagame claims that the Umuhamirizo warriors' dance was only recently introduced in Rwanda (19th century). It is the result of the combination of a parade dance from Burundi and the Rwandan lance parade. It was initially a palace dance, performed at the royal court, before spreading to the main chiefs and even to the rest of the population. As suggested above, from the outset it was one of the disciplines the royal pages had to acquire during their warrior and citizen training. It was an armed, pantomimic group dance, in which certain fighting and battle scenes were recreated. Further information about this dance can be found in J.B. Nkulikiyinka's Introduction à la danse rwandaise traditionnelle, 2003.

foto24 foto25 foto26 foto27 foto28 foto29 foto30

The polyphonic music of the Amakondera aerophones, which appeared at the same time and was supported by two drums, ruharage and ingaraba, was linked to that of this dance from the time it first arrived in Rwanda, probably during the reign of king Musinga. From then on, the Amakondera, which were a speciality of the Twa people, accompanied the entrance onto the stage of the Intore dancers (who perform the Umuhamirizo dance), gave rhythm to the solos by the best dancers and accompanied them again as they left the stage. This music, with its rich sounds, was also played during royal evening gatherings or during evening gatherings of some of the main chiefs.

dia9 dia10

4) The Umurambiro parade dance of the Inkaranka

The Umurambiro parade dance of the Inkaranka should normally be included in the Imyiyereko parades. We are discussing it separately here for several reasons. Firstly it came from outside, from somewhere in eastern Congo. Secondly its choreography is different from the other Rwandan parades in that the body movements it favours do not follow the canons of Rwandan dance in general and of the parades in particular. Thirdly they were performed by a single group of Rwandan warriors, the Inkaranka, in the north-west of Rwanda in the region of Bugoyi (Gisenyi).

foto31 foto32 dia11

5) The hoe dance of the Imharamba

The hoe dance is usually called by the name of the Imharamba dancers who perform it. Its origins lie in the farming rituals related to the fertility of the soil and glorifies the hoe and its socio-economic role. It is danced in one region of Rwanda, the Bufundu region (Gikongoro) towards the south-west of Rwanda. Although it is therefore far removed from wars and warriors, its different forms of choreography (it is performed as a kind of mini ballet) are organized in a similar way to that of the warriors' parades: the dancers enter the stage in single file using the same Ururenge step, to the rhythm of a horn or an ingoma drum; some dancers perform solos with the hoe, which is seen as a metaphor for the combat weapon; and the dancers leave the stage in exactly the same way as the warriors ending their parade (luister).

dia12 dia13 dia14 dia15


Bourgeois, R., 1957, Banyarwanda et Barundi

d'Hertefelt, M., 1962, Les Anciens Royaumes de la Zone Interlacustre Meridionale

d'Hertefelt, M. et Coupez, A., 1964, La Royauté Sacrée de l'Ancien Rwanda

Gansemans, J., 1988, Les Instruments de Musique du Rwanda

Jacob, I., 1983, Dictionnaire Rwandais-Franšais (Extrait du Dictionnaire de l'INRS)

Kagame A., 1962, Les Milices du Rwanda Précolonial

Kagame, A., 1969, Introduction aux Grands Genres Lyriques de l'Ancien Rwanda

Mbonimana, G., 1971, Musique Rwandaise Traditionnelle

Nkulikiyinka, J.B., 2003, Introduction Ó la Danse Rwandaise Traditionnelle

Sachs, Curt., 1957, The World History of the Dance

Vansina, J., 1962, L'Evolution du Royaume Rwanda, des origines à 1900