In the pre-colonial era, Rwandan music was dominated by traditional dances commonly known as amaraba and intore combined, which is a Kinyarwanda word meaning ‘a group of people gathered for a specific purpose’ (usually a good purpose!). When Rwanda was colonized by Belgium, Rwandan music took on Belgian influences. Musical instruments like guitars and pianos started to be used and the imported music favored by the elite who patronized dancehalls and big hotels found its way into everyday life in Rwanda. With the exit of the Belgians in 1961, independent Rwanda formed a closer relationship with France. Rwandan music continued to go west. Much would have been lost, had it not been for traditional musicians who kept local music forms alive.
In the post-colonial period, Rwanda produced popular local bands like Imena, Nyampinga, Les 8 Anges, Les Fellows, Impala, Abamarungu, Los Compagnons de la Chanson, Bisa, Ingenzi and Isibo y’Ishakwe. These bands drew influences from across Africa, especially the Congo, as well as Caribbean zouk and reggae.
The genocide against the Tutsi that came to a head in 1994, but which had started in the 1980s, disrupted music production within Rwanda. Many musicians died, while others moved overseas, bringing their country’s music to cities like Brussels and Paris. For many years, Rwandan-Belgian Cécile Kayirebwa was arguably most internationally acclaimed Rwandan musician, until the arrival in the late-1990s of Rwandan-Canadian Corneille and Jean-Paul Samputu.
In recent years, music production has gradually returned to where it was, the rebirth largely spearheaded by Rwandan youth. A crop of new stars have emerged, including Kamichi, Mani Martin, Tom Close, Urban Boyz, King James, Knowles, Dream Boys, Riderman and Jay Polly. In the past 5 to 10 years new musicians have emerged, including Senderi International Hit, Jule Sentore, P-Fla, Bull Dog, Fireman, Active, Diana Teta and many more.
The music industry in Rwanda is growing and becoming more professional. An increasing number of companies are investing in the development of new talent, including major music festivals like Kigali Up! And competitions like Primus Guma Guma Super Star (PGGSS) and Ishusho K’umuziki Nyarwanda. The launch of Primus Guma Guma Super Star, a local music contest organized by a local brewing company called Bralirwa Ltd. The last three years, has brought to the fore a new crop of young musicians such as Christopher, Amag The Black, Bruce Melodie, Young Grace and others. Some might even argue that the Rwandan music scene is growing congested. Some of the stars of recent years have already faded from the local scene, such as Kitoko, Miss Jojo, Miss Shanel, The Ben and Meddy. However, The Ben and Meddy have been making a name for themselves in the USA.
Today music is one of the emerging sectors in Rwanda’s economy. Rwanda has a growing popular music industry, influenced by East African, Congolese and American music. The dominant genres in Rwanda today have come into existence after the 1994 genocide, specifically hip-hop and R&B, often blended with ragga and pop, as well as gospel and Afrobeat.