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Almost all 4095 Rwandan songs we received have not been heard of – Robert Masozera

By Dolapo Aina
15 November 2021   |   11:29 am
On Thursday, 28 October, 2021, Rwanda through the Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy received a copy of Rwandan traditional sounds and songs recorded between the early 1950s to 2007. These archives were kept at the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA-Africa Museum) in Tervuren, Belgium. Three years earlier, in 2018, Belgium had made announcements which indicated…

Ambassador Rober Masozera

On Thursday, 28 October, 2021, Rwanda through the Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy received a copy of Rwandan traditional sounds and songs recorded between the early 1950s to 2007. These archives were kept at the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA-Africa Museum) in Tervuren, Belgium. Three years earlier, in 2018, Belgium had made announcements which indicated the country’s readiness to relinquish artefacts which belong to Rwanda.

Ambassador Robert Masozera who is a seasoned career diplomat and the Director General of Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy was the government official who led the team who received the digital copy of Rwandan songs on behalf of Rwanda. Ambassador Masozera who informed me that several African countries have historical artefacts in several museums in Belgium, granted me an exclusive and holistic interview on Rwanda’s culture, heritage and the never before heard four thousand and ninety-five digital songs now in the possession of Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy. Do read the excerpts. 

Can you give us A snapshot about yourself.
My name is Robert Masozera. I am currently the Director General of the Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy. This is a government institution created in November 2020 with the mission to preserve the Rwanda’s cultural heritage and to safeguard the national language, Kinyarwanda; and to promote the country’s cultural values. It is within that context that the national museums, the archives, the country’s institutions, the creative industry are under our purview and responsibilities. But before that position, I was also the Director General of the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda.

Whose headquarters is in Huye?
Yes. And several years before that, I served for a very long time as a diplomat. I served as Rwanda’s Ambassador to Belgium and to the European Union between 2011 to 2016. And before that, I served in other diplomatic positions, either in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or overseas. I served in Germany as Deputy Ambassador. My educational background is of a political scientist as I studied political science and communications but I majored in International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Vienna, Austria.

You alluded to something some minutes ago, this institution was established in November 2020. Why is it necessary for Rwanda to safeguard her historical and cultural archives?
Rwanda as a country and demographically, a country is nothing if it lacks some intangible part of her history (culturally, heritage-wise etc.) Rwanda is very rich in terms of her heritage and her heritage is diverse from the natural heritage, the cultural heritage, the people, the way they live, their lifestyle, the Rwandan values etc. Basically, Rwanda needs to preserve this cultural heritage to really keep her identity. As you know, we live in a planet and continents but each country has her own identity. The government of Rwanda since after the Genocide against the Tutsi and when you look at the challenges just after the aftermath, it was security, it was emergency activities, it was reconstruction but after that phase, we began to realize that it was now a phase of the nation building. People began to ask questions about what their identity was? What is our language? Who are we? What is the history?

They even started to really question themselves about their backgrounds. It would be a surprise to those who don’t know that when you look at the history of Rwanda before the Europeans came, Rwanda used to be a very united and strong nation. Then, we had really hard times brought by the colonialists, who distorted and divided the people. After all this, the people realised our history was distorted.

Now, the government of Rwanda in putting in place this institution, people want to rediscover and refine their connection with their ancestors and traditions. This is so because people were really disconnected with their past. Now, this institution is there to reconnect people with their origins, ancestors, traditions, and this is very important culturally and spiritually. This is the main reason for the establishment of this institution. It is noteworthy to state that this institution was also there before but in three fragmented ways. These three institutions which existed in 2020 were merged into one. On one part, there was the Institute of National Museums; for which I was the Director General.

We had another institution in charge of archives and library services. And another institution which oversaw Kinyarwanda. Since there were some administrative overlaps, the government decided to merge the three institutions into one. That is exactly what transpired.

Recently, two weeks ago (Thursday 28 October 2021), the academy received a copy of Rwandan digital sounds and songs recorded between 1954 to 2005. Do elucidate on these historical recordings and how such recordings were not initially domiciled in Rwanda?

We received these musical archives (digital music archives) comprising four thousand songs and dances, precisely four thousand and ninety-five (4095) songs and dances (all traditional) and as you said they were recorded between 1954 to 2007. They are quite diverse and they are divided into different categories. We have the royal court music, we have war dance music, we have ritual music. We also have a large number of songs related to agricultural works, cattle, hunting, festive songs. They are quite varied and diverse and they were played on different instruments as well such as drums and cymbals and a lot of other traditional instruments. These songs were collected during the colonial period. Now, the colonialists or the researchers during that period, collected the best songs in terms of quality, in terms of creativity and ingenuity, in terms of sacredness. And they collected all these songs, but not only the songs and dances, they also connected other archaeological artefacts and archives.

They took all these archives and these items of our heritage to their capital cities. I’m talking here about Europeans, mostly countries that colonised Rwanda (specifically Germany and Belgium). These archives and in particular, these songs were part of a big number of our heritage, still held in Belgium. Now what was the purpose of taking these archives? For there was a purpose. The purpose was to conduct research and corroborate their theory that Africans were different from our race. They had a colonial divisionist theory and they wanted to show that Rwandans were divided into three categories. They were bent on the race versus thinking, that one race is superior to another race (that is white is superior to other races.)

So, they wanted to have and show evidence that people are not similar. They divided the Rwandan people into three ethnic groups. And because that was not enough for them, they also wanted to show that those three people are also different in their ways of singing, dancing, mannerisms. So, we were surprised when we received these digital songs, and discovered the over four thousand songs are categorized into ethnic groups (this is a Hutu song, this is a Tutsi song etc) But critically looking at it, we were not surprised, because in the context of that period, this was the theory that was prevalent at that time. The categorisation of these songs from one specific ethnic group to another or a specific instrument is only played by a certain ethnic group.

These things were really misrepresented, and were not corrected. That’s why we stated that these historical heritage and artefacts needed to be repatriated and decolonized because you look at them and you see the misrepresentation of Rwanda’s history. So, to answer your question as to why these artefacts were not here, they kept all the artefacts for a long time and these 4000 songs were recorded since 1945. But they date back to a much longer period. Some of the songs date back to the period of the royals and monarchy.

During the early 19th century before 1954? 
Yes. In 19th century, actually, some pre-date the 19th century. I have to mention that what they have in Belgium is more than the artefacts we have been able to preserve here in our museum. If you combine the artefacts and archives, we have here in Rwanda is less than what is been held in Belgium.

Really? So, the 4095 plus digital songs and dance tunes that were returned and received in October 2021 are not all?
They are not all. What we received is just a fraction of what is held in Belgium. What we received was from just one museum (the Tervuren Museum). But there are many other institutions, museums and private people who collect and have private collections of Rwanda’s and Africa’s artefacts. There is a large number of them who have in their possessions such artefacts.

So, the Rwandan Government is still in the process of getting access to those historical artefacts?
Yes. Actually, what happened with the digital songs received recently was actually not the restitution of the Rwandan heritage held in Belgium as that restitution has not yet taken place in true form. What happened was just a donation from that museum to our institution. The proper restitution of other historical heritage and artefacts would happen through the proper and diplomatic channels. And the Government of Rwanda has requested officially.

Who are some of the Rwandan musicians whose songs are on the digital package which was received by the Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy and handed over by the royal museum in Belgium?

Many of the songs received are unknown to the Rwandan public. Really, about eighty five percent of the songs are totally unknown to the public. It is the first time we are getting to know of them and the first time, we are hearing of a lot of the songs.

Basically, you are saying, you don’t know a lot of the songs and the artists?
So, those who are saddled with the songs in the archives which we collected are listening to them but there are people we don’t know of, except a few of them. There is one popular musician called Rujindiri. Rujindiri is a very popular folklore singer who played a peculiar musical instrument called (zither). And there is another musician called Sebatunzi. These two are the ones people would easily know or have heard of. But others, are purely unknown.

So, the digital archives returned to Rwanda, each song has a name tag?
Yes, because the researchers took their time to detail each song with the appropriate information (e.g., name of musician, title of song, year it was recorded, location etc).

From the research your team have initially conducted and still conducting, a large part of those names is completely unknown.

Unknown. Totally unknown. A large part.

To put it into proper perspective, a large part of Rwanda’s heritage and history was stored in the West for decades. That’s interesting.
Very interesting.

What would become of these recorded tunes, songs and dances since they’re now in Rwanda and what is the institute thinking?
Remember that we have the four thousand plus songs in a digital format and since they are digital, the dissemination would be easy. We intend to ensure it belongs to the people of Rwanda. This is not for the museum, as we received this for the benefit of nation. We would make them accessible in our national library and in the national museums where people can access them. And we are setting up the system where people can access them through the internet.

But before that, of course, there are some works that need to be done (as I told you) these sounds were and are misrepresented. There are some mistakes with the labelling, because it is not acceptable to say that this popular song is from this particular group. Things like this are what happened when African heritage reached European museums; they were misrepresented. So, we are happy to receive them so that we really correct all these mistakes.

Do you mean there are things that have to be filtered?
We might not even filter because people also need to know how the thinking was then. We will not delete such music or dance tune. But illustrate that such songs and tunes were Rwandan but when they went outside and reached Europe, they were portrayed differently to support their theory. 

That’s why we say, it is very important to have these archives, for educational purposes, research purposes, as people will benefit from these archives; for example, artists. Artists would benefit from these archives because they represent an inspiration for them. These archives are of very great value culturally, because when you listen to the content, they really embody the cultural values and identity of Rwanda. Invariably, we think that artists will get inspired, in terms of content, in terms of even the pride. Also, they would be of great value spiritually. Because as I told you, they selected the best specimen of songs sung several decades ago. This is so because when you listen to the quality and the content of these songs, for example, the ritual songs, these are things people didn’t know about or have a clue about.

And that is when you as the listener would understand how Rwandans was deeply disconnected for a very long time with their historical ancestors and their system. There is a gap created by the fact that these songs were taken away and this created a huge gap in the knowledge amongst the Rwandan people of the Rwandan people. Therefore, we think when people have access to them, they would be marvelled by the existence of the ingenuity of Rwandan ancestors in their lyrics, melody etc. The artists will be happy to have access to these songs; the scientific community too, because this is really a primary source of information which will help people to know, collect and to even create new hypothesis in Rwanda’s history which can be added to Rwandan education.

Looking at it from the intellectual property perspective. Since these archives received are of Rwandan musicians that people did not know of, is there a possibility that since this has to also do with intellectual property, is it possible that the institution will try to trace the musicians’ family since this will go online. How is it going to work? If these songs go online and one can access them, would these songs be free or would it be on platforms like Spotify, so that the royalties collected would be passed on to the family members of the musicians who must have passed away. Is that also into consideration?

We are going to look at all the factors. Since we are seeing and listening to these songs for the first time, many of the songs now belong to the public domain. Some are older than fifty years. In Rwanda, the law (I think) is twenty years or fifty years but after that it belongs to the public domain. But there are some new songs. As I told you, there are new recordings. We also have some songs recorded after independence and they are still very recent. Songs recorded in the first and second republics. Also, we have discovered some songs which were actually about the ideology of the Genocide Against the Tutsi. Songs of 1963, 1964 up till 1990. Songs that were heavy and invoked hatred.

So, you have asked how will it work? I think we will keep them in the national library and national museums. And for Spotify, why not? It would depend on each song. I think we would make them public, so that people can access them on the internet and at least have a piece of the work but not the whole (something in the mould of snippets which is allowed in intellectual property.) And if you want to have the whole song, then you go to where you can purchase the song(s).

Simply put, creativity is not free. Have you gone through the 4000 songs?
Our research department is going through them.

And what has the feedback from the research department been?
They are ecstatic and excited to just hear the songs and it is a new discovery for them but they have also seen some challenges. For example, this categorisation of music. Also, some songs carry and are filled with hatred and hateful messages. But amazingly, the researchers, linguists and literature experts are discovering some new vocabulary, words in Kinyarwanda that are not being used and not in the Kinyarwanda dictionary and not being used presently.

They are really discovering a lot of things and that is why we say it is a huge potential for everyone mostly scientific research community. That is the reason why we would go through each song even though 4000 plus songs are a lot. But I have a capable team already doing this. Also, we are planning to organise a show to showcase these songs on Radio and TV stations.

Are all the 4000 songs digital audio or digital visual?
All of them are audio,

And when would the institute be ready to showcase the digital songs
When everything is in place but we really want to do this as soon as possible. And even before that, there are some things we have already started; meeting with different categories of the Rwandan people, artists and their federations in order to have a gathering and do some presentations. Also, we plan to visit several TV stations including the national TV and other radio stations to talk about these archives. Other technical issues like the digital and internet aspects are taking some time but people will know when the songs would be ready; for the institute would make it public. People know about the four thousand and ninety-five Rwandan songs.

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