Music in post-genocide Rwanda: the revival of Orchestre Impala

Orchestre Impala Photo credit: Emmanuel Kwizera
Emmanuel Kwizera

Rafiki Ubaldo & Helen Hintjens (2020): Rwandan music-makers negotiate shared cultural identities after genocide: the case of Orchestre Impala’s revival, Cultural Studies, DOI: 10.1080/09502386.2020.1755709

In the sensitive post-genocide cultural landscape of Rwanda, this research considers the significance of the recent revival of a musical group that was first popular in the pre-genocide Habyarimana era.

Orchestre Impala was perhaps the most popular musical group of the late 1970s and 1980s, and its revival represents something of a novelty in Rwandas national cultural politics. Perhaps, we suggest, this revival may reflect a certainnormalizationof culture, and a sense of continuity in Rwanda.

Drawing on personal contacts with musicians, supporters, and observers, we conducted informal interviews, and analysed lyrics of songs still sung, those left behind and those newly created.

Reflecting on the revival of Orchestre Impala and the meaning of their music in post-genocide Rwanda

What emerged was a careful and conscious process of selective recovery of past songs, and the creation of new songs, unified by their association with a genre known as igisope, a term explained in the article.

Song texts, translated from the Kinyarwanda, are analysed as a form of historical commentary on the times that Orchestre Impala musicians survived and now find themselves in.

We found that Orchestre Impala has been revived with great caution and sensitivity for the post-genocide context in Rwanda. Its popularity draws on shared social imaginaries across generations of Rwandans, and the bands revival seems to signal improved possibilities in future for coming to terms with Rwandas pre-genocide past.

Cultural continuity

We tentatively propose that revival of Orchestre Impala both reflects and helps generate elements of cultural continuity in Rwandans musical landscape. The demands of surviving commercially as a band, implies that political praise-songs remain part of Orchestre Impalas song repertoire today as during the Habyarimana era.

Rafiki Ubaldo
Assistant professor
More information

This new publication arose from a small grant provided by the Aegis Trust for Rwandan researchers and their collaborators.