Radio: Music’s potent role in the incitement of violence in Rwanda

Kathryn Thomas is a vivid if surprising guide through the country’s rich musical heritage and brutal recent history

Rwandese refugees cross Rusumo border to Tanzania from Rwanda in  May, 1994. Phorograph:  REUTERS/Jeremiah Kamau/Files

Rwandese refugees cross Rusumo border to Tanzania from Rwanda in May, 1994. Phorograph: REUTERS/Jeremiah Kamau/Files

Sat, Apr 26, 2014, 01:00

Since Shakespeare wrote about it being the food of love, the idea of music as a positive force has been embedded in our psyches. In common with other art forms, it is almost unquestioningly seen as a good thing, what with its charms to soothe a savage breast and all that. Anyone subscribing to these notions might check out Music Passport: Journey Through Genocide in Rwanda (RTÉ Radio 1, Monday), a documentary that, in its chilling account of the role music played in the carnage that befell the country in 1994, comprehensively debunks such cherished assumptions.

That the person busting these myths should be Kathryn Thomas is an even bigger jolt. Best known as an unobjectionably upbeat travel presenter and gameshow host, Thomas is not the most obvious guide through Rwanda’s bloody recent history. Nor is her introduction especially promising, as she talks about the power of music as discussed by “philosophers, musicians and world leaders”, from Nelson Mandela to, ahem, Maria von Trapp. “We know it here in Ireland,” she says, “and in Rwanda, music has made that same journey, from politics to hate to love and out the other side.”

But such flourishes of fortune-cookie wisdom are thankfully rare, with Thomas providing a vivid overview of Rwanda’s musical heritage while negotiating its traumatic past. Interviews with local musicians (and the odd Irish musicologist) highlight the importance of music in Rwandan life, but the story takes a darker turn. The genocidal impulses that led to Hutu militias slaughtering the Tutsi minority (and moderate Hutus) were fuelled by songs suffused with prejudice, with the singer Simon Bikindi among the chief culprits.

Described by Thomas as “the Michael Jackson of Rwanda”, Bikindi may be a loathsome character – he was jailed in 2008 after an international court found his music had an “amplifying” effect on the killing – but his gifts were formidable. “I know he killed many people,” the musician JP Samputo dolefully says, “but that does not mean he was not an amazing artist and singer.” The brutal consequences of Bikindi’s work are made clear by Chantal, who recounts the fearful lead-up to a massacre in which 3,000 people died but which she survived.

It is not all so grim. A more hopeful tone prevails in present-day Rwanda, though, tellingly, many of the upbeat statements come from returning expatriates such as the singer Mighty Popo. Throughout all this Thomas refrains from expressing controversial opinions – “I feel you have to be very careful not to mention Hutu or Tutsi,” she notes – preferring, perhaps understandably, to accentuate the positive.

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