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.

“Rwanda’s hope is for peace,” she says at the end of her highly creditable documentary, “and the artist’s role is to refuel the imagination.” And, she might have added, to ensure that music does not play such an insidious role again.

A much more inclusive and open vision of music is found in the work of Andy Irvine, who talks to Peter Browne on The Rolling Wave (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday) about the huge influence of different folk traditions on his long career. It has been as much a physical journey as a musical one. Irvine, who says he has “always enjoyed trying to live a hard life”, describes the road trip across Australia to record his new album, Parachilna , as well as older travels through the Balkans and Hungary.

The fruits of this are heard in his music – Australian ballads, Bulgarian airs – but while Irvine describes himself as a “silly old romantic male”, he is refreshingly unsentimental about the peripatetic life that has brought so much inspiration. He still enjoys going on the road, but “it comes into contention with my desire to be at home, so I’m looking for someone to clone me.”

As this absorbing interview testifies, it would be hard to replicate such an original figure.

The novelist Emma Donoghue turns up to talk about the music that has provided her personal soundtrack in Songs in the Key of Life (TXFM, Saturday). Presented by Nadine O’Regan on the newly rebranded incarnation of the Dublin indie station Phantom FM, the show may not feature the most startling choice of music, with U2 and Nelly Furtado featuring, but it is illuminated by Donoghue’s attractive and deceptively breezy presence.

The Dublin-raised, Canada-based author’s sexuality features prominently, despite some mild dissent: “In Ireland I always have to talk about being a lesbian, and in Canada I get to just forget about it,” she wryly notes. But she says that realising she was gay in her teens made her feel different, and “given that fiction is about people who are different, it really did set me on my path to being a writer”.

And as she discovered her sexuality in “scary” 1980s Ireland, music played a vital role in her life. “The first time I had the sense it was possible to live a life which was different, sexually speaking, was all through pop music,” Donoghue says, citing David Bowie and Freddie Mercury as exemplars of “this life outside”. Sometimes only music can hit the right note.

radioreview@irishtimes.com

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