On an island between the two African countries of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Michael Makembe sits in a circle with local fishermen, clapping their hands to the rhythm of a traditional string instrument. Makembe sings along to the beat as a woman weaves in between his voice, conversing together as though they’ve known each other for years. He instructs the fishermen to feel the beat as he explains that this is how musicians interact with each other.
Makembe, a formally trained musician, noticed the sounds from his home country Rwanda during his time in Belgium. This music was not in a Rwandan household, however, he found it at a museum. “They were credited to UNESCO. They are the ones who recorded them,” Makembe says. He found that the music from his homeland wasn’t owned by Rwandans, nor their descendants. It was just music from Rwanda, but Uganda and other countries as well.
Combined with a search for his own musical identity, Makembe traveled throughout Rwanda to record Rwandans singing traditional music, especially farmers and fishermen. He also recorded people doing more mundane tasks like plowing a field or rowing a boat. He was concerned with capturing a traditional and raw representation of Rwanda. But what was different about his process of recording and capturing was that he put the people first.
“I like to visit people and share what I have. And you also share with me what you have,” Makembe says to the group of fishermen. “And [let’s] see how we can join those forces together.” Unlike the outsiders who recorded music with no credit to the singers, Makembe spends time with the people he records, sometimes for a week or two. He learns their stories and why they are singing their music. After recording, he goes home to his studio and adds a layer of afrobeat, pop, and other influences from his worldwide musical education. While doing so, he makes sure to maintain the integrity of the traditional music. “Like farmers, one takes one side but all plowing the same land. It’s the same with music.”
Makembe hopes to open an online audio library so the global community can appreciate traditional sounds from Rwanda. He stays in touch with the communities that he visits. The people from the fishing island he visited in between Rwanda and the DRC went on to perform in the capital of Rwanda. For his online library and audio museum, he wants the focus to be on the traditional music of Rwanda. He hopes to introduce Rwandan music to the world and make it more well known and recognized.