Michael Makembe: Making New Beats to Preserve Rwanda’s Traditional Music

By Donah Mbabazi

When Michael Makembe sings or produces new work, he is also promoting traditional Kinyarwanda and Rwandan musical styles such as Ikinimba and Ikinyemera.

Ikinyemera originates from Bigogwe, located in the Nyabihu district of Rwanda’s eastern Province. Its dance movements and songs reflects Bigogwe peoples’ culture, which revolves around grazing cows.

Ikinimba originates from the Northern Province. There are two types of Ikinimba: the archers' version from Musanze and the widely known agriculture-based version from Gicumbi. Their songs are accompanied by instruments such as ikembe and inanga.

For now, Makembe sings in two languages: Kinyarwanda and English. His strategy to promote Kinyarwanda is to fuse modern sounds like afro beats and hip hop with traditional Rwandan styles.

An actor, singer, songwriter and producer, Makembe started his musical career at a very young age. Motivated by his older brother’s passion for music, he was just eight years old when he started playing. As a young boy, Makembe played guitar, mostly composing his own music. ‘I grew up listening to reggae music a lot, so at that time I was more into playing reggae’, he said.

Makembe has performed at some of the biggest events in Rwanda, like the Iwacu Musika Festival and Isaano festival. He has also produced music for other artistes in Rwanda like B-threy, Eric 1Key and Eric Mucyo.

His latest documentary, Sounds of Home: A Musical Odyssey in Rwanda, Eric Mucyo follows Makembe as he engages with traditional singers, makes beats and collects sounds to preserve indigenous music.

His music tells ancient stories and helps youth understand their history.

In the film, women and men (mostly fishermen-and-women) are seen humming and singing, playing instruments and dancing as they make beats with Makembe; He aims his music where he feels it should hit: ‘at home and at heart.’

‘The documentary shows how I record Rwandan music archives and bring those sounds back into the studio to make a new sound and style’, he said.

Makembe said his friend Samuel Karemangingo pitched him to make an Al Jazeera produced documentary about his work.

Karemangingo, a filmmaker himself, had been in touch with Al-Jazeera about their overarching project on African stories. As Makembe explains in the film, ‘He told me about  how it is promoting African stories—they choose from African countries, then have them share interesting stories from different industries: business, music, movies. Samuel was one of the guys that was chosen.’

Makembe considers this semi-archival project his calling. With it, his goal is to make a place where one can find everything musical from Rwanda. ‘I mean sounds and dances all in audio format. Something like a museum, but mainly for traditional sounds’, he says in the documentary.

‘I loved the idea! We both chose Nkombo Island for a location. The Island is a unique place; it’s something my generation hasn’t explored. It shows the real music of Nkombo; it shows the fishermen-and-women because the documentary captured their music and lifestyle. The people are so natural. They sing and write with their minds about their experience: the lake, fish and their way of life’, Makembe recalled.

Acting in Neptune Frost
In Neptune Frost, Makembe plays Xam, one of the escaped coltan miners who forms an anti-colonial computer hacker collective in the hilltops of Burundi. They attempt to take over the authoritarian regime that's exploiting the region's people and natural resources.

Saul Williams met Makembe in 2017 when he was still attending the Nyundo School of Art and Music.

‘We performed for him and later shared contacts. After that, he started following my work on social media, and then one day he texted and told me he was in Rwanda. He invited me to Kiyovu where we had a conversation, [and] he also invited other artistes like Kivumbi. He was telling us about the movie and that he wanted us to be a part of it.’

Apart from acting, Makembe also sang and created some tracks for the movie.

Outstanding Moments
At 24, Makembe is one of the few Rwandan musicians who can rock ‘Afro-fusion’. The genre normally combines traditional and modern African music with jazz, fusion and R&B. Musicians typically use guitar, horns, bass guitar and percussion drums.

Makembe uses, among other instruments, his guitar and ikembe. He has the ability to play these different instruments all at once. One way is by looping them while he plays on stage:

‘I usually loop as I play on stage. When I play, I am inspired by what has happened in my life. I listen to what has touched me so I can tell it through my heart.’

When fusing, he researches the different music styles he wants to use before he picks his desired elements:

‘When I want to fuse hip hop, I go learn hip hop, because you need to know the style you’re fusing well. In the studio, I create beats as I play instruments. Then later when I need maybe some traditional vocals, I meet traditional singers to get the elements that I want. Most of them I record live.’

Producing and sampling Rwandan traditional music are some of Makembe’s proudest moments.

He said, ‘When I started visiting studios, I fell in love with the creative process of producing, and then creating and producing my own music was very fun!’

Makembe has nonetheless faced a number of challenges, like having limited ways to promote his music.

‘Promoting my music has been challenging because [Rwandan modern-traditional music] is a new sound, vibe and feel’, he shared.

According to him, the best way to overcome this challenge is by working with his generation to push his music on social media. The young artist believes that for Rwandan music to grow and expand beyond borders, there is a need for musicians to embrace originality.

‘I think most of them have a formula to [make] music; an artiste comes up with some melody, you know. There is a strategy, which is good, but it limits creativity. To me, there shouldn’t be any formula when you’re creating art.’