Learning African Drumming in Kigali

How Music and Arts Education is helping Rwandan communities

I visited a creative arts school in Kigali, Rwanda, and learns how they’re funding programs through the outcomes of student learning itself.  Can ‘western’ institutions benefit by using the same model?

If you’re reading this, chances are you also believe that Music and Arts education is one of the richest experiences for a child. Align this with cultural traditions and the activation of communities and you’re providing a rich experience for many.  Many communities in Africa take these experiences one step further, capitalizing on the talent of their students to fund their education. 

I’m an international teacher, specializing in Music, Performing Arts, and English, so visiting this school was right up my alley!

In an earlier article about how to learn on vacation, I made particular reference to learning a musical instrument on holiday.  Not only is it an incredible experience to learn a new and unique instrument, or get a masterclass in a particular genre, but it opens up a range of unique cultural experiences that you’ll only get from the inside of the community. 

On one of these musical adventures, I took on African drumming in Kigali, Rwanda. I linked up with the Irembo Foundation through my host.  The Arts school, which teaches artistic painting, drumming, singing, and dance, is a centre for the community and a regular spot for children, teenagers, and adults to get to together in the evening or on a weekend.

My learning started with watching and listening, followed by dancing, before my teacher, Cyusa started to teach me some drumming rudiments.  For someone with a classical music background, this was a novel way to approach learning rhythm.  With no reference to a beat number, and with the cyclic nature of the patterns, I had to learn to go with the flow, and not count, count, count.

Learning African Drumming
Rwandan drumming lessons for a classically trained musician meant disregarding the idea of counting!

As I started to become familiar with the center, it became clear that this was very much a holistic approach to learning in the Arts.  At some point, each student would try all the various disciplines before finding their biggest passion.  And in the area of Music and Dance, which is more or less treated as one and the same art form, an unofficial, yet strictly adhered-to, hierarchy is followed.  Children start as Dancers, start developing their singing, learn to drum as part of the ensemble and eventually, become a drum leader.   

On one afternoon was a particularly large practice held in the front courtyard.  A 4-piece drum ensemble warmed up, while male and female dances practiced a popular partnered courting dance.  Eventually, when all came together, they raised their voices in chorus, and the spectacle of rhythm, dance and singing that left me speechless.  My teacher, Cyusa, interrupted my jaw-dropped bliss to inform me that it was a rehearsal for a wedding performance and that a family had paid the foundation a lot of money to have such a large ensemble at the wedding.

In fact, this was one of their biggest sources of revenue – wedding performances.   Weddings in Rwanda are big affairs, and families want to have the biggest display of cultural pride and energetic atmosphere.  The young performers who bring their youthful passion to their music and dance performances provide this and more.  The money that comes into the foundation from these events goes into the schooling costs of the children, including resources and clothing.

Rwandan students dancing and singing
Students practice a dance for a wedding, for which the school will be paid.

Back inside the foundation, more artistic promotion is going on.  Children learn to paint and create traditional crafts.  The craft items, such as accessories, clothes, interior decorations are sold to visitors.  As children develop their artistic craft they get their works featured on the walls of the gallery, with prices reflecting the obvious progression.  And for all this, the children are taught to paint and create for free; the only catch being that once their work goes up for sale, a percentage of the proceeds go back to the foundation and into their schooling.

These type of co-curricular or extracurricular activities are already a major component of student learning.  I’ve already touched on the benefits of such activities to a reduced school hours. While there are obvious problems that may arise from the commoditization of learning outcomes for children, if carried out with the children’s education as top priority, the benefits could be exponential and cyclical.  An arts education – to real world experience – that leads to funding to further their education –to real world experiences…

Is this a model of Arts funding that could be applied more directly elsewhere?  In the schools I’ve worked in, we’ve often sold tickets to help cover the production costs of musicals and other concerts, but perhaps we’re not thinking big enough. 

Music and dance schools could offer grand performances suited to weddings, parties, or corporate events.  Why not include an educational aspect to it; hire a dance school to do a workshop at the function, or group drumming.  I believe that actual engagement and participation is the next great level for entertainment, a type of full circle for the evolution of music and dance.  There will be professionals, or leaders, but everyone will be involved. If there’s one experience more cathartic than listening to your favorite artist live at a show, it’s producing that music itself and sharing it with other humans.

meeting artists inside the Irembo foundation gallery
Inside the Irembo foundation Art Gallery, where student works are showcased and sold.

Art programs could do the same, teaching students to create crafts that can be sold directly to the community, or even using a platform like Etsy.  More advanced students could gain the real-world experience of selling their works, liaising with galleries and clients, and even earning real money.

While I have reservations about the commodification of the Arts and Arts education in general, I am realistic to the sometimes-transactional nature of the society we live in.  I received a high-end conservatory-based music education and I am incredibly grateful for everything I learned but I was missing the real-world experience of turning my Art into a business or profession. Music and Arts leaders should be a guide and champion for young artists; the outcomes not only benefit the student but the institution (big or small) and the teacher themselves.   

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *