September 7, 2015
KIRUMBA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO – A group of bare-chested dancers shake their shoulders and waists with intense vigor. Their leopard-skin hats and skirts sway rhythmically as they dance to drumbeats. Their leader, Alpha Kambere Musavuli, who is known by his middle name, holds braided raffia yarn in his left hand and stamps his feet, producing a clattering sound from bells tied around his ankles.
The group is performing at Centre d’Animation pour la Culture et le Développement de Kirumba, or CACUDEKI, a popular entertainment venue in Kirumba, a town about 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of Goma, the capital of DRC’s North Kivu province.
The Nande are traditionally farmers, but war has stripped the people of their long-held values of love, respect and peace, says Kambere, a resident of Kirumba. Kambere uses music to reconnect his people with the culture they have left behind.
“My choice to embrace the folklore genre was born out of my desire to carry forward the culture of my community,” he says.
The Nande are among 250 tribes in DRC, according to Minority Rights Group International. One of the largest groups in the region, the Nande traditionally occupied the Beni and Lubero territories of North Kivu.
DRC has for years been embroiled in a series of conflicts that have forced people from their villages to settle in larger towns and cities. An estimated 5 million people died in a war that stretched from 1997 to 2003, and many more have died or been displaced from their homes amid ongoing strife.
Those challenges have forced the Nande in from their fields and modernized them, Kambere says. A large number of Nande settled in Goma, where most of them became traders.
“People have been killing each other as if they have forgotten that they belong to the same ancestors,” he says.
Kambere also hopes to keep the Nande language alive. It’s disappearing, he says, as young people choose to speak French.
His fans say his music reminds them of the villages they abandoned and the moral values their ancestors upheld.
Kambere’s musical journey began in 1992, when he was a member of a Catholic youth choir in Kanyabayonga, a town 27 kilometers (17 miles) south of Kirumba. A year later, he released his first song on an album that was played on local radio stations. The church’s leadership loved his music and encouraged him to write more. About 10 years ago, he joined Yira Song MB, a band in Goma, and continued his career with that group. He has since released 42 songs as a solo artist.
This year, Kambere received accolades from all over the country for rewriting DRC’s national anthem, usually sung in French, in the Nande language. The song aims to foster patriotism among people in his community who do not speak French, he says.
The Nande language is still widely spoken in the North Kivu province, and it’s not clear how many Nande people do not speak French.
Even so, as fewer Nande people live in traditional villages, that language and the culture that goes along with it could begin to fade. By singing in the Nande language, Kambere believes he is keeping it alive. His music is popular in the region.
“Young people should not forget the language of their ancestors even as they learn French,” he says. “Their language is part of their identity.”
Music is an effective tool for keeping such people connected to their cultural roots, says Kasereka Mungumwa, who leads cultural and artistic efforts in Kirumba.
“Cultural songs are very important, as they remind young people about the positive values of their culture,” he says. “Musicians like Musavuli help to promote local culture and spread the message of peace and love in the region.”
Many young people have forgotten their cultures in favor of imitating foreign cultures, thinking they’re keeping pace with the times, Mungumwa says. But those who listen to Kambere’s music enjoy it.
Bonheur Luhembo, a host at Lubelo Sud Community Radio, says the songs remind him of his village, which was abandoned because of the region’s conflicts.
“When he sings ‘Esyombalo Syokowetu’ (‘Trails of our Region’), streams of tears flow from my eyes,” he says. “It reminds me how we abandoned our villages. The trails leading to these villages have been taken over by rats.”
Luhembo fled his home in Bambu village, southwest of Kirumba, 20 years ago because of a tribal conflict involving the Hunde, Hutu and Tutsi communities.
Leontine Mwindiki, a student in Goma, says Kambere’s music reminds him about the culture of hard work, which is part of the Nande tradition.
“In his song ‘Endambira’ (‘The Swallow’), Musavuli encourages us to concentrate on work despite the war and poverty, and not to imitate this bird,” he says. (In the Nande culture, lazy people are compared with the swallow, an agile bird that spends most of its time flying instead of looking for food, he says.)
Kambere hopes to one day be known internationally.
“I believe that everywhere in the world, there are Congolese,” he says. “I wish my music could reach all of them.”
The war in North Kivu could end if people lived by the values of their culture, he says.
“If people could respect their culture, they could help each other, have a spirit of sharing, love and care for each other, and peace could reign,” he says.
Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated this article from French