Ruzamba ‘Kiri’ Chrysologue – from playing tin can guitars to the festival stage

The Rwandan guitarist didn’t even own his own guitar for a long part of his career, but his determination to make it in spite of these challenges is an inspiration to all musicians


Image: Igihe TV

In recent years, live music has been revolutionised in Rwanda. Whereas once the bulk of ‘live’ music consisted of performers lip-syncing to backing tracks, now there is a thriving and dynamic scene where live musicians of all stripes are able to share their gifts with willing audiences.

Festivals have played a huge part in spreading this love for live music across the country, but it would all be for naught if not for the contribution of remarkable musicians like Ruzamba Chrysologue, also known as Kiri.

Image: Igihe TV

Music From Unconventional Materials

Nowadays, Kiri is known as a wonderfully talented and passionate voice for modern Rwandan music, but Ruzamba Chrysologue’s story of getting here makes him even more remarkable. Born in Nyakabiga near the Burundian city of Bujumbura, Kiri discovered his love for music at the age of nine, when he heard someone playing the iningiri – a traditional one-stringed instrument. Captivated by the unique sound, but lacking any instrument of his own, Kiri set out on a mission to create his own version using unconventional materials, such as an empty tin.

“Initially, I couldn’t afford a real guitar, so I made my first guitar using an empty tin. I played songs I heard on the radio, and it surprisingly worked. Later, I encountered religious neighbors who owned a real guitar. Intrigued, I played the kids’ choir songs on my tin guitar, and it caught the attention of a person named Innocent. He was impressed by my fast learning and prophesied that I would become a great guitarist,” Kiri shared.

Now, it should be noted that this was back in 1989 – there was no internet there to learn from, no smartphones to look up tabs and music with. Instead Kiri relied on his own perseverance and ingenuity to get him where he is today.

Despite not having an instrument of his own, in pursuit of his dream to become a great guitarist, Kiri joined an orchestra called Le Genèse a Frontier (later known as Irangiraas) as the backup guitarist, and occasional bassist.

However, recognising the limited opportunities for growth within the band, he eventually made the decision to part ways and found himself a studio where he could borrow instruments and devote countless hours to practicing guitar and honing his skills. Without an instrument of his own his opportunities were still limited however, and he would spend his days working at a garage to support himself while honing his craft.

Image: Igihe TV

The Work Pays Off

The hard work would bear fruit when one fateful day, he met a musician named Andrée, who introduced him to various other musicians on the Rwandan scene. He soon began collaborating with other artists, who were impressed by the diverse repertoire of songs Kiri could play, including his own compositions.

Before long he would be skipping work at the garage to play music with his new friends, but it was soon to all prove worthwhile when he received an advance for a gig of 60,000RWF (around $50) which allowed him to at long last purchase his very own guitar. From that point forward, Kiri knew that his musical journey was heading in the right direction.

Before long, Kiri gained recognition as a guitarist by performing alongside several prominent Rwandan musicians, including King James and Riderman. He has graced the stage in concerts with renowned artists like Cecile Kayirebwa, Muyango, Mariya Yohani, and Nyamibwa, contributing to the vibrancy of the music scene in Rwanda.

His biggest inspirations are Jimi Hendrix and George Benson, but he also takes particular delight in playing songs by Aaron, Shushu, and various Rwandan artists. Over the years, the acoustic guitar has become his sanctuary, a tool for composing melodies and finding solace during his leisure time.

He also cites the influence of another name readers of this column will have heard before – Tamfum. Kiri encountered Tamfum at the National Theatre in Uganda and while they never got to spend the time learning together as Kiri had wanted, he found the Congolese guitarist inspirational.

He came from meeting him with a fire lit underneath him, and soon formed a band to continue his journey, transitioning from primarily playing bass to being a proper solo guitarist in his own right. Tamfum not only taught Kiri how to play better, but also imparted invaluable life lessons, becoming a significant influence and father figure in his life.

Image: Igihe TV

Thriving Live Music Scene, Transformative Encounters and Mentorship

The rise of live music in Rwanda has brought about a positive transformation in the industry. Kiri acknowledges the significant impact of festivals like Kigali Up, Isaano Eant, EANT Festival, Hobe Rwanda Festival, as well as the increased media coverage, in making live music more accessible. Kiri has played his part in these developments, and is grateful for the opportunity to inspire young guitarists and witness the smoother path they now have to pursue their musical dreams.

Kiri’s story highlights the challenges musicians face in securing stable employment within the music industry. Although he possesses original compositions, he has struggled to find the means to record and promote his songs. However, he is grateful to have found a way to address this issue and is now able to record his music.

Kiri’s story is one characterized by resilience, self-taught talent, and an unwavering passion for music. Despite the challenges he encountered along the way, he persevered, learned from mentors, and left an indelible mark on Rwanda’s music industry. He continues to navigate the ever-changing landscape of the music industry, striving to record and promote his own songs with the support of those who believe in his talent.

Find out more about Kiri at facebook.com/ruzamba.kr

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