Guitar Tales with Deo Salvator: It’s not enough to just play the guitar

In this introduction to his brand-new column celebrating Africa’s diverse and thriving guitar culture, Rwandan guitarist Deo Salvator introduces himself, and explains why it’s not enough to just play the guitar.

It’s not enough to just play the guitar. If it was enough, there would be no need for this column. If all we needed to do as guitarists was to play music to reach a wider audience, and share the stories that impact society and shine a light on our fellow artists, why would we need to write about it? But sometimes the music needs a little help, and that’s why I’m so excited to take you on this journey into guitar culture, and particularly the guitar culture that has blossomed across Africa in recent years.

So who am I? My name is Iratwumva Deo Salvator – it loosely translates to ‘God listens to us’, but you can call me Deo Salvator or Salva if you want to make me homesick. I’m a guitarist from Rwanda, and the founder of Fingerpickers in Africa, an organisation that aims to unite fingerstyle guitarists and promote fingerstyle music across the continent.

I was born in Kigali, Rwanda in 1994, a few months after the genocide against the Tutsi that systematically took more than one million innocent souls. This number could have included me and my mother, who was pregnant with me while she and other Tustsi were being hunted by the militias, but fate had other ideas.

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I grew up with my uncle playing accordion for the family, teaching his son to play piano and enrolling his daughter in drum classes – it was the musical spark that influenced our whole family, and ingrained in me a love of music, setting me on the path to becoming a dancer. Without that spark, the guitar would not have been there when a broken lumbar disk ended my dreams of dancing, giving me a new and thrilling path to creativity for me after three years of silence.

I truly believe it was my destiny to be here today speaking with you, and over the coming months, to share the stories of other proudly African guitarists through this column. If playing guitar was enough, these wonderful players would need no soapbox to share their talent with the wider world – but I am here to be their amplifier to you, the Guitar.com readers.

Deo Salvator
Deo Salvator. Image: Atelier

Radio freedom

It’s not enough to just play the guitar – this is a lesson I remember whenever I listen to Rwandan palm-wine music early in the morning on Radio Rwanda. And I’ll forever be grateful for the wisdom that music gave to me as an artist.

The way those pioneers imbued the music with their own life experiences and the way they explicitly understood their own culture shows much about music life span and the maturity put into their work.

Now, I must admit later on, when I was struggling to get to grips with four-fingered guitar technique, I blamed those two-fingered pioneers! But when I embarked on my own songwriting journey, I started to realise that it was not about technique or how many fingers are plucking the strings, but what’s coming from your heart that truly matters. If it was just about playing the guitar, I would have never recognised my ignorance of this, and dived back deep into our culture to learn from them. Without the wisdom I gleaned from Karahanyuze (Rwandan Old Music), I would never have given birth to my first baby last year, Life Within, Vol 1 – yes, I consider my album to be my baby!

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It’s not enough to just play the guitar. If it was, I would have never taken my time to start Fingerpickers in Africa, to hunt for like-minded players, grow the community, prepare social and free guitar workshops or fund it myself. It was only through the love for music, the help of other walkers who tagged along, and our shared hunger to see the guitar growing even more in Africa that we were able to do it.

So no, it’s not enough to just play guitar – we also have to listen, learn, and contribute to the industry. Without the palm-wine music pioneers documenting the work of their peers and forebears, I would have known nothing. I would not be playing guitar, I would not be recording my second album and most importantly I would not be embarking on this exciting journey to share life, nature, instruments, people and all that music needs to exist and be enjoyed with you.

So, welcome to this brand-new column, where each month I will share the stories, views and insights of a group of diverse African guitarists who reflect what’s going on across the continent with this wonderful instrument that unites us all. Welcome to Guitar Tales.

Amahoro! Peace!

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