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CLAJERANG and Inshuti-UK

Another of François' grands projets is CLAJERANG, a loose collective of local businessmen and worthies based in Ruhengeri. CLAJERANG was originally set up by François and his British friend, conservationist and erstwhile colleague of Dian Fossey, Ian Redmond. Now in its second year, the organization aims to promote friendship and cultural exchange between young people in Rwanda and the UK through a range of school partnerships, visits, donations, and the imminent creation of a center for Rwandan culture and education. Its acronymic French name says as much in shorthand. The first great success in the story of CLAJERANG and their British partners was a UK tour by Ballet Inganzo in the summer of 2002. In spite--or maybe because of--a very tight budget, frequent cultural misunderstandings, the lack of a common language, and some particularly heavy-handed bureaucracy on the African side, the tour was a triumph.

Thanks to explosive concerts at the National Theatre, London, and the Rhythms of the World Festival in Hitchen, and scores of school workshops across the southwest, thousands of British fans were able to experience the magic, and seeming miracle, of Rwandan ballet at first hand.

Now, CLAJERANG have formalized ties with the British organizers of that tour (Inshuti-UK), to help generate interest and eventually develop a reliable market for Rwandan musicians and artists in the UK. This is why we have journeyed thousands of miles to Ruhengeri. Like the courageous vanguard of Ballet Inganzo who left their villages to battle with incredulous Ugandan border guards, and braved airplanes, underground trains, and London's roads for the first time, we were keen to experience the ballet in its proper environment, to meet the musicians and their families on home turf, to find out how they live, and what they hope for the future of cultural exchange between the two countries. Sadly, we have learned that these aspiring musicians face enormous problems on a daily basis: this is a land suffering the birth pains of representative democracy, a highly militarized land of enormous poverty, paranoia, and buried trauma. But it is also a land of great fertility and generosity, of hope and rare beauty, and a vast potential for development and even tourism.

As for the Ballet itself, there is huge potential in these young singers and dancers. For as long as many can remember, they have been refining their performance so that--from a Western perspective--it is now impressively tight and polished. Made up of a series of dances, or "jeux", some of which dramatize great battles in Rwandan history, while others emulate of the great horned sacred cows of the region, all accompanied by a choir and the mighty ingoma, Inganzo's version of the ballet has the power to captivate huge crowds at political rallies in Ruhengeri and British music festivals alike. And yet, there remain many questions to be answered regarding funding and resources--the drums themselves cost more to produce than one person's average annual salary here--, the possibility of musical independence and innovation, and the need for a full-time musical director to look after the interests of these vulnerable youngsters.


It is to find answers to some of these pressing questions that we are bouncing along the red road to Janja in a battered old 4x4. There are ten of us in all: François, who is navigating; the driver, whose name we never learn for sure; our two invaluable translators, Josephine and Aloys; Anicet, the master craftsman in whose workshop the drums used by all the local Ballets are built; a scattering of local worthies; and the three muzungu, or white men, of Inshuti-UK. En route to Janja, we stop to see Anicet's workshop and watch his nine sons hollowing out the trunks of umuvumu trees in which are believed to live the gihanga or local ancestors. These prepared trunks are first proofed against woodworm by dowsing them in cow's blood, before the rawhide skins are stretched taut over both ends. Leaving his workshop, Anicet himself strikes up a rhythm on the Ishakwe drum--lit. "the one that calls others"--while Aloys joins on the Ikiumuna (the Ishakwe's "younger brother"). All of a sudden we have become a drum parade, a ceremonial vehicle full of impassioned, singing faces and voices, conversations in Swahili and Kinyarwanda acquiring a lyricism and depth.

As we drive deeper and deeper into a staggering landscape known locally as "the blessed country", each hair-pin bend reveals startling panoramas. Around one such corner, we see for the first time the parish church of Janja, perched high above us at the summit of one of the milles collines. Janja is on the border of three provinces, Ruhengeri, Gitarama, and Gisenyi. This fertile land, also at the confluence of three rivers, feels very like the symbolic heart of Africa, squeezed between Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, and the Congo.

On our arrival at the parish church, we are welcomed by Catholic priests and seminarians of ever-increasing seniority. Everyone except ourselves murmurs grace around the dining table. And yet here we are to be treated to a grand ballet: the full church choir singing and chanting traditional songs which pre-date the arrival of the German White Fathers by thousands of years, songs of war and heroism, accompanied by the beat of drums made from the trunks of centuries-old umuvumu trees. In this sense, the ballet represents an equatorial encounter between the cultures of north and south, where the rituals of Christianity meet the local god of Imana and his intermediaries.

The performance of Ballet Inkoramutima za Kristu, in the shade of a huge acacia tree in the magical garden at Janja, is a revelation. The extra numbers--this group has a thirty-strong choir, twelve dancers, and up to twenty drummers--make for an ensemble of tremendous power. As the dancers sing and stamp their feet in unison, they are lost for seconds at a time in clouds of red dust. This group makes use of other instruments beyond the more conventional drums and bells; there are pipes called umwirongi produce an eerie, almost psychedelic sound, and the ikembe, like the thumb pianos of West Africa but made in DRC by skilled members of the Batwa, or "pygmy" tribe. After nearly ninety minutes, the performance culminates in a spectacular ingoma farewell dance: twenty musicians drumming up a almighty storm that must surely audible over all of Rwanda's 1,000 hills.

Discussing this heart-stopping moment between ourselves afterwards, we agree that the Ballet at Janja would tear the roof off any concert hall in the world, such was its grace, precision, and power. According to Father Duhirimana, one difference between his group and the still-raw passion of Inganzo is that the musicians of Janja have a full-time musical director and choreographer who is able to a take a step back, assess, and even film the group's performances for future reference and rehearsals. Above all, the teenagers of Janja seem simultaneously fluid, and yet highly drilled and choreographed. Their stunning performance--surely the equal of a West End smash like STOMP! --is clearly the product of a massive investment of time and energy, and a shrewd deployment of meager resources. Inevitably, however, in a country with very little infrastructure and huge natural obstacles, Ballet Inkoramutima za Kristu are victims of their own success. Taking this show "on the road", together with twenty drums and all the costumes and other equipment, is somewhat akin to touring a seventy-piece Wagnerian orchestra; a logistical operation of Fitzcarraldo-like proportions.

It is for this reason that CLAJERANG and Inshuti-UK plan to attune Western ears to the Rwandan ballet through the relatively flexible medium of Ballet Inganzo. However, given the success of last year's tour, and our very real commitment to this music, it does not seem too far-fetched to hope that Ballet Inganzo will one day share the stages of WOMAD and Glastonbury with the massed ranks of their fellow drummers and dancers from Janja and elsewhere.



Well done Ian

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