Two years ago, Esther Niyifasha knew little about the Inanga, a traditional Rwandan music instrument. Even much less was her knowledge of 'Inanga music', a term that describes music composed or played using the instrument.
Today, it's a different story as the 18-year-old now joins the ranks of the few gifted and recognisable faces on the Inanga music scene. What's more, she is a girl in a virtual man's world. Actually, she is only the second commercially practicing female Inanga player to emerge on the local music scene after Sophie Nzayisenga.
As an Inanga player, Niyifasha confesses that Nzayisenga is one of her role models. The others are Daniel Ngarukiye, and Emmanuel Habimana.
But as far as Inanga influences go, there is one person she values over and above all the rest. It's her elder brother, the gifted young inanga maestro Deo Munyakazi. At the moment, Munyakazi is the most recognisable inanga player in the country and, for introducing her to Inanga music, Niyifasha describes him as a "mentor".
Incidentally, the first musical instrument she laid hands on was a guitar.
"I grew up feeling the passion for music, and I started to play the guitar in 2014 with the help of my brother Deo before he went on to teach me Inanga," Niyifasha says.
"I first learned about the Inanga from Deo in 2015. Deo is my great brother, a passionate artist, excellent, successful, and hardworking, an achiever and above all, my mentor. He always inspires me, he taught me the Inanga and he offered it to me like a gift," she says.
Munyakazi is all praises for his sister, "My sister Esther, our last born, is a gifted girl, she never fails in what she wants. I decided to teach her Inanga in 2015, after playing many other instruments and realising that Inanga is unique, so I made her to like it too."
He explains that teaching his little sister wasn't a hustle. "We used to take time during the holidays; in the morning I would give her some exercises and strumming techniques and when I returned home in the evening, she had got it. And when she came back for holidays I tried to make her remember, then we would continue. After one year (three holidays) she was able to do something. I taught her some cover songs and now she can impress an audience."
Niyifasha explains that she took to Inanga because of her love for Rwandan culture, and how the instrument embodies it.
"In terms of our culture it is a unique instrument. I have found out that there is only one lady who plays Inanga, Sophie Nzayisenga, and she inspired me to play it. I felt that I can do it like her! So I went for it to promote Rwandan culture as a young lady," she says.
Niyifasha is currently a student at GPS AIPER Nyandungu, although at school she plays the piano and does vocals instead.
"I don't go with my Inanga so as to deal with my academic studies perfectly," she quips.
She was born and raised in Gakenke District in the Northern Province, and attended primary school at Tare, in Rulindo District, before moving to College Foundation Sina Gérard Rulindo for her O-Level. In 2015 she enrolled at Nyundo Music School but only studied for one year, before deciding to continue with her A-Level studies at GS AIPER Nyandungu Accounting.
"I have performed at different weddings, ceremonies, and concerts," she reveals.
Niyifasha longs for the day when more girls and women will embrace Inanga music as a career. She has a few tips for the interested.
"What you need is just confidence, what our brothers can, we are able to do, too. Everything needs focus, confidence, and time management; try to fail but not fail to try. Together we can promote our culture!"
"She has a bright future as the second lady playing Inanga in Rwanda and also, she is excellent at school," Munyakazi interjects.
"Yes there are few female Inanga players and it's a problem. Some girls think that they aren't able to but they are wrong, just trying can make a difference. This will make them proud. At home we are always doing gigs and sometimes I take her for performances during holidays," he says.