Why karaoke is the most popular form of music performance in present-day Rwanda

The act of singing to prerecorded music originated in Japan. It is a practice which Vincanne Adams has described as a spectacle of scripted simulation. The literature on karaoke performance is extensive across the globe. In Africa, however, this literature is non-existent. This is so in spite of the rampancy of the category across Rwanda’s provinces where a karaoke fever brews, a near-absent nightlife notwithstanding. Having witnessed the popularity of karaoke in the country, and towards addressing the curious gap in the extant literature, I set out to understand the growth of karaoke in Rwanda.

Mr. Fred Mwasa is a youth and media leader in Rwanda. Among other engagements, he works with one of Rwanda’s leading media outfits, Kigali Today. Sat side-by-side with Mr. Mwasa on a trip from Musanze in the northern province to the capital Kigali in Rwanda’s central province, I ask him about my observations of karaoke in the country of a thousand hills. He confirms to me that “karaoke is without doubt the most popular music genre in Rwanda”. However, he is unable to tell me precisely why this is the case beyond the relaxation and enjoyment it typically offers to the public. Nor was anyone from the myriad of karaoke audiences I spoke with from bar to bar across Rwanda’s provinces. As such, I source from others who may know.

Jane Uwimana is a blogger, a radio presenter and the acclaimed Queen of Rwandan karaoke. Having witnessed her performance at the Rainbow Hotel, in the Kimironko area of Kigali, Ms. Jane Uwimana was happy to grant audience for an extended interview at her home in Kagugu, an upper middle-class neighborhood in Kigali. There, she offered insights as to why karaoke’s popularity has continued to grow across Rwanda’s provinces over the past decade.

The Findings on Karaoke thus far

A 2013 study found that karaoke singers are motivated to do karaoke for social contact and that these singers were profoundly appreciative of applause, feedback, success and competitions. Another study from 2015 offered that the term ‘karaoke’ ultimately became a connotation for judgment in star-making reality vocal competition shows, while noting that there is only but a thin line between amateur recreation via karaoke and the actual celebrity pop prowess.

In terms of critical utility, a 2001 study in Vietnam revealed that karaoke shops serve as vehicles through which citizens engage counter-culturally against government policies, while a 2002 study in Hong Kong showed the superiority of karaoke therapy in comparison to mere music therapy in mental patients. The place of karaoke in adult learning is the preoccupation of a 2005 study which showed how older Japanese and housewives are drawn to karaoke learning because of its affordability and simplicity. These studies and a series of others that have shown karaoke’s influence in identity-building and belonging speak to the experience in Rwanda, yet, the interview with Jane Uwimana offers an introduction to the adaptation and popularization of karaoke singing in the country.

The Many Faces and Benefits of Karaoke in Rwanda

There are many karaokes, and there are likely to be many more. For Jane Uwimana, however, it was a choice of ditching the live music of the live band for her own karaoke. For her beginnings, she tells me of a colleague from Kigali’s Radio 10 who owned a bar and introduced her to karaoke having realized her singing talent. She owes her success to the karaoke culture in Rwanda because karaoke machines are yet to be incorporated in the country. Karaoke machines would mean that singers like Ms. Uwimana would no longer be needed, but in the absence of these machines, karaoke serves as a means of livelihood for many of its performers.

Ms. Uwimana has written her own original songs. However, she finds that generating an income from her original songs is more tedious than her earnings through karaoke. She insists that she is not inspired to be a superstar and she is contented with being a karaoke performer which helps her avoid the consequences of being famous. “Karaoke is a career that requires a lot of professionalism. It requires more than just a singing voice. It requires a lot of determination. It requires a maturity of the mind and it has a good earning potential.”

For Ms. Uwimana, the downside of being a karaoke performer in Rwanda has to do with insincere bar owners as she narrates an ordeal she once faced: “Some time ago, I used to have contracts. I thought it was a good thing that I could go there and perform say once a week and get paid monthly. After one month, however, I was not paid even though I could see that the bar had been earning money through the effort of my performances. Although I had made plans for the money, I chose to be professional about the sad experience. That was when I decided not to have any contract with anyone. I show up, I perform, and I leave with my money such that if I lose it, it will be for one day rather than for a month.”

In spite of the challenges, Ms. Uwimana’s passion for karaoke is unshaken: “The thing is that I love to sing for people. People come to bars for different reasons but some of them come for getting healed, to release their stress, to feel good, so I feel really good when there is someone who came in a bar stressed, looking really sad but by the time they are leaving, they congratulate me because their moods have been transformed and they are very happy. We eventually become friends because they say I touched their hearts and healed them. I feel really good when I touch people’s lives this way. Hearing such testimonies mean everything to me, even more than earning money because it makes me feel that I am important in some peoples’ lives.”

On the personal note, Ms. Uwimana confesses that “karaoke helps me feel stable and to release my stress. Karaoke is also a sport. I perform for as long as three hours while standing and dancing. The effect of this is similar to going to the gym. Karaoke is my everyday remedy to stress.” And she has an advice for those yet to derive the benefits of karaoke: “Karaoke takes place in bars with no entry fees unlike say for concerts. Going to a karaoke bar brings the double benefits of music on clients’ health while enjoying the other offerings of the bar.”