Life is a song for incredible tribe

Former Evening Star photographer Nicky Lewin travelled to Rwanda to record the music of the Batwa tribes as previously reported. Today he is hoping the album can reach a global stage on iTunes.

Tracey Sparling

Former Evening Star photographer Nicky Lewin travelled to Rwanda to record the music of the Batwa tribes as previously reported. Today he is hoping the album can reach a global stage on iTunes.

WHAT started as a work assignment, has become a personal mission for photojournalist Nicky Lewin from Manningtree.

OVER the past five years he has visited 14 Batwa tribes in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.

During the trips, Nicky's eyes saw scenes which he was able to portray as stunning images, but it was also the music which met his ears that captured his heart. He became fascinated by the sound of the Batwa as they use music to communicate hope for peace and welcome to guests.

He said: “To make sure that I wasn't imagining the strange gift of music the Batwa seemed to possess, I brought recordings back to the UK and played them to professional musicians from the classical and session world for their expert opinion. The result was the amazement.

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“In all cases there has been a mixture of delight and concentration as the sheer intellectual quality and unconventional inventiveness of the Batwa sinks in. All of this is with no training or tuition. Like the bird knows how to sing, a Batwa is born with this ability. It is more than mere song, it is language.”

He added: “The Batwa have the ability to invent songs as they go along. They sing like others talk.

Thus two of the songs recorded on this journey included details of my visit. Other songs are about kindness, friendship and God.

“It is improvisation in its purest form and it never fails! The songs sound as if they have been sung many times and practised to perfection. But perhaps the really bewildering part when the Batwa all join in at the appropriate places with intricate harmonies and stunning arrangements.

“In Africa they say 'music is like water. Essential to life!' It is absolutely correct.”

iTunes has now indicated that it would like the music for its catalogue, but Nicky said: “There is a little way to go. I will probably have to secure a record deal and they have given me a list of interested companies so I am very positive that the music of the Kamonyi Batwa will be available to the world for the first time ever.”

The post production of the album was done by Marty Prior of Martlesham.

Aside from finding a world audience for the music, Nicky also has a bigger plan - to build a cultural centre to educate the Batwa and inform tourists - for which he needs to raise £35,000. He said: “This is the purchase of two buildings, one for a cultural centre and one for a restaurant. Here the Batwa could perform and raise revenue.

“Rwanda is very sharply becoming a place where visitors go. It has come a long way since the dark days of 1994 and is at present one of the safest countries in the whole region to visit. The streets are clean and a tree planting law is not only adding to the ascetic quality of the country, but is also installing environmental pride in its people.

“The enormous American Embassy being built there indicates that this is going to be a very important country. It is rumoured that the Americans plan to hold world conferences on African affairs there, hence the grand building and huge grounds.

“If I can set up the infrastructure and communications, a teacher working one day a week and teaching literacy to the Batwa will cost about £30 a month. That's just one of the remarkable things that could be achieved for such small sums, if the will is there.”

If you can help Nicky's project, contact him at

The word “Batwa” roughly translates as 'bush dweller'.

The Batwa are thought to be one of the oldest human cultures on earth.

Traditionally hunter/gatherers, their hunting skills are second to none. In some areas they are known to call in animals by imitating their mating calls.

As Pygmies, they are closly related to similar Pygmy cultures such as the Twa and the Baka tribes across much of Central Africa.

In the dense forests of Democratic Republic of the Congo some tribes can be found living a primitive lifestyle that has changed little in thousands of years. In neighbouring Rwanda, some still live in the wooded areas while others live in mud brick homes.

The Rwandan Government Tourist Board is now actively protecting National Parks where the Batwa live - the famous mountain gorillas portrayed in 'Gorillas in the Mist' live in one park too.

The Batwa are famous for making clay pots. They also generate funds from agricultural work and rearing animals.

Pigs and goats often live in the same small house as the Batwa themselves.

A traditional Pygmy house is called a 'mongulus', made from sticks and leaves.

The Batwa suffered terribly during the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Around 30% of Rwanda's Batwa were killed during this period.

An estimated 14,000 Batwa live in Rwanda today.

'Bashyitsi Bahire' means 'honoured guest, a thank you for coming.'

'Nicky Wabaye Ubukombe' means 'Nicky you have been strong in experience.'

'Duharanire Kujijuka' means 'let's improve our knowledge by taking a pen and a book.'

'Reka Tukuririmbe' means 'please accept us to sing to you.'