This season, Spoleto Festival USA presents the powerful US premiere of The Book of Life: a remarkable play about finding hope in the aftermath of tragedy, and finding a path forward after the unthinkable. Written and performed by Odile Gakire Katese, the work is based on a years-long project of collecting letters from survivors and perpetrators of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide against the Tutsis. The letters—addressed to those who are gone—”bridges the hole that’s been left,” writes Katese. “Not with their bones or the clothes they wore, but with their lives. The dinners. The lovers. The joy. How do we undo the un-undoable? We let them live again.”

Get tickets to The Book of Life, June 1–4, Festival Hall »

Keeping the beat

Throughout the play, Katese is joined by eight members of Ingoma Nshya: Rwanda’s first-ever female drumming ensemble that was founded in 2004 by Katese. In Kinyarwanda, Ingoma Nshya means “new drum” or “new power.” For centuries, drumming was reserved exclusively for men. Women were not permitted to approach the drummers, much less touch the drums.

After the near-collapse of the country, however, a group of women decided it was time for a change—for the sake of the country and, in particular, for its girls and women. In an interview about the ensemble and The Book of Life, Katese tells The New Times: “I was taught that when you are given a platform you need to have a message to tell the world. I wanted to tell the world that Rwandan women are strong.”

Ingoma Nshya is a visionary, grassroots project with multiple goals: healing, reconciliation, women’s social and financial empowerment, and artistic excellence. For the women, the group has been a place to reclaim their lives, recover from trauma, and rebuild community. The company of professional drummers is a potent symbol of a society’s ability to heal, move forward, and create hope.

Empowering others, creating joy

In the past 10 years, Ingoma Nshya has grown exponentially. In 2008, the group established the Rwandan Drum Festival, in partnership with the University Centre for Arts and Drama of the University of Rwanda. Members of the ensemble have performed all over the world, and in 2019, the ensemble sought to expand even further. In this video, members of Ingoma Nshya talk about the group and one of its newest initiatives: “I Have a Drum.”

Hear these extraordinary women perform June 1–4 at Festival Hall. Tickets here.