Old Friends in Irondo

Some readers will remember the fantastic opportunity I got this winter to put some of my best field research photographs on view in large format as part of two exhibitions, one at the Arthur Rose Museum and a juried show off campus. The community where I collected those images–along with the footage for my documentary film, Birth of An Ancestor–is a place called Irondo Village. It’s in Namutumba District well east of the river Nile. It is a long trip to get there and not terribly easy to find, so I was unsure I would ever be able to go back. With DSC_0091a little bit of luck and a few directions from the locals, we found this man sitting right in front of the house where I first met him in 2009.

At the time, Mzee Nabongho Francis Isiko was mourning his recently deceased wife of many years, a local healer named Lukoghe Bibireka Katirida. Mzee Isiko was among an enormously generous group of people who facilitated my documentation of his spouse’s funeral. I heard when I arrived that a family member had been there for the burial just a few days before and documented it similarly, but I have never seen the materials. In any event, the purpose of our jaunt there was to do some follow-up interviews with the healer who took over some of Katirida’s duties, some of the other local healers, and some other family members.

We began by showing Mzee Isiko and others the documentary in order to give them a better notion of what kinds of questions I’d like to ask. With a good deal of help from Mzee’s son, John Muyinda (below, middle, wearing a yellow shirt), we then made a list of the people who were both present at that funeral and still living in the area. We organized some transport for them, and agreed to meet them all the next morning.

photo by Ar'Darius Stewart

photo by Ar’Darius Stewart

After a long day of travel and a fairly successful overture to some people who hadn’t even laid eyes on me in five years, we headed back to Namutumba town to find lodging and food. Those were no problem. The bigger challenge was having no idea whether or not the roads would be passable by morning.

Alas, they were, but barely, and not until close to 11:00 the next morning. We set off just fine, got stuck only once, and happened to be right in front of a house where several young men were taking their morning tea. It was a stroke of luck for us: we needed the extra muscle to get unstuck!

photo by Ar'Darius Stewart

photo by Ar’Darius Stewart

The next great challenge of this work is that there’s really no such thing as an individual interview here. The old ubuntu concept–that a person is a person because of other people– is quite strong here. That can be really cool, but it also means that the notion of personal space or individual anything doesn’t really work. Everyone wants in on the fun.

photo by Ar'Darius Stewart

photo by Ar’Darius Stewart

This makes things a huge challenge for the cameraman (Ar’Darius, in this case), especially because he relies on me to hear what’s going on in the language and offer some cues. He did very well in a thoroughly confusing environment.

His highlight was fulfilling childrens’ wishes to have their photo taken and then showing them the results.

photo by Ar'Darius Stewart

photo by Ar’Darius Stewart

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Archiving Africa: the Playlist

I meant to post this before our final day in the archive, but alas, here we are. The work we’ve done here has been made much more enjoyable because of the music we’ve shared together. Here are some selections from the running playlist that we’ve listened to this month. Songs appear in quotes; whole records appear in italics. The person who made each pick is listed in parentheses.

Sam Cooke, assorted tracks (Ar’Darius)

Delfonics, “La la Means I Love You” (Ar’Darius)

Drake, Thank Me Later(Ar’Darius)

Fred Hammond and Radical for Christ, Pages of Life, Chapters 1 and 2 (Ar’Darius)

Diana Krall, Live in Paris (Ar’Darius)

W.A. Mozart, selected piano concertos (Patrick)

Gregory Porter, Liquid Spirit (Pete, initially, though we’ve all enjoyed how Ar’Darius has kept this on repeat)

Raphael Saadiq, The Way I See It (Pete)

Frank Sinatra, “Come Fly With Me” (Pete)

Esperanza Spalding, Esperanza (Pete)

Take 6, feat. Stevie Wonder, “Why I Feel This Way” (Ar’Darius)

Temptations, “My Girl” (Ar’Darius)

Tower of Power, Oakland Zone (Pete)

Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life, Book I (Ar’Darius)

Then, most importantly, there have been the many sundry discoveries of the archival work. We have heard music from all over Uganda, and our discoveries continue. As the fastest growing archive of East African music, well, maybe anywhere, this has been a very exciting place to work over the last few weeks. I look forward to an opportunity to return and see where it has gone in our absence. It’s an interesting place to work precisely because of how dynamic it is. Too Patrick, Aksam, Monica, Sylvia, Brian, and all at Makerere Libraries, we are so grateful to be a part of the amazing growth happening at MAKWAA!

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Archiving Africa, Part 2: Chugging Along With Purpose

I warned Ar’Darius before coming here that the archival work we’d be doing was not going to be the most exciting work in the world. Our daily work consists mostly of data entry, data management, and organization. In that context, the occasional technical hurdle seems almost exciting. Almost.

It’s not easy to come to a place where many if not most of the foreigners we meet are spending at least some of their time enjoying safaris in Uganda’s national parks, rafting the river Nile, and partying, only to spend our days working without ceasing. We relax only briefly before coming back to the archive, and even our weekend expeditions involve more transport hassle than respite (more on those soon). Alas, we are here to work.

Lest the interns’ motivation wane, however, it is important to fire our efforts in the great crucible of the proverbial bigger picture. Constantly on the lookout for ways to do this, I treat them to tea or lunch, we take a break to enjoy the view on the top floor of the library, or we put our heads together on something to break the monotony of some of our individual tasks. Last week, I found this little gem in a recent book by my dear colleague, Jean Kidula. She writes,

Music documents and archives the past, negotiates contact, facilitates change, and comments on the resilience and transformation of culture. Music archived through written, audio, and video recordings, as well as ethnographic research, provides a transcript on a people’s choices in encounters with new systems.*

I hastened to add that archives of music (which is, per Kidula’s statement, already archival in nature) are meta-conjoining spaces wherein we create capacity for people to connect to each other and to be in the world together. We are in this sense, as I told the interns, waging peace by building up, creating, and conjoining space(s) as opposed to tearing them down or blowing them up as are some of our fanatical contemporaries around the world. In the terms of the Fulbright Commission, we are building capacity for intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding.

We do not have any delusions of grandiosity about this project. The work of creating something worthwhile is often slow, and the work of building capacity for connecting creative endeavors is possibly bound to be even slower. Nevertheless, we find meaning and motivation in the broader goals of this work.

*Jean Kidula, Music in Kenyan Christianity: Logooli Religious Song, Ethnomusicology Multimedia Series (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).

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Ethnographic Expedition: Busiro and Lyantonde, Uganda

It’s been a busy week, so I have yet to say anything about our road trip last weekend to the southwestern part of Uganda. Our destination, Lyantonde, means “creation” in some of the local languages. The term also gets used in many of the traditional religions of Western Uganda, Rwanda, and as far south as Burundi as “Creator,” the regional equivalent of the Luganda term “Katonda,” i.e. God. For this trip, Lyantonde town was a landing spot at the residence of my host brother, Francis Kaweesa.

When I was here in 2013, Francis and his wife Patricia already had one child and their second was born while I was here. Between that excitement and a hectic field research schedule, I never got to meet any of them on that trip! The purpose of expedition was, therefore, twofold: I wanted to show Ar’Darius life, development, and religion in a typical Ugandan village, but it was equally important to see how Ugandans strike a balance between family life and work. Francis and Patricia’s warm welcome gave us the opportunity to do both.

The kids were shy at first, but as with my own children, a bit of food went a long way toward establishing a baseline of trust. IMG_8275Francis and Patricia work hard: he is a project manager for an NGO and has several independent business interests, and she works at a bank in Lyantonde. They graciously took the time, however, to show us the highest standard of Kiganda hospitality. After a visit from one of their friends, a Roman Catholic Priest, we enjoyed a fine feast of local food and fresh juices. Away from the commotion of Kampala, we then enjoyed the most peaceful night’s rest since arrival.

We arose early to climb in his van and travel to the nearby village of Busibo, a “place of ensibo (potsherds).” It neighbors a village further up in the hills called Busumbi, i.e. place of ensumbi (long-necked pots). On the road, it was easy to see the variety of soils that tied these pottery traditions with the place. The lowlands are wet with dark, rich soil perfect for agriculture. The dry low places and some of the hilltops produce clay for potting. The hillsides produce many different crops, some for cash and some for subsistence: bananas, beans, cassava, passion fruit, peas, pumpkins, and much more.

This area formerly belonged to the Ankole kingdom, but Buganda conquered the area and the Banyankore still refer to it as one of the “lost counties.” The result is a place rich with agriculture, but with a history of cattle-keeping, the traditional occupation of the Banyankore. Water scarcity also pushed the Banyankore herders further west. It continues to challenge the agriculturalists who remain here, particularly those who grapple with soil variety and lack of real estate mobility.

Enter Frank’s work: he is the project manager for an Australian NGO that has built a primary school and a secondary school on the Busibo hilltop. Before these facilities, the local schools–some of which still operate–had fallen into disrepair and were in bad need of educational resources.

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Now they are surrounded by thriving crops and filled with resources to educate the next generation of Busibo students. This is visionary leadership in action. None of this was here five years ago.IMG_8292

A Muganda woman from Busibo carries her sleeping son. May he dream big dreams!

A Muganda woman from Busibo carries her sleeping son. May he dream big dreams!

The people of Busibo rallied around Francis, whom they affectionately call “Manager,” and worked together to give their children something better than they had. He inspires them to want and to do things that they might have once thought impossible. Now that the schools are built, the community church is raising money to build a new church building. At a lengthy service full of singing, dancing, and more jubilation than I think I’ve ever seen in any Roman Catholic church, they held a brief auction. The community brought foodstuffs from their gardens, sugarcane and bananas from their fields, and home-weaved baskets to donate. I tried several times to bid, but with mixed success. It turned out that people were trying to outbid me in order to send their guests with some gifts! Alas, I made sure to win the bid on the last item so that we could give Francis and Patricia some small tokens of our appreciation for their hospitality as well. Meanwhile, Ar’Darius got to take home a souvenir of the village as well: I thought a basket was a fitting gift for him since it symbolizes the strong bonds of family, clan, and community as the foundation for receiving and appreciating many other blessings. Nobody knows this better than Francis: his family accepted me long ago, and through his work, Busibo has now accepted him as their “Manager” and facilitator of many varied blessings in their community.

One of the many greetings that people use for well-known friends and visiting strangers alike says, “Nsanyuse okubalaba,” i.e. “we are happy to see you.” I had previously thought of it simply as one of the many niceties typical of Kiganda culture, which must be among the most friendly and polite in the world for visitors of all stripes. When the Kaweesa family’s priest friend came to see us at Francis and Patricia’s house, however, he explained it a different way. He explained, “we grow up thinking that you people from outside are in a different class of people, so we feel so good when you take the time to come and visit us and the trouble to even learn our language. That is why we say those things.” I was floored: a “different class of people?” I might have recognized this as the hallmark of a postcolonial condition, but the immediacy of hearing it directly from this man in such clear language required a less academic, more human response. I explained very simply in language I knew a priest would appreciate that we are all just people, that we are children of God.

As he blessed each of us and prepared to leave, I smiled about the possibility of shattering artificial social constructions. In my career, music has consistently been a vehicle for doing this. That’s what we experienced as undergraduate students playing meréngue to throbbing crowds of emotional Dominicans who had never seen young Americans as anything but violent. Playing music in China, Japan, Uganda and elsewhere has often functioned similarly. Our weekend expedition to Busibo and Lyantonde showed us that music is just one way of being with people. Whether we use food, language, shared work, or any other element of culture, the point is to find creative ways of experiencing and sharing the world with people. What a privilege to experience Uganda with Ar’Darius, Francis, Patricia, and their community!

Francis Kaweesa and yours truly with a panoramic view of Busibo and Lyantonde valley in the background. Photo by Ar'Darius Stewart, Broken Stereotype Productions

Francis Kaweesa and yours truly with a panoramic view of Busibo and Lyantonde valley in the background. Photo by Ar’Darius Stewart, Broken Stereotype Productions

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Archiving Africa Part 1: Willing to Do the Work

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

After settling in over the weekend, we got right to work on Monday morning with our partners at Makerere University Klaus Wachsmann Audio-Visual Archive: Dr. Sylvia Nannyonga-Tamusuza, Founding Director of the Archive and Chair of the School of Performing Arts and Film, and Monica Naluwooza, Archivist (above, left). Along with my student research intern, Ar’Darius Stewart, we also have two Ugandan interns for the duration of the project, Aksam Kigozi (above, right) and Patrick Kimuli (above, middle; their names immediately fascinated me for reasons I discussed here long ago). We began by meeting with Prof. Sylvia, Monica, and the guys to discuss expectations and introduce everyone to the spaces where we’ll be working.

We quickly discovered that as usual, this archive is a dynamic conceptual and physical space. They have just undergone a transition from being confined to mostly one room that doubles as place with listening booths to an upstairs room with climate control, humidity control, and plenty of working space. In the transition, some of the materials have been separated from their documentation and other things have made it somewhat difficult to decipher what belongs where. We have spent most of the week working in this beautiful space with just a few exceptions when we needed to be working on multiple computers downstairs in the listening room.

We are discovering an exciting variety of materials here with an equally diverse set of challenges to tackle so that they can be used to their fullest capacity. For the time being, we are working with digital backups of born-digital materials and matching them up with the documentation that the collectors left with them. It is clear that at the point of original documentation, some collectors faced challenges that made it impossible for them to document their materials according to archival protocols. So we have to go through these backups, match them up with the documents, and then re-file them with new labeling as needed. We’re also overhauling the whole labeling and storage system to make archive usage more intuitive and user friendly.

This weekend, it’s off to the village: Lyantonde. We’ll go and see my host brother, Francis Kaweesa, and a play written by his father, Mr. Magoba. More to come soon on that! Until then, tugende!

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Arrival in lovely Kampala

Wednesday was a long day and a long night, but we arrived safely in Kampala even if some of our bags did not. We spent Friday getting settled in, acquiring some local phone numbers, buying a few groceries, and visiting a few friends. Despite the absence of his suitcase, Ar’Darius has been quite patient and has handled both jet lag and culture shock with true character.

As usual, Kampala remains a rapidly changing city. There’s a new mosque in Wandegeya, new buildings downtown and elsewhere, and we just happened to arrive in the middle of Kampala restaurant week. The “mimosa brunch” at Prunes was quite nice, though we skipped the mimosas in favor of their superior cappuccino.

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My friend Frankie was playing guitar for a while there, after which the restaurant shifted to a little bit different, jazzy/bossa nova vibe on the stereo. With the sun shining and people out in their casual African attire, it was a lovely way to relax before we dive into archival work at Makerere University tomorrow.

We’ll be working at Makerere’s Klaus Wachsmann Music Archive, where the founding director and current head of the Department of Performing Arts and Film, Dr. Sylvia Nannyonga-Tamusuza, has invited us to work with her archivist and their interns on digitizing and cataloguing some recent acquisitions. Dr. Nannyonga-Tamusuza has been a long time colleague, friend, and mentor to me, and she has been a stalwart supporter of my work in Uganda. We are thrilled to be here and excited to work with her and her staff!

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Spoleto, Dahling!

Last week I got basically the same e-mail I got last year from a friend in Columbia: “Pete, you and Jenn should go and see this performance at Spoleto.” Each time the performance in question is a rare opportunity to experience some music that will only be in Charleston for only a moment before the artist or group moves along. When they do, they will not be back anytime soon. As the Tibetan mandala shows us, this is the fleeting nature of artistic brilliance writ broadly. But as music more specifically shows us, this is also the nature of sound in space: one moment it’s there, but the next moment leaves only its resonance in our ears and hearts and minds.

So this year it was an enormous privilege to take my friend up on his offer to meet him at a performance (we couldn’t go last time), along with his fiancée and another friend who would be translating from the stage for the performer. We took in an intimate performance at the College of Charleston’s small, beautiful Simons Recital Hall. Before saying anything more about it, it’s germane here to mention how special Spoleto is. Apart from being one of the largest performing arts festivals in the country, Spoleto has a character all its own. From Sacred Harp to the Spoleto Festival USA Symphony Orchestra, new music, dance, and drama, this festival fills one of the coolest towns this side of the Atlantic with the arts during its most beautiful and temperate season of the year.

So to the man who has become somewhat of a darling at this year’s Spoleto: Carlos Aguirre. Aguirre introduced the definitive tune of his performance by describing how a river collects the reflections of everything it sees, carrying them downstream to everyone and everything else who sees and experiences the river. This reflective image is particularly intriguing for me: the invitation my friend made last year was to see Aca Seca Trio, who has recorded the very same tune. Aguirre’s ruminations on the natural world inform his whole perspective, musical and beyond. His overt concern for the environment and human relationships with it work well in Charleston, where he remarked that even the salt sea air and the nearby brackish water had a similar smell to his home area in Argentina. On balance, this sophisticated approach to being in the world belie his youthful, energetic fascination with creating and performing a kind of music worthy of reflecting on that experience.

Aguirre invites his audience to see and hear these reflections with him. Inside a mere hour’s time, he has them smiling along with him, listening intensely to his complex harmonic palette. It has been a long time since I saw an audience so quickly and completely disarmed.

There’s more: South Carolina is a small town if you’re an ethnomusicologist: there are only four or five of us here. Two of us work in Argentina, and both knew of Aguirre. My wife Jenn and I found ourselves talking over the finer points of the performance and its reception with Spoleto’s jazz curator after the show. An hour later, Aguirre joined us for some fantastic East Asian cuisine at Xiao Bao Biscuit. Some festivals would have charged people thousands of dollars to dine with the artist after the show. This time we were just lucky enough to know the people who invited him to perform.

So to our new friend from Argentina, whose music had such a strong impact on us in such a short amount of time, I say Godspeed, dear Mr. Aguirre. This was a performance we will not forget. It was a pleasure and a privilege to enjoy your music and your company at Spoleto Festival USA, and we will enjoy your recordings for years to come!

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