Johannesburg Metro Police Department Choristers

One of the great privileges of traveling and working in South Africa has been to experience the robust diversity of the choral tradition here. Vestiges of apartheid have created a social world in which people speak of “black choirs” and “white choirs,” but the University of Pretoria Tuks Camerata clearly bucks that trend. In a bit different way, the Johannesburg Metro Police Department Choristers resist classification based on repertory as well.

The first signal of this was what we heard as we piled into the JMPD van to go and meet some of the Choristers at a police barracks in Jozi: it was a Meyerbeer opera! I came into this with as few expectations as possible, but this really did surprise me. It wasn’t a fluke, either. The director of the choir, Mofukeng, had a stack of classical CDs in the van and others in a personal vehicle that he used to take us back to our hotel later that night. Clearly there’s a fascination here with European classics.

Being rather unfamiliar with the particulars of contemporary South African choral music, I couldn’t have known that this fascination has not only been around for some time, but also heavily influenced new compositions by African composers. Much of the music we heard at the JMPD rehearsal was 21st century music composed by Africans in a European tonal style with a pretty consistently Romantic flavor. It was so interesting to see a choir of mature voices dive into this material with such gusto. The individual voices in the choir are stunning. Together, the group at its best sounds much like an opera chorus. They have similar stamina, too: when we returned from a dinner with the director, some of the choir officers, and a police administrative official, we learned that they had already been rehearsing for two hours and would continue for two more!

The end of the rehearsal revealed a different kind of repertoire diversity than that which the UP Tuks Camerata had shown us. Nearly all of the JMPD’s material is of African origin, but the end of their rehearsal consisted of traditional spirituals. The repetitive style of these tunes lends itself to dancing, so we got to see some spontaneous group choreography as well. The whole thing struck me as a tremendous opportunity to explore the notion of authenticity. The indigenization of European harmony in Romantic style creates one kind of South African choral authenticity. The longstanding tradition of African spirituals that involve no less European harmony–though in a decidedly different style–creates another. To invoke an old Lucille Clifton formulation, the combination of the two with other works expresses the soul of African variety.

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University of Pretoria Tuks Camerata

We had a highly productive meeting the other day with Michael Barrett, director of the University of Pretoria Tuks Camerata, among other choirs. Mr. Barrett was highly enthusiastic about working with the Partnership. We discussed a number of possibilities for next summer, but perhaps the most exciting part of the afternoon was the opportunity to see the choir rehearse.

This is a really special group of college students. They sing a repertoire far more diverse than many of the choirs in South Africa. They–especially Mr. Barrett–are quite purposeful about what this means with regard to intercultural dialogue, mutual understanding, and acceptance of difference. It was quite an inspiring day to spend on the beautiful University of Pretoria campus.

Up next: an evening with the Johannesburg Metro Police Choir!

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One Journey Ends, Another Begins

It’s been three short weeks since we left Uganda, and that has left time for reflection, a little bit of respite, but mostly laundry and re-packing. Yesterday afternoon, I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa to begin a new collaboration with the International Partnership for Choral Music Education. The group has been working here in South Africa for some time now, and it is gathering steam for various projects country-wide in Cape Town, George, Johannesburg, and Pretoria. Red Ugandan earth still on my boots, today I’ll head with them to Pretoria.

Up to now, I have only really known Alicia Walker, a fellow FSU graduate who teaches at the University of South Carolina School of Music. At a lovely dinner last night, Alicia introduced me to the colleagues with whom she began this project several years ago. I’ll hit the ground running today with some initial documentation of the networking and capacity building activities that this group has been doing here for over a week already. More to come soon!

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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.


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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