Ritual and Expressive Culture

Public service announcement: those of you familiar with my travel patterns in Uganda know that I post in clusters because that’s what my internet access allows.  Thanks for sticking with me despite the sporadic nature of my posting habits.  Since I know many of my readers are new to the blogosphere, let me just say this: I hope it isn’t terribly disruptive to your blogging experience.  I’m working to update my blogroll so that when there’s nothing new to read on my page, you can check out other writers, particularly in overlapping Ugandan, African, and musical blogospheres.

During the month of January, I have done even more traveling than usual in eastern Uganda.  I’m attending several different kinds of rituals on these trips.  The first was a funeral for a muswezi healer.  Both that one and the next one installed new baswezi (plural of muswezi) within their clans.  In keeping with my field writing pattern, what follows is a kind of photojournal of my experiences this month.  In contrast to earlier posts and at the request of some readers, I’ve dispensed with trying to make it look pretty and just used big versions of the pictures.  Enjoy!

So much of my experience here has been consistent with patterns that I observed in my master’s thesis: ritual expressive culture brings together music with other arts in an aesthetic common to the entire Interlacustrine Region (that’s academic fancyspeak for the place between all those big lakes in East Africa).  That thesis used musical instruments as one form of evidence for these cultural cross-currents.  Well, I’ve discovered some new instruments that appear to be unique to eastern Uganda, but their appearance remains consistent with other ritual art in this region.  These are called bugwala (singular: kagwala) and they work somewhat like a kazoo in terms of sound production.


They’re pictured above and below with the rukinga headbands found among spirit mediums throughout this region.


At an olumbe (funeral) for a muswezi healer, I got the rare opportunity to see the ritual master of ceremonies “dressing” these instruments.  The man named Kyambu below calls the beads “clothing for the bugwala.”  Here’s his infectious grin as he finishes the work:


Some might eschew comparisons to the kazoo (particularly when they want their research to be taken seriously).  I’ve thought about this for a long time, and I think the comparison is apt.  Those who play bugwala are called nabuzaana when they are possessed, because they play out the un-lived dramas and games of children who died as babies.  They beat the ground looking for edible ants, they sing children’s songs, and they go around blowing their bugwala in cacophonous heterophony as people offer ritual contributions for their mini-performances:


Finally, one of the most interesting things to note about the physical culture of ritual here has been how it marks the initiated.  In some cases it’s clear simply by looking at someone’s attire that he can be musically initiated without having been ritually initiated.  The ritually initiated must wear appropriate garb, because otherwise their patron spirits will either refuse to come or rebuke them when they note the absence of proper attire (or music, or sacrificial animals).  Here a young drummer embodies this divide, which is sometimes generational, sometimes merely experiential, and always notable:


I return to the east this week for some follow-up work on the rituals I’ve attended there and hopefully scheduling more trips to observe other rituals.  January has gone fast, and I’m sure February will go even faster.  However, I plan to be in Kampala more in the coming months, so hopefully that can mean more posts.  Until next time, beera bulungi (be well).



Filed under uganda

5 responses to “Ritual and Expressive Culture

  1. Jenn

    Cool stuff, Pete. Naturally I’m interested in the accessories. Does the headband in the photo(s) mean something significant? And it looks like there are lots of women wearing them. Can you tell me more about that? Beera bulungi to you!

  2. artclecticacademic

    Yes, the headband is called “rukinga.” Like the bark cloth you see (and will continue to see) in some of these photos, this is one of the things that eases possession. I’ve seen mediums being flogged for lacking the appropriate attire. More often, if they don’t actually own it, the spirits speak through mediums to request that they acquire or make it. You see a lot of women wearing them, but men can wear rukinga too. It just happened that this particular event was a funeral for a female medium, so many of her female colleagues were there.

  3. Nice blog. You are invited to mine @


    Indigenous Music Torrents


  4. Mom

    Pete, just a note to let you know I love reading your updates. Sorry that it has been sooooo long since we communicated. This does not mean that I have not been thinking of you and praying for your safety daily. Know that we love you much and are very proud of the work that you’re doing there. Looking forward to reading more about all of it soon. Love, Dad

  5. Pingback: Staging African Music « the Artclectic Academic

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