Singing at Ssezibwa

I had been in Uganda less than 48 hours when one of my dear friends, Ssematimba, called and invited me to a ritual at Ssezibwa Falls. We went there last year together to meet the main medium who lives there. Not intending to collect much new material on this trip, I took the opportunity to re-connect with Ssematimba and friends sans electronic devices. I didn’t even bring so much as a camera. I had forgotten how rewarding that experience can be.

It seems every time I go somewhere with Ssematimba, his wife and their friends, the rain washes out the roads or even the entire event. When I commented to him about this, he answered with a single word: “emikisa” (blessings). I then began to consider what kind of heart it takes to consider total inconvenience and a considerable amount of danger in passing over muddy bridges to be blessings. As we worked to get our truck unstuck and up a big muddy mess of a hill, it occurred to me that these are the kinds of blessings that we only reap through cooperation in a shared struggle. The danger factor always makes me nervous, but once up the hill, the challenge felt small compared to our camaraderie. 

Our arrival at Ssezibwa had the perfect soundtrack of two indistinguishable and equally powerful beating sounds: one of waterfalls beating down on rocks, and the other of hands beating drums. We drew nearer to the drums and the waterfall faded into the background as the playing and singing got stronger and stronger. The effect of this crossfade was intense, and it signaled the beginning of a truly powerful experience.

Playing music fosters a similar feeling of camaraderie described above, even if the circumstances are totally different. I was pleased to realize that all of the time I spent with Ssematimba and others on trips past has paid enormous dividends in terms of my ability to participate. Having transcribed and translated so many of those songs, I’ve become proficient enough at simultaneous playing and singing that I can focus my attention on lyrics or other elements of these events even while we’re playing. How Ssematimba knew I was ready for this, I’m not sure, but he didn’t hesitate to invite me into that experience. What a beautiful gift on top of a mountain of other blessings that he has shared with me! I can think of no more perfect way to have begun this journey.

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