Category Archives: travel

#SEMSEC 2016: from Engine Rooms to Landscapes


From the initial CFP, #SEMSEC2016 has offered productive formulations for thinking about music and musicians both in cultural context and across time and space. SEMSEC Vice President Michael O’Brien‘s work on our meeting theme, “the Engine Room” reflected careful thinking with Elizabeth Clendinning and the other officers, and presenters responded by generating a range of fascinating thought. Sunday’s presentations continued that trend with a session from Caribbean scholars Maarten Manmohan, Ngozi Liverpool, and Meagan Sylvester (hear more from the latter two here); and concurrent sessions featured topics ranging from Christian rock concerts of epic scale and cost to physical geographies of steel pans. So many good papers, so little time!

Meanwhile, the conference afforded opportunities to consider how these sounds and thoughts map onto the fascinating social textures and physical topographies of Trinidad & Tobago, Venezuela’s Orinoco River Delta, and beyond. One highlight was to hike San Fernando Hill with Dale Olsen and his wife Diane. Dr. Olsen’s work with the Warao people of Venezuela earned him the 1997 Alan P. Merriam Prize for the most outstanding book in ethnomusicology (a brief introduction to that work for a general readership appears here). The Warao call San Fernando Hill “Naparima,” and it represents the northernmost extremity of their cosmology. Making this trek with Dale and Diane reminded me that understanding people’s belief systems often means not only listening carefully to their music and examining their folklore in detail, but also experiencing their foodways and their pathways in the world. To that end, just as eating bake and shark, Thai cuisine, roti, and dubbles helped me understand the demographics and overlapping histories of this place, walking Naparima Hill with a distinguished senior scholar contributed to a deeper understanding of Trinidad’s distinctive topography. Its compelling links to the indigenous Warao of Venezuela generated a powerful view of the valley below and the sea beyond it.


San Fernando’s coastal valley moves from a distant Venezuela on the horizon to the left–just 11km away from the southernmost tip of Trinidad–to an industrial coastline, to a well-populated western littoral, to oil refineries, all of which contribute to the physical and cultural atmosphere of the city. To stay in San Fernando is to live and breathe this atmosphere. American and Trinidadian laborers file into restaurants and hotels for their meals and some short-term lodging.

The pace of the city adheres to the distinctive working rhythms of daily life. Visitors can palpably feel Trinidad’s overthrow of the plantation economy, British class society, and the Indian caste systems here. Yes, histories of slavery and indentured servitude shaped land tenure and continued to inform post-colonial economics, but this city has erected monuments to progress. One example is the University of Trinidad and Tobago‘s Southern Academy for Performing Arts (SAPA), where we held the #SEMSEC2016 annual meeting.



Yes, the sweeping interiors of this building and its breezeway are as gorgeous as the treble clef-inspired architecture we see from this view. So thanks also to local arrangements co-chairs Mia Gormandy and Kayleen Justus, this meeting took us from the Engine Room to the gorgeous landscapes of Trinidadian culture and physical topography and back.


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#SEMSEC16 in Trini!

It’s finally here! We’ve been planning and scheming to come to Trinidad and Tobago for several years. The time has come: the Society for Ethnomusicology Southeast and Caribbean Chapter annual meeting takes place this week (Friday-Sunday) at the Royal Hotel in San Fernando Trinidad! More pix and stories to come, but here’s an early one from our cute little guest house, the Heritage Inn in Port of Spain.

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 8.09.02 PM

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Those ends

One of the common turns of phrase that seems to come up again and again in Luganda–or in Luganda-speakers’ English–is to ask not only about one’s family, but about one’s place. How is Ntinda? How is America? How is South Carolina? And my personal favorite, how are those ends? (Alternatively, when will you come back to this side/these ends?) Well, until September 2011, I had never considered that any of “these ends” could so closely resemble “those ends,” either socio-linguistically or culturally. Then I attended kwanjula in Boston.

Well, the same bride who introduced her groom to her adoring family that weekend made him a very happy man this past weekend in Chicago. They have since relocated, and their wedding was no less a thoroughly Ugandan affair than was their introduction ceremony. The Boston contingent made the trek in large vans, by plane, and however else they could. I met others who traveled from Minnesota, Michigan, New York, and Ohio. But most–safely over 95%–were first or second generation Ugandan immigrants from Buganda. These are doctors and lawyers, nurses and fashion designers, students and teachers; they are a well-educated, high-achieving bunch, to be sure. It is easy to see how so many of the present generation of Africans in the Diaspora hold so much hope and promise for the future. As I look toward a new phase of research revolving around these Ugandan communities in the U.S., it is very exciting to see the great variety of things its members are doing in the world.

I had not intended my presence at this event to meet with the same conspicuous attention as my performance of the Ffumbe clan slogan at the kwanjula did in 2011. I had simply stayed in touch with the bride and groom, and I wanted to celebrate with them on their big day. As aunties have a tendency to do, however, the bassenga from Boston informed me that I would be reciting the bride’s paternal and maternal genealogies at the reception. As this had been become a major opportunity for networking and thinking about new research directions the last time I did it, I of course readily agreed. In any case, how could I say no to this bride, much less her aunties?


When I initially started writing about the 2011 event, the connections between kinship, music and tradition fascinated me. Between then and now, however, I had the opportunity to travel back to Boston and experience some of the rest of the music scene in one of the largest Ugandan communities in the U.S. Traveling to Chicago then came with the promise of new possibilities for discovering how things might be different there…and how different they were.

The nightclub that played almost exclusively Ugandan pop in Waltham, Massachusetts was interesting, and it’s a place I hope to return. But the aptly named Club Enigma in Chicago provided a fascinating contrast. Far from the local pub experience that tends to attract Waltham’s slightly older crowd, Enigma was like walking into a Kampala nightclub. The ten-dollar cover charge, the security at the door, the lighting, the overpriced drinks, and especially the DJ’s mix of contemporary Ugandan and American pop made it seem like the whole place had been transplanted directly out of suburban Uganda’s upwardly mobile communities.

I might have come to expect this from a younger crowd closer to the Chicago city limits than Waltham is to Boston, even if both places are fairly typical of immigrant communities in American suburbia. What I didn’t expect was the utter disorienting experience that this club offered two completely different cultural experiences in the same building. At the bottom of the main staircase, a right turn means Ugandan Urban Underground, but a left turn translates to Bulgarian Boom Boom Room. The latter was nearly three times as large, and attracted a crowd befitting the space. Managing sound bleed seemed only a matter of cranking the volume in each space loud enough to mask anything coming from the other. For the most part, people came with a culturally specific experience in mind, but they frequently walked over to “the other side” to check out what was going on, do some people watching, hear the music, scope out a fleeting physical interest, or even dance to a bit different beat. Let me just say that the kasiki (a Ugandan version of a bachelor party) and the wedding after-party the next night did not offer nearly enough time to try to parse this one out. Enigma indeed.

Two things remained consistent between Waltham and Arlington Heights/Chicago: these events are still all about networks of kin, and both communities still revolve around Roman Catholic church life.


Above: the groom, Godfrey, with the maid of honor, Vivian and yours truly

One of my favorite images came from the DJ booth:


I call it “Ain’t No Party Like a Messiah Party”

(glossy facsimile on turntable)

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New Position, New Conference, New Friends, New Book!

It’s been a minute since I posted, but I’m at the American Folklore Society’s annual meeting this week. All of the activity on Twitter has inspired me to re-commit to connecting with colleagues and communities via this web presence. This is part of a broader effort to re-connect, post-dissertation, with more popular forms of writing and more diverse audiences than just the academy. However, I do need to start with an important detail: Claflin University has generously provided the necessary leave and support for me to be here. For that and so many other forms of support, I am truly grateful. My first couple of months at Claflin have been fantastic, and my family’s first several weeks in Orangeburg have also placed us in a warm and welcoming community.

I have come to participate in a pre-conference workshop co-sponsored by the university presses at Mississippi, Illinois, and Wisconsin with funding from the Andrew Mellon Foundation. It’s been a very exciting and fulfilling day. The workshop involved six authors this year, all of whom provided meaningful feedback to each other on our respective projects. It also involves senior folklorists as mentors and the acquisitions editors at these three university presses. I am so grateful to the folks at University of Illinois Press for their interest in my project and to the FSMW team for putting on this tremendous workshop. I look forward to our reception tomorrow afternoon as well, which will provide further opportunities to build networks across disciplines.

The new friends, colleagues, and acquaintances include those recently added to my Twitter feed, but rather than creating a chain of suggestions for following, I encourage motivated readers to participate in the conversation themselves.

Ultimately, this workshop and this conference point toward a book project that grows out of my dissertation and the subsequent work that I continue to do on that project. In case you’re new to this forum, it’s all about music and wellness in Uganda. Stick around in the coming months for more as that project and other new interests develop close to our new digs!

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Boston, Baby!

I’m not a Daddy Blogger, if there is such a thing. Maybe that’s why I don’t write too much these days: it’s challenging enough to balance Daddy time, research time and other work time, so reflecting and writing about all three often seems overwhelming. These experiences so rarely coalesce or even overlap in smooth ways; like many people, I find it easier to compartmentalize. Less messy in so many ways, but we pay a price for that. The last weekend of September, I had the pleasure of traveling with my family to a quasi-working environment in a potential new field site where we celebrated life with extended members of my adoptive Kiganda family. And yes, it sort of felt like that much of a mouthful, but in a good way. My spouse was here in the U.S. during my extended field research in Uganda, so this was a new combination for all of us.

Several things amazed me:

1) I have the world’s coolest family. Yes, I’m biased. Deal with it.

2) The terms Daddy, husband, and researcher do not represent mutually exclusive categories of people. Hopefully my family will confirm this observation. Compartmentalization might be convenient at times, but it’s not near as much fun as coalescence.

3) Ugandans in the Diaspora are as warm, polite and welcoming as their counterparts Over Home. This didn’t surprise me in the least, but the kindness of relative strangers (or is it strange relatives?) never ceases to humble and amaze me.

So, let me start at the beginning: several months ago, I got a call from my Ssenga (literally, paternal aunt), the sister of my Muganda host father. She invited my family for a betrothal ceremony called okwanjula, meaning “introduction,” which would take place in the city where she works, Waltham, Massachussets. My initial response was wholly and irresponsibly American: I was too busy, had too little money for travel and did not know either of the bagole (bride and groom). Ssenga Babirye persisted, calling a month later and adding calls from her sisters two weeks after that. It is rude to refuse someone’s hospitality. Even just dropping by a proper Kiganda home requires the consumption of tea, or at the very least a glass of water. An old proverb that my dear brother Ssetimba taught me states this unequivocally:

mu nju, temuli kkubo

in the house, there is no road

The bassenga demanded satisfaction in their own way, and we acquiesced, making plans to attend this family event as a family. Moreover, they insisted that we stay with one of them, just as we would if we went to visit our own biological families.

So to my first point: coolest. family. ever.

Our son got through the TLH-ATL-BOS leg of the trip like a seasoned traveler. This was his first air travel, and we couldn’t have been happier with that. Meanwhile, my spouse demonstrated the same patient resourcefulness that has become her hallmark in our home. The trip back was no different. Okay, realistically, we all get tired/hungry/annoyed/irritated and just plain want a minute to ourselves – we’re real people. This family of mine is great for their efforts to keep cool heads despite all of that. Moreover, the folks who invited us to Boston have given us the privilege of calling them family as well.

When I first started studying Luganda, I had two teachers. One was a fantastic young linguist named Deo Kawalya, the other a tutor for practical application. The latter, named Waalabyeki Magoba, became my dear friend and host father. He used to take me around to markets, taxi parks, and other public places to practice what I had learned in the classes. After a few weeks, he took me to his family home, where his aged parents gave me a Kiganda name.

Over the next two trips in 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, Mwami Magoba took me to several kwanjula celebrations. These were family affairs: Kiganda kinship makes no distinction between daughters and nieces, so anyone who shares our kika or “type” also shares our totem animal, Ffumbe (a civet cat). Those in my age group are therefore my sisters (bannyinaze) and daughters of Magoba and his generation. One of the things I learned from a host brother very early on in this process was the clan slogan (omubala):

Galinnya, galinnya e Bakka,

They are climbing, they are climbing [the hill] at Bakka,

Basengejja, banywa omwenge!

They are brewing, they are drinking [banana] beer!

Kasolo ki? FFUMBE!

Which small animal? FFUMBE!

Kakozaakoza – Tolikoza mu lw’Effumbe!

Let food be dipped [in sauce] – you shall not dip in the sauce of the Ffumbe!

This slogan outlines both the geographic history of ekika ky’Effumbe, those who share the Ffumbe as their totem animal, and the principle of kin avoidance in marriage as it applies to this kika. In other words, anyone who shares the Ffumbe totem animal, whose ancestors were born and lived at Bakka, shall not marry another person from that group. Reinforcing this notion of avoidance at kwanjula – the first public, official event recognizing a couple’s intent to marry – perpetuates strongly held beliefs about eligible partners for any given Muganda.

Americans define family in terms of various shared substances: blood/biology, residence, extended time in armed combat together or even pet ownership. Baganda use some of these same markers for kinship, but sharing blood or other biological symbols proves secondary to other elements of and symbols for shared substance. Avoidance of a totem animal provides the basis for an enormous number of extended kin relationships and for adoption of outsiders into the cultural fold. Sacrificing time and resources in the name of sharing food and other resources builds community fellowship in both contexts.

When I consider what my family has sacrificed in order to facilitate my research, and in turn what my host Ugandan host family has given in order to create lasting bonds with us, I am truly humbled and amazed. I left Boston feeling like I would miss it even though we had never been there before. We left Waltham, which my wife dubbed “Little Buganda,” knowing it was only a matter of time before we would return. We carried our son back through airports and trams to our home with gratitude for the enormous privilege we enjoy in knowing and loving our African family and our new relatives in the Diaspora. Overwhelmed? Maybe, but joyfully so.

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Uganda Epilogue: the Boda-Boda Diaries

An unfortunate incident involving an upset taxi driver, his cheapskate conductor, their violently drunken barker colleague at the boarding stage, and some typically corrupt police prompted me on last year’s research trip to reconsider my primary means of transport in Uganda. Up until then, it had been the matatu, a 14-passenger van that rarely carries fewer than 16 people and more like 24 or 25 up-country. On my first trip and a subsequent journey, the otherwise uncomfortable matatu rides had afforded me opportunities to chat with locals, flip Luganda flash cards, and generally learn something about the everyday lives of Ugandans. During the rest of that last trip and all throughout this one I have relied instead on a more efficient, quicker, and decidedly more fun mode of ambulating through town and country in Uganda: the boda-boda.

Meet Mark Kyaligamba, a.k.a. Marco: safest motorcyclist this side of Sub-Saharan Africa, loyal companion, and all-around boda concierge:

I met Mark last year on the recommendation of a colleague who had hired him on numerous occasions to do everything from running errands to transporting her safely wherever she needed to go, all without the unwanted romantic attentions commonly associated with many boda drivers. This is how Mark gets all of his business: he delivers people and goods safely and quickly to their locations, he charges a reasonable (read: not muzungu) price, and his happy customers recommend him to other clients. It doesn’t seem like this kind of work would be very lucrative, and indeed he’s not living in the State House, but at the end of the day he puts his two children in good schools and provides well for his family.

After six months plus of strict customer loyalty on my end and unfailing punctuality, safety, and general reliability on his, Mark and I have become very close friends. My host mother comes from his clan, making him my kojja (lit.: brother to my mother). As such, he calls me “son,” and he takes very good care of me. He carries an extra helmet all the time. He shows up five minutes early. He knows where to find good food, hard-to-find items, out of the way places, and quite a diverse collection of people. You never know how valuable this is until you need one or more of these things and Mark makes it happen.

Riding on the back of a motorcycle every day for this long makes for a particular kind of experience of Uganda. Matatus are great for talking to people, practicing Luganda, learning the polite manner of so many Kampalans even when we are all forced to sit on top of one another for the sake of functionality, and experiencing life as so many working people do. On a boda, however, the wise traveler gets to know one driver and maybe a few of his colleagues for the safety’s sake, and he sees so many things through the eyes of that small group of people. I have my own agenda in going places here, but going with that other person means learning a lot about the places we go together and the road along the way. For me, that person is nearly always Mark.

Hours away from the city though, things are different. Mark has other clients even when I’m there, and there’s no stealing him for a day to go up-country. By borrowing his bike a time or two for a price, I have found a really fun way to see some beautiful countryside. Similarly, my friend and teacher Ssematimba would commonly borrow a bike near his home and drive the two of us to other villages.

Uncle Ssema introduced me to his home and family over the span of several different trips. Andrew Mwesige, another friend in Busoga, did the same. I met their families and friends in Kyaggwe County and Namutumba District, from Nakifuma in the heart of Buganda to Nawandyo deep in Basiki land, where they taught me so much about drumming and song, ritual practice, and the basic way of being-in-the-world for rural Ugandans.

When I was a child, my father used to put me in front of him on a motorcycle. As I grasped the handlebars inside his own strong grip, he would take me all around Cedar County, Nebraska, where he grew up. There we met family members previously unknown to me, old friends of our family, and comerades in farming and life. On these more recent journeys, the nature of our interactions is so strikingly similar. One does not simply pass by a place without stopping to say hello. When people tell us that they are happy to see us—tusanyuse okubalaba!—we return the joy of that meeting, apologizing if we cannot linger to chat over a warm cup. The Baganda say, “mu nju, temuli kkubo,” meaning that, “in the house, there is no road.” A visitor is a blessing, and a host blesses him in return with warm hospitality. This is a familiar pattern to me; it parallels the grace of the people who live near my own ancestral home.

When companions of convenience or professional necessity care enough to show me the place where they live, to introduce me to family and friends, to open their homes and their minds and teach me about who they are, the journey becomes so much more than the destination. This road has been rich with such experiences. A boda-boda is not merely a faster or more efficient mode of transport, though it certainly can be; it is a means of getting to places where cars cannot go, on paths that always end in compounds filled with the warmth of sincere welcome. These paths are useless if they fail to map the human landscape of a place. Now that these fine friends have led me there on bodas, I truly know where Uganda is.

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Omupiira: World Cup Fever Hits Uganda

Kampala became quieter and quieter throughout the day yesterday as the second day of play took over a city that was largely glad to be away from work and in front of a television somewhere. ‘Tis the season for omupiira, soccer, futbol, WORLD CUP! It’s difficult to go five minutes without hearing someone hum K’Naan’s catchy anthem. Meanwhile, those who have no TV at home crowd around those in bars, restaurants, and beauty salons.

This kibanda style of viewing is the heart of World Cup in Africa. I was here in 2006 to watch as the Italians beat the French and Zidane beat his head into an opponent’s chest. Ugandans enjoy roasted meat in front of screens big and small with plenty of beer near at hand. Ghana plays tonight, which will surely bring the crowds out in droves.

I have two weeks left here, so I definitely don’t have enough time to watch every match. However, I can still get up early enough to get my work done and watch the big games. Even as I travel up-country this week, it will offer me interesting opportunities to come across how people experience this where there might only be one or two televisions for miles.


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