Tag Archives: Africa

Eastman and Mount Holyoke

I was honored to speak last week on the Eastman School of Music Symposium Series, where my colleague and friend Jennifer Kyker invited me to give a talk on my kusamira research. I did an overview of this Ugandan ritual repertory, a talk that I called “Sound Medicine: the Performance of Healing in Post-Colonial Uganda.” Earlier last Thursday, I also spoke to Jennifer’s “Music, Ethnography, and HIV/AIDS” class. At both the Eastman School and the University of Rochester’s River Campus, I received a very warm welcome and encountered sharp, energetic students.

Jennifer and I attended a conference on “Development in Crisis” at Mount Holyoke College. It was interesting, but I found it wanting for a more radical economic perspective from folks working in development.

This morning I spoke in Professor Holly Hanson’s History 101 class at Mount Holyoke: “How Wars End.” In a little over an hour, I’ll give a talk in her History 206 course, “African Cities: Development Dreams and Nightmares,” on the destruction of Kasubi Tombs last year. The students here are truly impressive, and I look forward to more time with them this evening.

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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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José León and Family in Tallahassee

This week in the Florida State University College of Music, the Center for Music of Americas presents Venezuelan musician José León. If you’re in town and/or on campus, you can bookmark the online calendar, find it in slightly different formats here, or check out the breakdown below in list format.

Tonight! September 13, 7:00 p.m., 201 Longmire Hall – Lecture/Concert

Tuesday, September 14, 6:00 p.m., 217 Housewright Music Building – Workshop with Aconcagua (FSU’s Andean regions music ensemble)

Thursday, September 16, 5:00 PM, St. John’s Episcopal Church (Monroe and Call Streets in Tallahassee) – reception and Afro-Venezuelan music concert presented in collaboration with the Riley House Museum.

Thursday, September 16, 7:30 p.m. – Workshop #2 with Aconcagua

Friday, September 17, 1:30 p.m., Lindsay Recital Hall – Seminar in World Music Studies

Friday, September 17, 9:00 p.m., B-Sharp’s Jazz Club – Venezuelan Music and Dance Party

It’s going to be a full week here. Join José León and his musical family, the CMA and the College of Music and get your Afro-Venezuela groove on.

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Here’s To You, Mr. Davidson

Last month marked the end of an era in African Studies. Basil Davidson, self-made renaissance man, British Special Operations Executive in World War II, radical journalist, vice-president of the British anti-Apartheid movement, historian of Africa, documentary film maker, and champion of African creativity died at the age of 95. If you’re unfamiliar with his endeavors, check out the Guardian‘s or the Telegraph‘s comprehensive obits. Other bloggers have also celebrated his life and lamented his passing. On the heels of my own research voyage to Africa, my wife and I remembered him last month by watching episodes from his Africa series. Join in the thousands of voices online and in print whose lives have been impacted by this brilliant mind, and share your experiences with Davidson’s textbooks, documentary films, journalism, or personal interactions.

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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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A Giant in African Music Falls

Sometimes a scholar of African music has such a profound effect on the field that when we hear people mention his name, there’s a certain reverence to it.  Sometimes I see a presentation that shows such humble respect for the musicians and such dedication to understanding their artistry that it makes things seem as if they should always be that way.  Every so often, I encounter a scholar of such generosity as to show deep care for a student whom he has only just met.  This past year, that was Dr. Willie O. Anku.

I had the distinct pleasure of presenting a paper on the same panel with Dr. Anku at the 3rd Annual Festival and Symposium, Dialogue in Music Project: Africa Meets North America.  He gave the most inspiring 30-minute breakdown of West-African rhythm that I have ever seen.  Although he’s been studying and writing about this material–what he called “circles and time”–for years, he presented it with almost child-like fascination in an analysis completely devoid of ego.  Following the panel, there was no question he didn’t have time for, and he went out of his way to complement and question my work. As the conference went on, our interactions only became warmer. I had found a fast friend in this brilliant man.  It was truly a privilege to enjoy his company and learn from him.

Dr. Anku earned an M.M.E. from the University of Montana at Missoula in 1976.  In 1983, he founded the African Music & Dance Ensemble at the University of Pittsburgh.  He went on to earn an M.A. in Ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1986 and and Ph.D. from the same institution in 1988.  He returned to his native Ghana to teach in and then head the Music Department at the University of Ghana, where he eventually headed the entire School of Performing Arts.  He was also a visiting professor at the Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada (2004), Portland State University (2003), and at California State University-San Marcos between 1994 and 1996.

On January 31, 2010, Dr. Anku was in a serious car accident. No doubt he would have contributed many more years of brilliant scholarship to the study of African music.  Willie Anku died on Monday, February 1, 2010.  I mourn his loss, even as I know the lasting legacy he left for the next generation of African music analysts.  Willie, you will be missed.

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