Tag Archives: African music

Kusamira: the Book is Available NOW!

At long last, the project at the center of my ethnographic research focus since 2006 is finally published. Get your copy now, stay tuned for multimedia components to come (beyond the film), and get in touch if you’re interested in discussing this work with colleagues and students!

Need a little teaser? Head over to the University of Illinois Press Blog for an interview about the project.


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Ethnomusicology in the News

I’m pleased to re-post some news coverage that we got last week regarding research endeavors at Claflin. It is exciting to see these projects taking flight at our little university: two out of three Global Leadership Program awards for international research went to ethnomusicology projects! Stay tuned for more as we prepare to leave in early June.

Update: our local newspaper, the Times and Democrat, covered this story as well.

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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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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 Strange Twist on Kusamira Ritual

A little over a year ago, I started going to this place called Kakooge. It was unlike any other place where I had observed possession rituals called okusamira. Instead of drums made of cowhide and singers using ggono ornamentation, these musicians played with keyboards, guitars in the style of Franco Luambo and Koffi Olomide of Lingala fame, and drumsets with delightfully trashed-out cymbals. This was not the esoteric music of nighttime clandestine gatherings and village ritual; this was more like pop music, and in fact the people at Kakooge assured me that several prominent Ugandan pop musicians had been long time members there.

Surreal? Maybe, but definitely worth a follow-up or ten. Last month, I took a colleague to this place just to see what she made of it. Now, this colleague, a historian, had not been to the many village rituals I had. She came with completely fresh eyes, and I turned out to be very grateful for her perspectives on this whole scene. In the time since I had been there, however, things got more bizarre rather than less, so the whole experience was even more interesting.

Inside one of about twenty small shrines, built for a spirit called Mukasa, there’s this eclectic melange of things on the wall. I look up and notice the particularly ironic portrait of Christ at this otherwise thoroughly polytheistic site of worship.

Inside the bigger shrine, there’s a large structure built in homage of Kiwanuka, the spirit associated with lightning and thunder who eats fire. He’s not unlike Thor in his association with his hammer and lightning:

Directly above this beautifully ornate depiction of Kiwanuka’s hand with his hammer, we find these:

So between people making the sign of the Cross, bowing on bended knee, putting forehead to the ground as they would at a mosque, there are also people dancing around in possessed ecstasy.

To top it all off, there’s this:

So where Muslim and Christian bodily practices play nicely in the same space, symbols of both traditions adorn the walls, and people become possessed by spirits of still unrelated nature over a backdrop of Hindu celebration of the Divine. Is this the music of God in all of her staggering diversity? All I can say is, “Bweeza Merry Krishna As-Salaam Aleykum!”

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Back to Busoga

One of the challenges of doing work in two regions is that I’m constantly torn between where and how to spend my time. It’s not just about how much time; it’s also about the quality of the time and the nature of the work done and the people I do it with. Well, last year I had some extraordinarily productive weeks in Busoga, the eastern region of Uganda. I wasn’t there for that long, and at the time things seemed to move slowly. However, I got some of the most intriguing footage, the most informative interviews, and most importantly, some great opportunities to step outside Buganda in order to better understand what I was seeing. Therein lies one of my best reasons for continuing to work in two regions: I gain valuable perspective from seeing cultural and ritual similarities and differences.

I had been anticipating this return to Busoga for some time. I had important follow-up questions after reflection on the materials from last year’s trip. I also really wanted to see my friends. Sadly, my first visit was already overshadowed with bad news. A dear friend, the first muswezi healer I met in Busoga, had lost his wife several months ago. When I got to his place, he added that he hasn’t been able to work outside his compound much lately because his legs have been bothering him (presumably arthritis–he’s 85). Nevertheless, Kabindi greeted me warmly and was happy to talk follow-up to the rituals he took me to last year.

Following our reunion, Kabindi asked me a favor. He had left a bag behind at the compound of a drum-maker whom we visited last year. Although he’d acquired a car in the last year, he hadn’t been able to make it over there, or use it much at all for that matter, because of his legs. I couldn’t have been happier to have some way to help him after nearly four years of really instructive interactions with him. I brought the bag back and even got to replace a damaged piece from my drum collection while I was at it!

My next trip took me to another group of friends in Nawandyo who really took me places last year. Kyambu and his family showed me amazing hospitality, complete with milk tea fresh from the cow, and weeks of fascinating ritual last year. Naturally, I had some follow-up questions after having been home to try to understand my materials and present them to a couple of different audiences. Mzee Kyambu invited me to take a seat next to him in the small shade of his eissabo (shrine).

There he and his son, Andrew, gave me a ninety minute interview of extraordinary value. Two days later, they followed it up with another, shorter session. I’ve been so grateful to meet with hospitable kindness in Busoga, and those who have shown it to me have become truly valuable teachers. This latest body of work helps me to clarify some lingering questions and more effectively compare Soga ritual with what I’m seeing in Buganda. Now it’s about continued access to really solid language experts who can help me analyze and interpret these materials!

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The Work of Fieldwork

My recent silence has been a symptom of the nature of the work I’ve been doing here. But just because I’m not collecting recordings of ritual music or intriguing pictures to post here doesn’t mean that this part of the work isn’t important. In fact, it might be the most crucial part. Over the last several weeks, I have been spending time with a few key colleagues–experts on the music of kusamira spirit possession–who are helping me to transcribe and interpret ritual song. It’s not as exciting in quite the same way as all the travel and activity of going up-country to attend all-night rituals, but it’s facilitating a deeper understanding of this music.

What is very exciting about it is unpacking the multiple meanings of song texts, putting myself back in the spaces of events I only understood on a superficial level the first time, and trying to re-interpret those events based on local understandings of symbols and songs. This, for me, is the true work of ethnomusicological fieldwork; it’s the most challenging part, which also makes it one of the most rewarding parts.

Above: My good friend and teacher Ssematimba, or “Uncle Ssema,” listens to a field recording with me.


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Obama’s Chapatti

I have recently had great opportunities to learn from a really good drummer in Nakifuma. His group, the Nakifuma Super Dancers (love that name), won a local competition to get on the stage of a larger program run by a Kampala vernacular radio station, Bukedde FM. I was thrilled when group asked me to join them for the big show! The event is called Embuutu y’Embuutikizi, and this time it was held here:

This is Mandela National Stadium, locally glossed as Namboole, as that’s the area where it’s located. I had never been inside before this event, so it was kind of a cool opportunity to see Kampala’s largest stadium.

This isn’t a one-time thing–Bukedde puts them on from time to time. But it is one of the biggest I’ve ever noticed. It starts with a traditional music competition in the morning, and that’s the part we played for. By the time we took the stage, there were about 300-400 people down on the field in front of the stage. Other fun and festivities throughout the day include performances by kadongo kamu players and big pop musicians. I think Bobi Wine was the headliner, but I didn’t stay around for 14 hours after we played to check it out.

As with any big event, the people-watching and the food options are really interesting. I especially enjoyed the Obama Mobile Takeaway.


In the end, the competition was cut short because it got started late and took too long. So the judges arbitrarily chose some finalists and wrapped it up. I think I was the least disappointed in the group, though. The competition wasn’t the main event of the day, and I got to play with some of my favorite musicians in front of a whole bunch of people. Plus, Obama’s chapatti is delicious.


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A Wedding of Spiritualists

This weekend, I had the privilege of witnessing a wedding of two spirit mediums, embaga y’abasamize. I have spent over a year now working with spirit mediums, observing their rituals, and trying to learn about how and why they perform those rituals. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to see this particular function.

With about two dozen other spirit mediums in two vans, I headed down to Rakai District in the southwest part of Uganda. We didn’t arrive until very late in the night, but we were greeted with warmest hospitality upon arrival. Matooke and binyeebwa, the traditional food of the Baganda, greeted us with a nutty scent over warm banana mash. I can’t say I’ve ever been anywhere else in the world where people show up that late in the day and receive the same amazing hospitality that they would had they arrived at lunch time.

The next day, everyone put on their fanciest barkcloth garments, along with some of the accoutrement that they would normally use in the ssabo or shrine where they work as basawo baganda, local healers. Jjajja Jjumba presided over the whole function:

If cowrie shells used to be used as money and as a symbol of wealth, then that symbol is still very much alive in Uganda today. Jjumba is an extraordinarily successful healer who normally sees upwards of forty clients in a day.

The procession of Bakabona, those chosen by their ancestors to be healers in their communities, was led by this muserikale, a soldier/guardian who also works to move the logistical elements of the function along during the day:

Once inside the huge circle of tents where this function would be held, I was shocked to find something I’ve never seen in Uganda before: a cross-dressing clown with a partner who rode a unicycle!

What a fascinating irony in light of Uganda’s recent discomfort with diversity in sexuality!

Once all of the Bakabona were seated, it really was a beautiful site to see. All that barkcloth, all those cowries, all the time people have spent making these things look so sharp…what a spectacle!

Some of the music was in the vein of a relatively recent trend at all kinds of Ugandan weddings that resembles karaoke. This gentleman, one of five or six performers of this type throughout the evening, is singing live over a recording…though some sing more than others, he was actually singing the whole time.

Many up-and-coming singers do this as they are working to become popular musicians. This guy, on the other hand, just happened to be a friend to some of the people who helped make this function happen, and he’s a good singer.

Other music was more like what I’d expect to see at a pair of traditionalists’ wedding: mbaga dance. It was provided by none other than Nakayima and her group, Tebifaanana Abifuna.

And, of course, the lovely couple was looking very smart in their barkcloth gear.

If they don’t look pleased here, trust me, they did after those baskets were filled with monetary contributions to their newlywed life!

I’ve never seen a wedding this large, even in Uganda, where weddings routinely involve 400 guests. This was more like a thousand people before the whole day was said and done. The cast of artists who performed was itself very large: about a dozen musicians in Nakayima’s group, and another five or six doing other things throughout the day. What can I say? What’s good for ritual is good for working musicians!


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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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