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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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Not What It Sounds Like: A (Ffumbe) Clan Meeting

When I first came to Uganda in 2006, I came to study Luganda intensively. I spent my days going to language lessons in the mornings and embarking on a wide range of adventures in the afternoons that provided me with abundant opportunities for practical application of the language. The teacher who so graciously allowed me to tag along on these outings soon adopted me into his clan and his family, and he has since been a most fantastic host father, trusted mentor, and loyal friend.*

The first time I met the broader Ffumbe clan, they named me Kigozi and welcomed me with some of the warmest hospitality I have ever experienced. Subsequently, I lived with Magoba and his family in Ntinda. During this time and since then, whenever I’m in the country it’s a matter of joyful social obligation to attend family and clan-related events. Parents here use the same terms for their nieces and nephew that they use for their daughters and sons, so there’s no such thing as extended family in the sense that we think of it. People are just brothers and sisters, sons, and daughters. That means every time one of those people introduces her soon-to-be spouse to her parents, gets married, graduates from something, has a child, or dies, I have the privilege of joining the Ffumbe clan for commemorative events and life-cycle rituals.

This past weekend, it was okwanjula, literally meaning “to introduce.” One of our sisters, Zawedde, was introducing her fiancee to her parents. This is a normal ritual for youth preparing for marriage here. The biologically related clanmates and friends of the bride gather at her parents’ home, where they await the arrival of the groom and his family. When they come, they begin an extensive set of complex greeting customs that eventually involve the exchange of dowry and the agreement between families that their children will marry.

Above: the happy couple greeting ssenga, an auntie of influence in the family.

At an earlier kwanjula, I had been asked on the spot to beat the mubala, a kind of slogan that every clan has. These are normally proverbial or riddle-like in nature, and they often identify the totem animal of the clan and/or outline taboos pertinent to that clan. Evidently I performed well, because Magoba asked me to come to Zawedde’s kwanjula to beat an extended version of the mubala for Ffumbe clan.

At the designated time in the proceedings, the muwogezi (lit. clever speaker, a kind of emcee/negotiator that both families must have for this event) called me to beat the following mubala:

Galinnya, galinnya e Bakka

Basengejja, banywa omwenge

Kasolo ki? Ffumbe!

Kakozakoza: tolikoza mu lw’effumbe.

Translation:

They climb, they are climbing at Bakka [hill]

They are straining [local brew], they are drinking beer

Which animal? The civet cat!

The one who dips his food in every kind of sauce: you shall not dip into that of the civet cat!

The last two lines of this mubala identify the ffumbe, or civet cat, as the muziro (totem animal) for this clan. The last line makes explicit the food taboo associated with this animal. Even one who eats all kinds of animals should not eat the bush meat or even taste the sauce of the ffumbe. There’s another connotation here, too: the food taboo parallels a sexual and marriage taboo whereby one member of a clan must not marry a member of the same clan.

Well, the whole thing was an even bigger success than the previous time. It’s all because of Magoba’s careful mentorship. It was he who taught me a deeper version of this mubala, he who invited me to perform it again. His habit has always been to thrust me into public situations to test my skills and encourage me to rise to those occasions.

Wattu musajja mulungi ow’effumbe, kitange kiganda: weebale kunsomesa ssebo!

My dear good man of the Ffumbe clan, my Ganda father: thank you for teaching me!

*Edward Waalabyeki Magoba is a novelist, folklorist, magazine publisher and radio personality whose vernacular writing has had a huge impact on southern Uganda. His radio program, Ekyoto, offered 90 minutes of folklore-fueled fun for all ages on Saturday nights before CBS radio was shut down here late last year.

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Jjajja Kaweesa Turns 100

The other day I went out to Kawuku with my Ffumbe folks from Ntinda.  Every once in a while we get an opportunity to see those who can come together in this family at a single event.  Last year it was about 100 people, and today is about the same.  At one point, I think about trying to count the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Jjajja Mukyala (Grandma) Rose and Jjajja Omwami (Grandpa) Kaweesa.  Then it occurs to me that at least half of them live elsewhere in the world.

I’ve only ever been to one other 100th birthday party, and that was for my great-grandmother Anna.  It’s always an interesting experience to consider the changes that someone that old has seen in a lifetime that long.  At this point it’s enough just to consider that this family takes such good care of their grandparents.  It’s inspiring.  I’ve included a few of the photos below just for fun.

The Bajjajja at Kawuku: Jjajja Omwami at 100 and Jjajja Omukyala at 88.

The bazuukulu (grandchildren).  Spot the muzungu?

Sister Francis was also celebrating 50 years as a nun!

Some aspiring drummers of the next generation…

A few beers and some roasted chicken on this sunny afternoon really hit the spot.  Jjajja Kaweesa went to sleep early in the comfort of knowing that his next three generations were enjoying the lawn.

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Homecoming (of sorts)

So it’s taken me some time to get back into the swing of things enough to post.  It’s not for lack of something to write about.  On the contrary, the first two weeks have been full.  I’ve been so busy attending rituals and thinking and writing and transcribing…there hasn’t really been much time for blogging.

Maybe it’s appropriate then that now I do have a little time on the day I went to my Ugandan host family’s place near Ntinda.  I had been biding my time until most of the family could be there.  What a happy afternoon!  Mr. Magoba invited me for lunch, but they all knew as well as I did that it was a leisurely affair that would take all afternoon.

Lunch was fantastic as usual.  Local food really is good in Uganda.  Maama Magoba’s food is a whole new level, though.  I eat matooke almost every day here.  Some people would get sick of it, but I really like the stuff.  Today, Maama’s tooke was really a cut above anything I’ve had since I got back here.  That set the tone for the whole visit.

This really was a homecoming for me.  Don’t get me wrong: I love my family in the States.  When people make me feel this at home when I’m this far from home, though, that’s a really special thing.  I realized this morning that I had been eagerly anticipating this for two weeks.

I always bring gifts for my family and friends here.  This time my wife sent me with really nice gifts for the ladies in the family.  Maama got two necklaces, and she absolutely loved them both.

Gloriah’s necklace is going to go well with her newest pink gomesi (local nice dress for women here).  People really like to match things up exactly here.  Needless to say Sister Glo was elated.

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Then there’s Nantongo.  This girl took such great care of me when I was here last year.  She’s the girl who cooks and does much of the laundry in the Magoba household.  We call her Nakinyonyi (Big Bird) because she’s always smiling.  She nicknamed me similarly as Ssekinyonyi (Big Bird, the male version) last year.  After greeting Mr. and Mrs. Magoba properly, she came out of the girls’ room there and shouted,

“Ssekinyonyi!”

How great to see my good friend again!  I don’t think she expected much of anything from me, but she’s part of the family.  Jenn really made a cute necklace for her with little blue stars and some clear beads.  It was like watching a child on Christmas morning.

Settimba and some of the others weren’t there, but I will see them soon.  In the mean time, it was really cool to see Mr. Magoba with his bazuukulu (grandkids).

At age 6, Mugumya is a total Curious George with a priceless gap-toothed grin (akazigo).

Then there’s Vincent (in the yellow), who can really school Uncle Kigozi in soccer.

As we relaxed after lunch and drank some of Maama’s homemade pineapple wine, they invited me to three upcoming family events.  Among these, Jjajja Omwami Kaweesa (Grandpa Kaweesa) turns 100 this month, and we’re going to celebrate with a big family reunion on the 26th.  I’m so excited.  These are the people who initiated my linguistic and cultural education in Uganda.  Now that I’ve been coming here for three years, they are still the people who teach me most about language, culture, and how a family lives together here.

When Jjajja Kaweesa prays, he still thanks God not only for all that he has, but also for all of the blessings that he has yet to receive in his life.  It’s such a hopeful outlook.  Maybe this is how a person lives to be 100 and has the riches of family that he has.  This is how a coffee farmer in Uganda and his wife educate their 11 children, 10 of them through university level, and several through post-graduate studies.  Now that he’s dependent on them, it’s inspiring to see that he still lives in his own home, where his children and grandchildren take care of him.  This, I have the privilege of saying, is my family in Uganda.

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An Iowa Story

postdated: Aug. 1, 2009

speaknoevil

Above and header: a classic image at Iowa’s Historic Arnold’s Park.

If I have been too quiet, I hope my few faithful readers will think that the reasons are as good as I do.  I’m back from what I now know was a much-needed trip to my birthplace: Iowa.  Jenn and I had planned to go up for a long weekend.  This was for her family, recently bereft of a beloved grandmother and only very recently able to gather for a proper memorial service.  However, it turned into a much more varied and exciting journey than we had originally expected.

The time everyone was able to come turned out to be the weekend after a ten-year reunion that my high school classmates had planned.  Neither of us had been to Harlan for at least the six years we’ve lived in Florida, so we decided to go up early for this shindig and enjoy some of the pleasures of late summer in Iowa.  Ten days later, I am convinced that the lifelong Iowan we came to mourn would have heartily approved.

The entire trip resonated with overtones of formative musical experiences that, for both Jenn and me, made Iowa a great place to grow up.  The town square is home to a relatively new restaurant, paradoxically called the Sandwich Bowl, where we had lunch and a long, soulful conversation with two of my former music teachers, Steve and Dianne Lawson.  Although they are now both retired from public school jobs, Dianne had to leave for an afternoon wedding gig.  We relaxed with Steve in a multi-purpose facility that provides his daily musical playground: he watches DVDs, plays music, teaches lessons, rehearses high school groups and engineers recording sessions.  I enjoyed the privilege of thanking the Lawsons in person for laying the foundation for many and varied other musical studies and experiences.

Later that evening, we met up with my high school classmates for the reunion.  Standard fare here: beers and steaks at a local country club.  It was a good time, but we cut out a bit early to stop by another reception for a friend and former bandmate who had been living in China.  His wife finally got her visa, and it was time to celebrate that victory and their marriage with his family.  It was surreal to see people I hadn’t seen in ten years and think about how I hadn’t been the only one who was half a world away, only to see them again here in our quiet Iowa hometown.  This called for more beverages.  The reunion had migrated to the downtown square, where we found my classmates and proceeded to close the oldest local bar in town.  They probably haven’t had a night like that since RAGBRAI came through town last year.

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Above: cathing up with classmates and friends.  Thanks for taking the pictures, Jenn!

The next day we traveled to Jenn’s parents’ place, where I did what I always do when I show up there: set up the drum set in the basement.  My in-laws played a lot of dance jobs when they were first married.  Jenn grew up playing clarinet and saxophone, accompanied by her father on keys and either her mother or her brother on drums.  It’s a really rare vibe, a place where I always feel privileged to sit in on drums.  Moreover, with two other drummers in the family, there’s always some nice gear sitting around the house.  Knowing that I have been in Uganda and haven’t played any drumset for most of the last year, Steve came home for lunch ready to play a couple of tunes with me.

In the afternoon, we got back in the car to go to Okoboji, where Jenn’s father plays piano during the summer in the Dick Bauman Monday Night Big Band.  Bauman was the founder of a jazz program at a nearby community college and a good friend of the man who first taught me to play drumset, Steve Lawson.  Now this isn’t exactly the Village Vanguard or anything, but the sections are stacked with some of the best band directors in the state, and they are solid players.  There’s a tradition of good jazz in Iowa, and these people have sent some fantastic players on to the best college jazz programs in the country.  It was a privilege to sit in with the band,

The weekend brought other activities.  Jenn’s brother and his wife showed up on Friday, along with their aunt.  We wasted very little time after they arrived before jumping back in the car and heading to the world’s finest steakhouse.  Archie’s Waeside in LeMars, Iowa rivals many of the finest steakhouses in the country according to some, but we in Iowa know that you cannot buy a finer cut of meat, a tastier corn fritter, or a more delicious grasshopper sundae anywhere (a creme de menthe ice cream treat–not to be confused with these).  Wash that down with a selection of regional micro-brews, and you’ve got one tasty Friday night!

Saturday brought more chill time.  Jenn golfed with her folks and her brother.  She amazes me.  She hasn’t golfed but twice in the last eighteen months, and she was still able to par hole six and log several impressive drives.  Meanwhile, I shucked corn and prepared the grill to burn some bratwurst.  Guy Clark sings that there are “only two things money can’t buy: true love and homegrown tomatoes.”  Owing to the generosity of neighbors, I add Iowa sweet corn to that list, and we enjoyed all three with lunch on Saturday.

Jenn’s grandfather joined us for the occasion, and as is their custom, the Smith Family Variety Show followed.  Grandpa Jimmy worked as a saxophonist and singer during World War II and with his own dance band after that.  His repertoire has remained largely unchanged since: Peg o’ My Heart, Left My Heart in San Francisco, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Bill Baily…basically standards.  Seeing his son and grandson accompany him at family events has always been an indescribable joy.

SteveChris

StevePeteJimmy

What a privilege it is when they ask me to sit in on drums or sing a tune! That’s the story of our family gatherings in Iowa.  I think it’s an important story to tell, because it’s also the story of music education working in really interesting ways.  The democratic character of jazz filters organically into every musical event in Jenn’s family.

I’d experienced this atmosphere many times before, but somehow this time “When the Saints Go Marching In” seemed particularly poignant.  The next day, as we all drove to Des Moines to hold a memorial service for Jenn’s maternal grandmother, I looked through the Methodist hymn they had asked me to sing and my sister-in-law looked through the Debussy piece she was to play on flute.  It seemed somehow significant that this family of musicians had chosen to focus on mourning and ask the in-laws to provide appropriate music.  In death, as in life, this family welcomes such a beautiful range of expression, incorporating each unique voice into an ongoing performance that, if our generation and our children have anything to do with it, will never end.

chrisRhodes

Chris picks up an old Rhodes from his pop to outfit his new digs in CO.

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Let’s start here

Why not start with some musicians for whom I have a great amount of respect. It’s not just because Chris is my brother-in-law. In fact, I knew him before I knew my wife. We were attending jazz camps together in Iowa as teenagers. Now he’s doing his thing in NYC, not only with CPhin but many others. Here’s what I really dig about Chris: he’s not just out there trying to make a living whoring himself out to whatever band will give him the better contract or whatever company will give him the best endorsement deal. He’s got integrity. He is a thinking musician who’s thinking about the future of jazz, of improvisatory music in general, and of American music as a portion of his identity. Every note I’ve ever heard him play, no matter what style, has been one thing that to me lies at the base of all great art: honest.

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