Tag Archives: ritual 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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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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Travels With Nakayima, Part 2: Bakka


28 March, 2009: Bakka, Uganda

This rock might not look like much, but for members of the Ffumbe clan it’s a historically and ritually significant place.  Hallowed places here are often covered by bark cloth or some other type of cloth.  This one is covered with olugoye, a generic cloth that women use for a variety of purposes, including carrying babies (in which case it’s called engozi).  It covers this rock, where the oral tradition holds that Ffumbe women used to give birth.  The rock is discolored from afterbirth where Ffumbe ancestors began their lives.

Nakayima has brought me here today as a kind of double-duty outing.  She knows that my host family calls me Kigozi, a name they gave me three years ago from the stock of names appropriate for Ffumbe clan.  The other lady we came with is Nakigozi, also of Ffumbe clan, so we call each other mwanyinaze, meaning a sibling of the opposite gender.  This place is significant to our clan for another reason apart from the rock you see above: this is where Walusimbi stays.  Walusimbi is the title for the mukulu ow’ekika, or head of the clan (for lack of a better translation), named for the progenitor of the Ffumbe clan.  The acting head of the clan still bears this title.  Though I will not meet this person today, Ffumbe folks still get excited about this place.

The other reason why she brought me here is to see the burial site of Kabaka Mulondo, the 9th Kabaka (king) of Buganda.  When we walk into the shrine, we first make an offering of mmwanyi (coffee berries) and money in the baskets before us.  This is standard practice when you enter this type of shrine.  Some people ask for blessings as they place their offerings in the baskets, and then we all stand.  I can’t take pictures, so I’ll have to describe for you what I see here: we’re in a room about 5×5 meters, and the back half is separated by a large bark-cloth covering over a raised flat surface (about 20 cm off the ground).  There are spears in front of this, and behind it there’s a large, bark-cloth covered area larger than a normal tomb.  The jaw bones of Kabaka Mulondo are preserved under there somewhere.

As we stand there, Nakayima begins to sing a series of songs.  All around clap, and the caretaker of the shrine plays the small drum in the corner.  I’ve heard these songs before: they invoke the balongo or twins.  Many Baganda believe that every human has a spiritual double, as evidenced by the existence of umbilical cords.  Twins are believed to be an aberration from this natural order, a kind of rule-breaking that can be spiritually dangerous.  Invoking the twins is one way of staying on the safe side of this danger, and many rituals, both in shrines and in more secular public settings, begin with this group of songs.

I have very little time to think about how sad it is that they don’t allow me to record these songs.  When we move out of the shrine shortly after the songs, we go around the large, rocky hill with no shoes (ouch) checking out the other shrines.  Some are ebyoto (small fire rings with spears around them), some are simply rocks like the one above, and others are just baskets where people make offerings.  Each is dedicated to a different spirit.  This is a common thing to see at these historically significant sites.  There will often be one main ssabo or shrine, surrounded by many other smaller places to venerate other ancestors.  These are the kinds of places I’ll describe in the upcoming posts as well, though each has its own character.

In the coming posts, I hope to upload video and/or audio files.  Realistically, that might have to wait until I get access to enough bandwidth to play with.  Until then, enjoy the stories and send me your questions and comments.


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Travels with Nakayima, Part 1: Stories of Place

I haven’t posted much lately, and that’s because I have been too busy traveling.  In late February, I attended an annual meeting of Uganda n’eddagala lyayo (Uganda and its medicines), Uganda’s oldest association of traditional healers.  The group entertaining the crowd that day was led by one Nakayima, a singer who has since become my dear friend and close research consultant.  She has been an excellent travel guide for some of Buganda’s historically significant ritual sites.


This weekend, I begin recording some of her vast repertory of ritual songs sans drums and rattles.  That technique has worked well for me before as a means of getting a clear rendering of the song texts, so I am excited to begin.  In the mean time, I hope you enjoy these stories and images from our travels.

These places and their stories live and breathe in oral tradition, but this is a part of the world where people don’t depend on Jan Vansina to tell them that those traditions constitute this region’s historical records.  The characters and themes of those storied places appear in Nakayima’s songs as well.  By taking me to see these places and meet the people who take care of the shrines, she provides me with critical context for understanding her repertory of ritual songs.

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