A quick summary of the Singing Wells Project

It is always dangerous over dinner to ask me about Singing Wells.    Cancel the taxis, warn the baby sitter, here come the stories… Last night I was asked by a good friend about how the project was going and off I went.   Even the waiter was calling home to warn his family it was going to be a late night.    But as I told the stories, I wished I had a computer with me so my poor tired friend could at least hear the music and watch the performances as I prattled on.   So, I came home, woke early and decided to tell the stories again but this time with music.   I do hope you enjoy.  The good news is you can ‘turn me off’ if you need to get on with your life.  My poor friend never had that chance…  Forgive me, but here are 10 things I would like to say about Singing Wells….

1. Singing Wells is all About Ensuring that others can hear about the Macedonia Band:  We’ll provide background later, but let’s story with the story of Uganda Land of Freedom.    Let’s start with the music – click play and let the band be a soundtrack for this story…

We were recording in Northern Uganda, in the Teso region, scene of multiple rebel movements, land of terrible atrocities.    That was a decade ago, of course, and the land has returned to host villages of peace and music.   We met the Macedonia band and the leader told us a long story, which I will do no justice to in a few words.  During one of the rebel movements, the rebels came to his village.  The typical mode of operation on these visits was to kill the adult males, seize the boys for fighters and hurt and abuse the women.   The band leader tried to convince the leaders that he was a man of peace and music and his band would help the fighers and improve the morale of villages they occupied.  The majority of the rebels still voted to kill the band leader and his band, but the minority won out and spared the men.  The rest were filled with bloodlust, however, and moved to the next village and killed everyone.  The Macedonia Band, a Likembe band (think thumb pianos on steroids, sounding like a calypso band), played in the rebel camps and within the rebel held villages.   Aware that the political tides may change, the band leader was careful to not play rebel songs and stuck with very traditional songs far away from politics.   The tides did change, the government took over and again the band leader’s village was invaded; this time by the government seeking to punish rebel sympathizers.    The band leader was assaulted but convinced the government that he had not supported the rebels, but played for them as a hostage.  There was enough evidence that he had avoided political songs that the village was spared and the band re-adopted to be used by the government to build morale.    But, again there was bloodlust and the government forces aimed to take revenge on a neighboring village.    But they went to the village and the village elder came out, explaining that he was a member of the Macedonia band, and proceeded to lead the village men in singing Uganda Land of Freedom, some of them playing the Likembe.   The government forces in frustration spared the extended band and went to the next village.  Again, the elder led the village men in a rendition of Uganda Land of Freedom.  They went to village after village and everyone could play the song and everyone was a member of the band.  The band leader had learned after the slaughter of the village next door two years before and has spent the months in between teaching all the surrounding villages one song and helping them build and learn to play the Likembe.  He is credited with saving thousands.   That’s the power of music.   That is why the Singing Wells Project is important.   Here’s the Field Report from that day in Uganda.

2. Singing Wells is actually all about Tiny Moses:   We went to Kisoro Uganda to record the Batwa.   The Batwa were one of the forest tribes that were displaced from their forests to protect the mountain gorilla.  They are the sound track to unintended consequences – marginalised, abandoned, living on the worst land at the margins of Ugandan, Rawanda socieities.   But, oh what a soundtrack!   Tabu, co-founder of Singing Wells and one of the most knowledgeable men about East African music, concluded that the Batwa were the most musical tribe he’d ever heard.    We recorded group after group in awe.   As we stopped into one very poor village we stumbled upon Tiny Moses.   He had a hand-made guitar.   We asked if he played and he said yes.  We arranged for him to join us the next day to record.    He brought his bass player who beat boxed into a clay pot.   He brought DJ.   And he played.    We brought him back to Nairobi to record.   Here is his music and story, which has been shared with over 15,000 people:

3. Singing Wells is about capturing the music before it is gone.    Our mission is two-fold.  First, we hope to capture and distribute the wonderful music of East Africa.   There’s an urgency to this that was brought home to us when we recorded Okumu K’Orengo, one of the world’s greatest Nyatit players.   His last song for us was a funeral march.   His village thanked us because they noted that this great player, a legend across East Africa, had never been properly recorded.   He died two weeks later.   Here was the last song we recorded…

4. Singing Wells is about bringing the tribal music of East Africa to the latest generation of singer-songwriters, like Winyo:    However important it is to capture music before it is gone, this is necessary, but not sufficient.    We are not fossile collectors.  The second part of our mission is to bring this music to  the next generation, to inspire them to look to their heritage for inspiration before they look elsewhere.   We do this with ‘Influences’ artists… Like Winyo, an unbelievable Kenyan musician that was blown away by the music of the Batwa and couldn’t help but joining Jovah in song:

 5. Singing Wells is about bringing together tribal music and wonderfully talented young performers like Akello from Uganda…  We brought Akello to Northern Uganda.    She joined almost every band.   Here she is with the Wotman Cultural Group singing Amari…

Or with the Adungu Cultural Group singing Awinyo…

6.  Singing Wells is about capturing how cool, how relevant this music is through Magic Moments:    Listen to the Nyatiti for the first time with your eyes closed.  It is a kick drum.  It is a snare drum.  It is a bass.  It is guitar.    Listen:

Watch a real drummer.   Watch someone that drums through their souls.   And ask yourself whether East African Music is relevant.

7.  Singing Wells is about bringing you groups and sounds that are ready for prime time – someone just needed to give them a microphone.    Here are the Otacho Young Stars…. Why aren’t they the biggest sound of Kenyan music?    Has the Otacho ever sounded cooler?  Is this a song in priase of Mr Manager?  Or does it say something far deeper – why do we need to praise a leader simply for doing his job?   What does it say that this needs praise?

8.  Singing Wells is about discovering roots and recovering the great voice, as we’ve done in Malindi

9.  Singing Wells is about Fusion.   Bringing music from Africa and England together.   We think something special happens when culture’s collide as we’ve tried to do in our annual fund raising videos:

10.  Singing Wells is a lot of hard graft with spectacular rewards… So who are we?  We are the music of East Africa – over 100 tribes in 40 villages so far.  We are a joint project sponsored by Ketebul Music and Abubilla Music.    We are a group of sound and video engineers who travel to villages with no electricity and running water and record their music with 12 microphones and 3 digital cameras.   We are a website that makes all this music available.  We are Winyo.  We are Akello.  We are dozens of African musicians determined to keep this music alive.    We are Andy and Vicki that raise the funds and produce the videos.     If you like  what you hear and see please visit us and support us.   We are here to help.  But we need help.   And if you looked carefully in the videos, you’ll see the Nyatiti and you’ll hear Ayub Ogado who supports us and inspires us.   We will leave you with his Kothbiro to remind us why this all so important and the rewards so ridiculously wonderful.

Jimmy

(Now you understand why the waiter called home!)