Welcome to Singing Wells' Top 20 Moments
It’s been nearly 10 years of travel, discovery and music. We’ve travelled across East Africa with the aim of bringing traditional music to a wider audience. With our Youtube channel now surpassing 5 million views, we wanted to celebrate the last 10 years of sharing the beautiful music of East Africa with you. Each week, we will post a new video counting down our Top 20 Singing Wells moments and memories. We hope you enjoy reliving them as much as us!
#11 -When Lightning Strikes: Discovering Tiny Moses
Some of our greatest memories of the field trips we have embarked on is the moment when the unexpected presents itself; when lightning strikes and we meet people that could surely have only been put in our path for a purpose. That is the joy of what we get to do on these field trips. Though we plan our itinerary and have a set schedule of the musicians we will meet, there will always be an opportunity every now and then that presents itself in a way that cannot be ignored. In this video, we follow the story of Tiny Moses; a man with a handmade guitar who became one of our most iconic Singing Wells discoveries.
Update: We have learned since this was published that sadly Tiny Moses has now passed away. He will always remain a highlight in the memory of this entire project and we hope that in sharing his music that his legacy can continue on.
We had been travelling to Kisoro Hill to record the Batwa on our trip to Uganda in 2011. The Batwa, historically a nomadic, forest dwelling community of hunter-gatherers, are widely acknowledged to have been the first human residents of the forest areas which stretch across much of what is now Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and DRC. However, it was in 1991, with the creation of formal conservation areas outlawing all human activity in the forests surrounding the Virunga mountains, when everything changed for the Ugandan Bawta. Unable to live and hunt in the forest, the Batwa were forced to live in areas not suited to their traditional way of life. They became largely excluded from Ugandan society. Batwa communities suffered from poverty and exclusion and were offered little stake in the tourist industry, which has developed in forests where they once lived.
On our recce to Kisoro Hill to meet the Micyingo Group, we saw a small man clutching a handmade guitar in the crowd. His name was Kamuntu “Tiny” Moses. He didn’t play on the first day that we visited. When we returned, we saw him again and upon hearing him, we knew we had found something special. When we brought the Micyingo to record with us at our “hotel studio” we got to share this find with the entire team. It was magical to watch Tiny Moses play so skilfully with an instrument that had been crafted by his own hands. We later invited him to record a session with our Influence artist Winyo. Bringing these two very different artists together to create their own beautiful and unique music was a memory we won’t forget!
#12 -The Spectacle of East African Music and Dance
It would be foolish of us not to mention the incredible physical performances that go alongside the music we seek out on our field trips. As we have already mentioned in this Top 20, we realised very early on that we needed cameras and videographers to truly capture the music in all it’s glory. This doesn’t just come down to seeing the instruments being played, or watching the vocalist’s emotion as they sing; so many of these performances are about the physical movement and the storytelling created through the way the musicians move with the music. Whether this be through dance, costume or working with animals; getting to see how each group performs their music physically has been a unique experience with every group we meet. It’s also beautiful to watch traditional dance being taught to younger generations so that their heritage is being preserved for even further generations to come.
Kochia Traditional Dancers
The Kagan Kochia dancers are a group of traditional dancers from the Rangwe Sub-County in Homa Bay, Kenya. The group has a strong history, founded in 1965, and since then its members have dedicated themselves to entertaining guests at countless national celebrations and holidays, private events, as well as internationally as part of the Folklife Festival in the UK and in the USA at the Smithsonian Folk Festival.
As well as this they are determined with their performance to preserve the incredible Ramogi dancing, a mainstay of traditional Luo culture. Ramogi was the patriarch of the Luo people, and this centuries-old dance is performed by mature men to beseech his spirit to possess them. Some moves of the dance represent the movements of birds, reflecting the ostrich feathers that the dancers wear.
Led by Alfred Migure, they have built a reputation for themselves as one of the most exciting groups to perform traditional Luo music, with their vibrant regalia and dance moves to match. Their brightly coloured outfits (replacing the more traditional clay colours that dancers would adorn themselves with) are augmented by attention-grabbing ostrich feather headdresses (the ostrich, a symbol of beauty and courage, represents the courage they will need to entertain) and monkey fur. They are accompanied by drumming, and the Tung’, the Luo horn.
Urithi are a Suki group which originally came from Yemen. However, these 10 men, dressed in white robes, blue vests and red Fez hats, were born and raised in Zanzibar. They created this group in April 2019 to sing and perform movements to celebrate the Prophet Mohammed.
Their songs consist of chanting, praising Mohammed, along with rhythmic movements of their arms, bodies and heads. They created a wave pattern with their bodies that was amazing to watch. They sing for weddings, celebrations and festivals. They sing in a mix or Arabic and Swahili. This group had a very unique sound with beautifully choreographed movements.
We met their patron Farouque Abdela (“Designer for Diana”) who had helped them develop their look and movements. They had one lead singer and two men on drums; one playing a small drum and the other playing three large drums on the floor while he stood and leaned over. They were truly beautiful and unique.
Nyunyusa Dance Troupe and The Snake Dance
We met the Nyunyusa Dance Troupe on a trip retracing the family of famous Tanzanian drummer, Mzee Morris. It led us to his grandsons, a singer and a drummer for the Nyunyusa Dance Troupe. What was amazing about this performance though was their unique and breathtaking Snake Dance.
The Snake Dance originates from the Sukuma People in the Lake Victoria zone, where there are, you guessed it, lots of snakes. The tribes learn early which are the poisonous snakes and which are safe and dancers grow up learning to handle the non-poisonous snakes. The medicine doctors learn cures for snake bites. Snakes are kept as pets and feature heavily in their dances, which involve acrobatics, ‘clown acts’ and yes – snakes.
Our snake was an 8-10 foot python, fat and seemingly healthy, feeding on 4-5 live chickens or rabbits a week. The Snake Dancers came out masked in Unga (flour), with a big box (spoiler alert: contains a snake). The first part of their act is pure comedy and acrobatics. One dancer knows what is in the box and is teasing the other to open it. There are mock fights, gymnastics, clown faces and general mayhem, until eventually the snake emerges. From then on, the dance is about how close the pair can get to being bitten or strangled by the snake without getting hurt. Occasionally the snake is set upon the audience but one of the dancers pulls it back by the tail just before it strikes. Breath-taking.
This form of performance is new to us (but, of course not to Tanzanians) and we’ve not seen it in Kenya or Uganda. In fact, ‘clown’ acts are quite central to Tanzanian dance as are acrobatic acts. We spoke to Leo Mkanyia, our 2017 Influences Artist, about this: “Yes, we love to bring comedy to our music. If you look at most circus troupes that are touring in the world today, a huge number of the acrobats and clowns are Tanzanian.”
One of our recent Singing Wells Influences was dancer and researcher, Kahithe. She has extensive experience in ethnographic research and fieldwork management, as well as 8 years of experience in ethnomusicological research in East Africa, with a special focus on dance traditions of Kenya. Kahithe has a master’s degree (MPhil) in Ethnomusicology and Dance Anthropology from the University of Paris X Nanterre and is currently finalising her PhD in Anthropology (ABD) at the same university.
She was recently appointed Head Choreographer for Bomas of Kenya, a national dance troupe tasked with the mission to preserve, promote and showcase Kenyan traditional music and dance worldwide. She has been a scientific advisor with Ketebul Music since 2015 and worked on Ngoma Zetu (2016) and Singing Wells Masters of the Nyatiti(2017) and Signing Wells Western Kenya (2018) projects.
We loved having Kahithe on board with us for several of our projects, as her expertise gave a different level of understanding to the physical performances of the groups we encountered. She said to Sunday Magazine (link to https://nairobiwire.com/2020/02/meet-kahithe-kiiru-head-of-choreography-at-bomas-of-kenya.html):
“In the Kenyan context, little has been done to document and promote our dance heritage. And even less to develop and market it to the extent that other countries in this world have done. So, this is about way more than just a paper and a title. I take it as my duty to use the power of academia to preserve and restore our traditional dances and give them the visibility they deserve.”
#13 - Witnessing Incredible Rites of Passage
Some of the most memorable encounters on our field trips have been witnessing incredible rites of passage – it is an honour that so many of the groups we met have shared these experiences with us. From songs about circumcision, to haunting funeral music, and the amazing “coming out” celebration that we got to be a part of in Bagamoyo, Tanzania in 2017, the variety and spectacle of these events has allowed us to see the amazing traditions of many different groups in East Africa.
We were fascinated by Mama Ni Mama, a rite of passage song celebrating that a young girl is ready to be married. The basic song starts with an old woman sitting down against a tree. Between her legs is the young girl covered by a blanket. The song first talks about the girl reaching the age where she needs to be hidden from men (roughly 15-17), protected in a hut, where she is instructed on how to be a wife, a mother and member of the village. She is kept in the dark in a village hut from 6 months to 3-4 years depending on marriage prospects and her family’s ability to raise funds for the ‘coming out’ celebration. To symbolize her ‘emergence’, in the dance, the bundle is lifted onto a dancer’s back and carried into one of the huts in the village. At one point in the dance, she emerges from the hut without the blanket and she is lifted onto the shoulders of a male dancer and paraded through the village in celebration.
Most of the lyrics in the song are about warnings, making sure the girl is wary of ‘the ways of men’ and also to prepare her to take on the new responsibilities of being an adult in the village, a wife, and a mother. The older woman, Ban Dami, has a specific role in this. She is there to comfort the girl throughout the ordeal and to give her lessons about how to live her life in the world of men.
We talked to one of the female dancers, Zaituni Salum, about the reality behind the dance. She was kept in her hut for about 3 years, as were most of the women dancers in her band. Essentially, from the moment she goes into the hut, the family is working to arrange a marriage and raise money for her coming out. We asked her about her experience: “You gradually get used to confinement and just accept it. There are lots of ladies around you, training you and preparing you for adulthood. They have all gone through it to, so it feels very normal, something you always knew would happen. But it is also very disorienting when you come out. First, there is the sun – you can barely open your eyes. [Note: In the dance, the young girl is given banana leaves to shield her eyes]. But also, the trees have grown since you’ve been outside and all seem different. Some neighbours have left the village, others have arrived. Children are bigger, parents are older. It is very confusing. But I am very glad I did it and I’m so sad these traditions are dying away. These rites really help keep the village together and is part of our civilization.”
One of the most common Rituals in east african culture is that of Male Circumcision. Below we talk through a ‘typical’ circumcision ritual. This is based on interviews with the extended Singing Wells team, most of whom have gone through the ritual in their local villages, and so below is just one experience of how it works.
At about 14, the boys are selected to go through the rite of passage – the full ritual is a major milestone for a boy on his journey to manhood. He enters the ritual a boy, and exits a young man. Typically the boys are all from a single village. They are then taken to another location in a hut built specifically for the ritual. They are isolated for seven days before the circumcision itself. The boys are then led by 3-4 men, their ‘God Fathers’ who are assigned to look after them through the ritual.
Throughout their time in the hut, they are isolated from their families. Very young girls from the local village will feed them, but otherwise there is no other contact. During their time, they are taught songs and told stories about the ritual itself, preparing them for manhood. In some cases they are taught that they can no longer live with their mother and must never enter the kitchen again, as this was the place for women and children. They are also taught what will be expected of them on the day of the ritual and after as they start their lives as men.
On the day of the circumcision, they are woken very early and taken as a group down to the local river and they are covered in mud. This is meant to be an anesthetic and the boys are told it will help them with the circumcision. They are then told to march to the site of the circumcision itself. Along the way, the boys are shouted at and pushed around by other men. Women and boys are meant to stay back, and if they do get close to the young boys under-going the ritual, the boys are meant to try to beat them up.
The boys are naked but have a Chinyimba on their wrist, which is a bell that they play with a stick in their hand – they flick their wrist for the beat. The boys are marched to the location for the cutting itself. They are told to stand in a row with their whole village watching. The circumciser then walks down the line cutting each boy, trying to do so in a single cut. In olden times, they talked about fast cutters that could do a line of boys in a minute – but, with a single knife, you can imagine the risk of damage and infection. Everyone is shouting at the boys as they go through this and they are almost in trance – the boys are meant to perform well, which means they must stare straight ahead looking slightly up toward the sky and not flinch or acknowledge the pain. Those boys that don’t do well lose significant prestige in the village, which lasts a lifetime.
Below is a performance of Ukaugiria Irugu, performed by the Irimbene Cultural Dancers. It translates to ‘do not tell anyone what you will meet or feel.’ And is sung before the circumcision. He is to keep the experiences to himself. “Whatever you encounter, only you and you alone have the right to experience and own the experience.” This is a fascinating part of the ritual – while the boys each follow the same steps, they are encouraged to think about this as a personal journey that they own, that they can reflect on their entire lives.
#14 - Rediscovering the Lost Royal Instruments of Uganda
Since 2013, Singing Wells has proudly supported the work of Professor James Isabirye. He has dedicated his time and efforts to multiple projects, across the world, in order to support traditional Ugandan music; he is a lecturer and music researcher for the Department of Performing Arts at the Kyambogo University, Uganda, he founded the Nile Beat Artists, whose members are not only musicians but passionate about tribal music, works as part of Selam, a non-Governmental organisation based in Stockholm that promotes world music, and NACOFU (National Council of Folklorists of Uganda).
Working alongside him, we have charted his journey to restoring several musical instruments that have been considered lost, the Royal Drums of the Buganda Kingdom, the Naizungwe Drums and the Bigwala.
A word from Jimmy
“As we tell the story of the Royal Drums, we should be honest about what we expected and what surprised us.
First, we always knew that the success of Singing Wells would depend on strong local partners and there is no more important partner to us than James Isabirye. He is a great hero of East African music and the world should know about him. He devotes his life to teaching traditional music in Universities, writing and researching traditional music as a leading ethnomusicologists AND, and this is why we love him so, he works in the field to bring this music back to life, supporting the revival of instruments and styles AND supporting the groups on an on-going basis. Did we mention he’s our hero?
Second, what surprised us? We never considered ‘royal instruments’ in the initial formation of Singing Wells, and frankly it is a strange and wonderful category of our mission. On one hand, the history is amazing: the role these instruments played in royal society, the stories of the villages that produced the instruments and created the musicians all emerge as some of our favourite. On the other hand, royal instruments often play odd roles in the history of music itself. The performances are often hard to understand without the resulting ceremony – is a performance of horns to announce the king actually complete without the king? Is an instrument or performance played behind walls for the royal few as important to society as the hundreds and thousands of songs played in villages to act as a sound track to village life, to rites of passage? We asked and debated these questions, and we answered, YES. The stories of these instruments are woven into the fabric of the villages, of the musicians, of the instrument makers.
The act of revival of these instruments brings new opportunities for artists. And with this introduction to the Royal instruments, we are also beginning to tell the story of Uganda’s ‘instrument bands’ – from the hand held Lekembe to the massive village xylophones, that are the heart of a village, we will soon be telling the stories of these instruments and the role they played in village life. We assume that Royal Life was shaped and inspired by these village instruments, and that village life was shaped and influenced by royal musicians coming home to share their songs. As mentioned in Video X, we don’t search for ‘roots’, we observe how the winds blow, and these royal instruments are critical to the big instrument stories of many Ugandan villages and thus important to everything we do at Singing Wells”
Along with flutes, trumpets, strings and xylophones, the Entenga were part of a set of ‘royal instruments’ and much of the music was lost in 1966 when the palace of the Buganda Kingdom was attacked by government troops. The palace and instruments were destroyed, the King exiled, the royal musicians disbanded and much of the music forgotten.
In 2013, we considered any idea of reviving the Entenga to be very unlikely, because we thought all the drummers who had played in the palace before 1966 had died. But in 2015 James discovered the sixty-something Musisi, possibly the last surviving drummer. James met him and realised that together they could begin to build the drums. Working closely with Albert and Shaban, a professional drummer who now leads the new band, they built a new set of Royal Drums, recruited a team of passionate drummers to learn how to play the drums, learned to tune the drums and ultimately learned to play new music.
We were witnessing something that no one thought was possible. We were listening to music that had been lost. These drums were being played together for the first time in 50 years, and were a truly momentous moment in our Singing Wells Journey.
James gives some background about his inspiration for starting this next project:
“I led the revival of entenga royal drum music of Buganda kingdom. At the time of doing this, I received an audio recording from Peter Cooke, telling me of his recording on his first field trip in Uganda in 1967. The multi-rhythmic texture of the drumming, Basoga traditional yodeling and humming plus the poetic recitations can no longer be heard anywhere. As a child I heard the likes of Kamu Kasata and Ndhote singing like that and that is no more. Although I had never seen these drums, the recording spoke to me profoundly. I listened to the recording very many times and every time I listened it sounded ‘sweeter’ and attractive. I kept on asking myself what would happen if there is a function in Busoga and these drums emerge. I have seen how people are excited about Bigwala. We need to create opportunities for our people to believe in themselves and their values. Our history has weakened our minds and what is left is for man to eat man. No values! No identity! No humans! Just creatures moving the path of God’s gift called life and breathing the air meant for humans.”
What was remarkable about this endeavour is that no surviving players were left to teach how to construct and play these drums, unlike Musisi with the Entenga.
The story of Bigwala is a fascinating one, and quite unique in its association with the political history of the country. The gourd and musical style were for hundreds of years an integral part of the kingdom of Busoga, and would be played at coronations and other royal ceremonies. When Prime Minister Milton Obote sought to unify the nation in 1966, and in doing so abolished the kingdoms and made illegal the performance of Bigwala, the instrument had to be played in secret, and gradually died out.
When the Kingdoms were restored in 1990, very few players with knowledge of constructing and playing the bigwala remained alive. James made it his mission to continue to educate and promote the Bigwala in traditional music.
Later, Atlas Obscura discovered that this support has allowed the seeds of this unique gourd, which were thought to have been lost, to be rediscovered and grown. Now over 100 students have been trained in building the instruments, and have played at two royal celebrations. There seems to be a promising future for this important thread in the tapestry of Uganda’s cultural history.
We were lucky to sit down with Musisi and hear his own personal recollection of his career with the Royal Entenga drums. Below is a short extract from this interview, but the full article can be found in Further Reading:
“And when the King was in town, we played every morning at 3AM, followed by the trumpets and each of the groups throughout the day. Why 3AM? Because the King loved our drums and chose the quietest moment in the day to have us play, so he could enjoy the beauty of our sound. I loved my life and felt so proud being a drummer.
[…] And this beautiful life all ended in a single night. I was sleeping on May 24th and sometime in the middle of the night [the morning of May 25th), I woke up to the sound of gun fire. At first, I wasn’t too scared and rose to brush my teeth as I always do. But the guns got louder – the Central Government was attacking the Buganda Kingdom and had attacked the Parliament first, which was about a kilometer away from the palace. I realized it was very real when bullets started hitting the palace and the hut where we kept our drums caught fire.
People started running around all over and I was getting scared, but I still carried my toothbrush. I was only 15 or 16 at the time and alone. In all the chaos the King arrived in my room and was carrying what I can only say was a magic electric gun. He told me to stop brushing my teeth and lie down and he began to shoot the government soldiers around us.
[…] I’m telling you all this to tell you that this was the last day I played drums in the palace. I was arrested and I stayed in jail for a couple of weeks. Then, in 1966, I got employment at the Kyambogo music department for Peter Cooke (who was head of the music department at the time). It was then called the National Teachers’ College. I taught Entenga for many years there, and although Entenga playing had ceased at the palace after the coup, the tradition was kept alive at Kyambogo.
I haven’t been with my drums since the sixties. And then I got a call to revive the drums and I thank God for that. I am now so happy and they call me The Professor because I’m teaching these drummers how to play the Royal Drums and I want to do nothing more with my life than to help this music be heard.”
#15 - When African Rhythms met Taarab and Jazz
Part of our mission has been to preserve and encourage the performance of the rich musical heritage of East Africa. But we also know the magic that can be created in bringing musicians together to create something new. We witnessed this first hand when we brought together Kirundo, a group of student musicians mixing traditional rhythms with contemporary African sounds, and Tarajazz, who create an African fusion of Taarab and Jazz. Taking inspiration from elders and pioneers of music, such as Siti Bindi Saad, these young musicians are bringing traditional sounds into a current contemporary style using a combination of traditional instruments such as the Tanzanian drums, Kaliba, shakers and sticks alongside more Western instruments such as the piano, saxophone, cajon and high hat. When we brought these two groups together, they created magic all of their own. It’s moments like this that proved to us that music is always changing, always growing and is something that must always be protected, nurtured and shared.
Here’s what Jimmy had to say about our Influences sessions that are part of our work at Singing Wells…
“From our first trips with Singing Wells, our Influences program has been critical. We love to bring young musical artists with us on our trips to be inspired by our field visits, by the music we discover.
These artists bring their own styles and influences and met local musicians in the villages and often we get magic. We also love to bring musicians we discover the field together and see if magic happens. It did in Zanzibar, at the Dhow Countries Musical Academy when we brought together Kirundo and Tarajazz to record together.
It happened in Entebbe, when we brought together James, Jovah, Matia, Passy and Jacinta to record childhood lullabies;
It happened in Kisoro when Jesse and Frances worked together:
It happened when one of our partners, Abubilla Music brought one of their songs from London to Nairobi to be ‘covered’ by Winyo and Olith (with a music videos created by visual artists from across the globe – see one of them below!)
On the subject of influences, we are often asked, “Is a goal of Singing Wells to find the ‘roots of music’?” Our answer is no. We are not searching for roots, because that implies that music is like an archaeological site, where the more you dig, the closer you get to ‘source’. It implies that has we travel to remote villages, we are somehow going back in time, to how music was. This simply isn’t true. Everywhere we go on our travels, we are seeing music today, influenced by thousands of sounds and artists. For us, the image we prefer is that music is the wind, blowing here and there, hot and dusty when it comes from one direction, cold and wet when it comes from another direction. But you don’t bottle wind and explain it in one way, nor do you try to find the source of wind and have a discussion of linear origins.
In Zanzibar, we loved the name of the Dhow Countries Musical Academy precisely because they used the wind to describe Zanzibar music. The Dhow is a sailing vessel. The Dhow countries are all the countries that sailed to Zanzibar over centuries. The music academy is the result of all the Dhow Countries blowing onto the island, leaving their instruments, their styles and blending them with what was already on the island. When we record fusions, we are simply recording two styles mixing into each other and turning into a new wonderful breeze. This is why we love the video of Kirundo and Tarajazz, playing in the breezes of Zanzibar, on the top floor of the Dhow Countries Musical Academy.
#16 - Returning the Lost Tapes
When we started Singing Wells, we took great inspiration from the work of Hugh Tracy. From 1930-1960 he travelled across East Africa recording music as he went, to document and preserve what he found. In 2012, we worked alongside the International Library of African Music to repatriate and reunite some of these recordings with the artists and musicians that had originally recorded them. You can watch part one of this series below.
There is no joy in saying that on our mission to capture music across East Africa, we have also captured and recorded a lot of final performances of the artists we have met. However, we know it is integral to our mission that we have shared these performances and feel honoured to have been a part in documenting and recording these traditions, as Hugh Tracy did almost 100 years ago.
A word from Jimmy:
In part, Singing Wells was inspired by Hugh Tracy and his early work defining the field of ethnomusicology. We wanted to honour him in two ways – a) work with the International Library of African Music (ILAM) to help repatriate Tracy’s early recordings to the villages where he first studied and b) by telling the fuller story of Chemirocha, one of the most amazing stories of ethnomusicology ever told… This inspired our ‘Lost Songbooks’ series, which also included our story of the Royal Drums of Uganda. While singing wells has brought many influences artists with us to villages (see for example Winyo and Fadhilee), we also had a fantastic time bringing Kahithe with us; she has 8 years of experience in ethnomusicological research in East Africa, with a special focus on dance traditions of Kenya. This led to one of our favourite moments when she rejoined her village in dance…
The story of Chemirocha is one of our favourite moments of Singing Wells history. It’s been said that in the years previous to Hugh Tracy’s travels where he recorded different village musicians, British missionaries had travelled with a wind up gramophone playing country music, and that of Jimmie Rogers especially. Here’s Tabu’s telling of the rest of the story in Muzik:
“And then the big bomber: the song I consider Tracey’s single most outstanding recording, “Chemirocha,” a paean to Jimmy Rogers (yes, the country singer) by some Kenyan girls. The song is haunting but made more so by Tracey’s introduction on the LP record (not included on the CD): “The mysterious singer and dancer Chemirocha has been turned into a local god Pan — a faun — half man, half antelope. He is urged by the girls to do the leaping dance, familiar to all Kipsigis, so energetically that he will jump clear out of his clothes… Who could resist such an offer?” Tracey concludes. The charm of the spoken introductions is they make each record like a radio show with real educational value.“
Take a listen to the recording below:
In 2012, ILAM, Ketebul Music and Singing wells decided that these recordings were probably never even heard by the musicians that were part of them. They set about to return these recordings to the musicians, their families and the villages who became such a huge part of musical history.
#17 - Johnstone Mukabi & The Great Songwriters of East Africa
The Mukabi name is something that strikes a chord with many music lovers in East Africa. George Mukabi is one of the most prominent figures in Luhya musical history, and is known as the founder of the Omutibo genre of music. He had a unique finger picking style of playing guitar that struck a chord with many musicians that succeeded him. One of those musicians was his son Johnstone Mukabi. After his father passed, he went to the studio to re-record his father’s music and has continued the Mukabi musical legacy for generations to come.
We saw this for ourselves on our trip to Kenya, when we brought our influences artist Fadhilee to the field. Fadhilee’s reaction to this last session of our trip was worth the wait, as he discovered the author of “Kweli Ndugu”, a song he had done a cover of years ago. We brought them together to play this song together and you can watch the video below.
Muturi wa Wandindi
Muturi wa Wandindi’s actual name is Geoffrey Mutwiri, Mbaraka. He is originally from Kigane Village, Nkevene Sub-location, Nicwene Division. He started performing in 1964 and is from the Meru Ethnic Community. He plays the Wandindi (thus his performance name), which is a ‘tube fiddle’, or what the Luo call the Orutu.
Matia is 70 years old, plays the guitar he bought in 1972 and knew Dr. Albert Senior in late 70’s. Matia was taught to play guitar by a priest called Father Mugambe from Mulajje Parish in 1966. He is living in Kampala and sings in Luganda and Kirwahdi, C&C Busega, C&C Kibuye. He has recorded in 1971 in Polygram studios in Nairobi. His peers include Dan Mugula, Christopher Ssebaduko, Vincent Muwunge, Sulayiman Mayanja.
Born in 1947, this elderly man hails from Shianda location of Butere sub-county (Kakamega County). With age he unfortunately lost his sight, but he still continues to play omutibo. Raised in a family of musicians, Amimo started playing in early childhood. He recorded his first single in 1964 with David Amunga as producer, in a studio owned by Andre Crawford and Betty Tete. His second record was produced by Sammy Osere for Lamore record label, while his third song led to his fall out with Polygram records in 1974. After that, he started producing himself and established his own label entitled African Beat.
#18 - The Youth of East African Music
We continue our countdown with a celebration of the energetic and talented Youth that we have encountered over the last 10 years. In video 18, we introduce you to two amazing groups comprised of children only, Ker Kal Kwaro in Northern Uganda and Ndagwa Msanga in Tanzania. Most of the groups we meet are adults or elders, preserving the traditions of their ancestors. It’s so refreshing to see the youth get involved in this in such a proactive way. One of our missions at Singing Wells is to help develop music groups, especially within the younger generations, so that they can use it to sustain and build their communities through music. It’s so heartwarming to see how these children have taken that baton and run so far with it.
A word from Jimmy:
“Video 18 celebrates the youth in performances, while also warning us of how vulnerable this music is. From the early days of Singing Wells we took so much energy from the incredible performances of youth groups, including the Ker Kal Kwaro of Northern Uganda. We know these performers are the result of generations of musicians before them that inspired them and passed on their songs. But we also know that there are fewer and fewer youth groups, and there’s daily risk that when an older musician dies, the music forever dies with them..”
Ker Kal Kwaro
Ker Kal Kwaro is a full dance band with amazing percussion. The great thing about this band is its youth, with most of the dancers and percussionists under the age of 15. This was such an energetic and wild group, especially as most of the groups we had recorded before then were older people. Only when we got to Northern Uganda did with see the power of the youth groups and gained some confidence that, in some areas, the music was still owned by the young. Seeing the music being performed with such a youthful energy brings a real relevancy to the music, and vibrancy to traditions which are decades old.
Watmon Cultural Group
The Watmon Cultural Group is a collective of musicians led by Amone Watmon Matthew, which promotes the preservation of Ugandan cultural heritage through dance. The group is made up of up to 50 members, the youngest members being only seven years old.
Matthew lived in Awedi until 1991, when he moved to Kampala, due to the rebel fighting. He started a small group of dancers, performing Acholi traditional dance which he had learnt when he was young, both from grandfather in his village and from watching dancers at village events. He went around his district in Kampala, telling people he would like to start a dance troupe, and was met with a positive reaction. Eventually he had people coming to him asking to be a part of it, and from that point the group became an institution. In the fallout of the war against Idi Amin’s regime, many people were looking for an escape, and the troupe presented just such an opportunity. His aim is to teach his children (even those that are not his own) the music of his heritage.
Nowhere does music come alive better than with Serengeti group, which we filmed in Tanzania. They play in the Ritungu style – this style refers to the form of dancing where the two lead dancers ‘nodded’ their head in almost a trance like way to the music and to their large eight-stringed instrument. We were mesmerized. Their instruments included the: Zeze, Virandi (shakers), and Ritungu (eight stringed instrument, huge Nyatiti). The group had three musicians in ‘red’ and two dancers in ‘white.’ The athleticism of these dances were very similar to what we’ve seen in Uganda and very special.The coolest cats on the planet who simply make you want to dance.
Ndagwa Msanga are a group of young girls from Msanga and the Wagogo community. The group was formed in 1994 to encourage the young of the Wagogo tribe to embrace and appreciate their culture. Their style of music makes up all the musical styles of the Wagogo community. Their instruments are all about percussion: Ngoma (Drums) and Kayamba (Shakers). These young performers are amazing and if they are a sign of what’s to come, then the future of Tanzanian music is alive and well!
#19 - Makunga & The Visuals of Singing Wells
The Makunga are from Dodoma and the Wagogo Community, which they argued is the main indigenous community of Tanzania (always from the land, never migrated into Tanzania.) The group was formed in 2018, but was built on a much older group.
They perform in the Wuyina style. Their instruments/costumes include the: Ndulele (Horn), the Nindo (Shakers), the Mbega (Animal Skins), the Muheme (Drums), the Kabati (Shakers), the Kalimba (Thumb Piano), the Zeze (Orutu), the Izeze (5 string large instrument), and the Muhongwa (Wooden water troughs, played on ground like calabash, which was used in last song).
The group started their performance with the most extraordinary set of customs – human shakers!
Our original intent at Singing Wells was to continue the incredible work of Hugh Tracy, a man who travelled East Africa creating audio recordings of different groups between 1930-1960. An initial idea of travelling with a mobile recording studio was quashed when we realised that a van full of equipment and the soaring heat was not an ideal match. However, once we started recording visually the unique and captivating performances we found, we realised that we couldn’t continue Tracy’s legacy unless we developed it. To separate the visuals from the music was a disservice to capturing the real performances.
Not only do we see the importance of visuals in the performance of Makunga, but we’ve seen this proved multiple times on our travels.
A word from Jimmy:
“Video 19 celebrates the importance of…well…. Video. Influenced by the great ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracy (who inspired Alan Lomas), we first thought of Singing Wells as an audio project. We even spent time designing a mobile recording studio in a truck! We quickly learned, however, that to capture these performances accurately we needed multiple cameras and videographers. We discovered the language of the dances, starting in Kisoro Uganda, and the power of firelight in story telling in Fort Murchison, Uganda. And in Zanzibar, we were blown away by a young band, brought together by a fashion designer, to turn song into a beautiful visual dance of arms and hats…”
Scheduling on our trip to Northern Uganda in 2012 meant that we didn’t get to record the Cieng Dwong until late in the evening. However, this moment was a revelation. Not just because we were inundated with large insects, but also because we realise a lot of these performances were meant for villages in the evening. The dancers and singers would use fire light as part of their performance. Our recording doesn’t do the experience justice.
Another completely different performance, which was also visually so beautiful that it almost needs no introduction. The synchonicity of the movements of the Urithi adds so much to the performance, that without the visuals we would be taking away so much of the magic. You can watch their enchanting performance below.
#20 - Okumu K'orengo and the Nyatiti
We start this countdown with this incredible performance by the legendary Okumu K’Orengo.
Okumu’s talent is renowned across East Africa, and in 2011 we had the immense pleasure to bear witness to this talent personally, and record one of his final performances – within weeks of this video being filmed, he passed away.
This tragic story reminded us of exactly one of the reasons why we started Singing Wells – to archive and remember the incredible musicians and musical traditions across East Africa.
However, this story does have an uplifting ending. Okumu K’orengo’s legacy lives on, not only through these recordings, but in the form of his son who plays the Nyatiti with the same passion and expertise as his father.
What is the Nyatiti?
The Nyatiti is an 8 stringed lyre from East Africa, played by Luo musicians. As well as playing the nyatiti – the musician also wears ‘gara’ or bells on the foot and an ‘oduongo’ metal ring on the toe, which is tapped against the edge of the nyatiti to form a beat. Nyatiti players will also typically sing during their performance. There is symbolism in the 8 strings of the Nyatiti in that the lower 4 string represent the first 4 days after a male’s birth and the upper 4 strings represent the first 4 days after a male’s death.
For us at Singing Wells, it is the instrument that became the foundation to our mission. It brought us together with our partner organisation, Ketebul Music, and led us to one of their most prominent Influence artists, Makadem. The Nyatiti created a ripple through commercial music, when Benga was born. It is the soul of what Singing Wells is about: keeping traditions alive, but also relevant for today’s musical styles.
A word from Jimmy:
“Video 20 starts our celebrations with the Nyatiti, a legendary East African instrument. It gave birth to Benga, which inspired the soundtrack for East African dancehalls and radio stations for decades. And it was the chosen instrument of Ayub Ogado and Makadem two of Kenya’s most critically acclaimed musicians.”
Other Notable players
Ayub Ogada, who played on our 71 Hours to Monday re-mix, spent time in the UK and provided music for the film The Constant Gardener.
Japanese artist Anyango became the first woman to play the Nyatiti – as traditionally it is only played by men.
Nyatiti – The Queen of the Clan
Our documentary below, filmed in 2017, delves into the history of the Nyatiti, as well as the players who are keeping it at the forefront of East African music.