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!
#1 - Discovering the Artistry of East African Music
As we have shown through the last 20 weeks of highlights and memories, East Africa is a treasure trove of musical talent, instruments and styles. The stories that we have heard, through song or interviews, have far exceeded our expectations for the project. What started as a tiny experiment into recording a few groups performing in their villages has grown into something far beyond what we imagined.
What we have captured in our videos and audio recordings is extraordinary artistry and musicianship, reflecting years of training and practice in the ‘village classroom.’. Each of these musicians has learnt from the traditions and stories that have gone before them., often starting their own training as toddlers dancing and singing along to the village music. Whether young or old, keeping to the rules or creating new fusions, what is a common thread tying all of these experiences together is the longing to remain true to their families, to their villages, to their ethnic communities. They are united in their desires to keep their music alive and relevant, echoing older generations, speaking to new generations. And, of course, they just loving making great music.
We are privileged to have helped share songs and stories with millions of people across the globe, and we hope to continue on for the next 10 years so that this music continues to inspire new artists and new audiences.
With this in mind, we come to our favourite Singing Wells moment: discovering the voice of Jovah. Jovah is a singer as part of the Mperwa Dancers, a group of Batwa people who were unfortunately forced to leave their forest home. We met Jovah on our field trip to Uganda in 2013 and were instantly blown away by her voice. Her voice was filled with such raw emotion and her talent was unpolished and beautiful. This was all echoed by her passion and enthusiasm for her people and the story they have to tell.
After our initial meeting, we invited her to Entebbe to record with our Influences Artists and other musicians from the Abubilla Music team. The experience was unforgettable for all of us. Jovah then told us what Singing Wells means to her and her community. She said, ‘When you came things changed for us. We received money which we used to buy household things, chickens and clothes. We now have a plan to buy goats, a male and female for every member of our community. You changed our lives and we invite you to come back and see us again so we can show you what has changed for us. You have invited me to Entebbe and I want to jump up so high! I feel so good from deep within me. I am no better than the other Batwa so I thank you for choosing me. I am happy 1000 times over. My message represents the rest of the Batwa people. I listened to the recording of my song – it was so nice, so sweet.’
The day ended with her joyfully dancing to her own record, with her newborn baby in her arms. It was a moment that made so much of the work put in by the entire team completely worth it. And it has inspired us to continue searching for more voices like Jovah’s that need to be heard.
We spent a day on our Uganda trip recording several groups, and in turn formed our own Supergroup featuring Jovah, Passy (from the Kika Boys), Jacinta, Matia Kakumirizi and James (our musical leader in Uganda and co-founder of Nile Beat Artists).
We knew that Jovah and Matia knew lullabies and James came up with the idea of doing a combined lullaby involving each of the singers, using a traditional song from their village. James directed the group through rehearsals and Matia played guitar to three separate lullabies: from Jovah, from Passy and from James. We did one with guitar and one version without.
It is unsurprising to say that the events of 2020 have changed the course of Singing Wells’ latest plans. We are so grateful to have been able to go on our trip to Zanzibar at the start of the year, but our plans for an anniversary celebration are currently going on hold until we can confirm a safe event for the celebrations. We hope to update you all with news of our plans as soon as possible, but until then we wish you all good health and hope that you all keep safe in these uncertain times.
#2 - Finding the Lost Voices of East Africa
Our mission at Singing Wells has always been to preserve the rich musical heritage of East Africa, whilst also promoting the importance of introducing this music to a wider audience so that this heritage doesn’t get lost. So many of our favourite moments, as you have read over this Top 20 series, have been when we stumbled upon something unexpected and managed to record, on film or in the studio, a performance so that it’s legacy may live on. It is truly not lost on us how lucky we are to be able to provide this opportunity to document and, most importantly, share the beautiful music of the many talented musicians we have met on our travels. We now have over 7 million views of the incredible music we have recorded on our YouTube channel, and we hope that over the next 10 years we can discover more of these “lost voices” and bring them to the global audience that they deserve.
One of the incredible voices and musical groups that we met was that of Anyim Lac. We were recording in Northern Uganda back in 2012. Sandwiched between two energetic and spectacular dance groups was the musical performance by Anyim Lac, a small group made up of 5 women and a male flutist. The lead was an aged and gorgeous lady who sang and played a single string adungu (shaped like a bow) in the ‘tik tik’ style which means ‘chin chin’ because she ‘frets’ the adungu with her chin to change the note. She would start each song singing and playing the adungu and gradually the four other women would and the flutist would join in.
During the first song we noticed an immediate problem – no one could hear her or the other women, they sang so softly and the single stringed adungu produced an eerily quiet sound. We didn’t want to interrupt their performance but we knew we had discovered something very special and we couldn’t miss the opportunity to capture the true sound. With a lapel microphone on our lead lady and another microphone directly on the adungu, we asked the group to continue.
At the end of the session we played the recording back and a magical voice and sound emerged – the old lady, sitting on the blanket in the middle of this village surrounded by her whole community, had a beautiful, strong, pitch perfect voice.
It is moments like this that make us so thankful for the work we are getting to do. To capture this pure and beautiful voice, using the technology that we have at our disposal, is something that may never have happened if it wasn’t for the teamwork and efforts of those searching for these musical groups, our teams of sound engineers and filmmakers and, of course, the stunning talents of the musical groups we have met on our travels.
As well as our video recordings, we have been very happy to bring many musical artists to our partners at Ketebul Studios to record their music alongside professional musicians, as well as creating albums from some of our Field trips. The profits made from these records are used to support the musicians we meet in the field, so that they can make a living from the incredible music they are creating.
If you are interested in supporting the work of these musicians, please head to our Bandcamp page to purchase the albums.
You can watch Tiny Moses’ journey, alongside some other Batwa musicians, from playing in Kisoro, Uganda, to being recorded in Ketebul Studios in Nairobi in our short film below.
#3 - Benga is Everywhere
In 2011, travelling across Kenya, we found ourselves retracing the traditions and instruments that inspired the creation of the Benga genre. Benga originates from the Luo tribes, as they gradually built on the percussive/bass sounds of the Nyatiti to form something more bluesy. Here’s a short extract from Ketebul Music about Benga:
“Benga’s most distinctive feature is its fast-paced rhythmic beat and bouncy finger-picking guitar technique. Indeed, the core of benga is the lead guitar, which essentially follows the track of the vocals. Without exception, the singing is at some point separated from the climax—the instrumental expanse that combines three or four guitars and percussions. Benga is loosely linked to Congolese rumba and West African highlife, but differs sharply from South African kwela, taarab, chakacha and kidumbaak; the most well-known Swahili music forms from the coastal strip of East Africa.
The peculiarity of the Benga beat comes from the combination of a sharp lead guitar overriding the rhythm and bass. The pace of the guitars, with a steady rise to a climax or crescendo and an equally quick refrain, together with the arrangement and sectioning mark benga apart from other music. Luo guitarists long cultivated a unique technique of playing the guitar. They commonly do not massage the strings as their Congolese counterparts do but rather they pluck and pick single notes rapidly in a fashion akin to playing a nyatiti—the traditional lyre of the Luo people.”
Our travels amongst the Luo tribes in 2011 meant we could see how Benga was taking influence from the traditional music that the Luo had created, but also how young people were using these traditional styles and instruments and merging them with the modern sounds of Benga music and rhythms.
Our friends at Ketebul Music have released a book and an accompanying web series, Shades of Benga The Story of Popular Music in Kenya: 1946 – 2016, following the formation of the Benga genre, which you can watch below.
The Otacho Young Stars are based in Rongo, Nyanza Province, Kenya. We recorded them on our field trip in late 2011, capturing the music of the Luo people. They performed for us in Dinky’s Resort Club, an old dance hall with a grass arena behind it that made the perfect stage for their upbeat and energetic performances.
They performed five songs with us at the resort, including ‘Charles Manager’, a sincere song showing gratitude to the manager of a factory who has been doing a good job, which we later recorded at Ketebul Studios. The percussion in this group is particularly impressive, with Ongeng’o rings used both by themselves, and also together with the Nyangile, a wooden box topped with two of the rings, one of which is held with the feet, and beaten with a stick.
Their musical style combines the modern sounds of Benga with more traditional rhythms and instruments, which shows how these young men are still continuing their Luo musical legacy whilst embracing the changing sounds of modern East African music.
Shiphton Onyango adopted his artistic name ‘Winyo’, which is a Luo word (a tribe from the Lake Victoria region of Western Kenya) for “a bird”. The reason for this becomes apparent once you hear him sing. His voice has been likened to that of a singing bird. He is a singer/songwriter of great sensitivity and an acoustic guitar player, backed by his 5-piece band of accomplished musicians.
Winyo derives his music and musical strength from his fore fathers whose African music was rich in melody and traditional harmonies. His musical style ranges from traditional Luo melodies infused with witty story lines, afro fusion and afro jazz, to a contemporary interpretation of Benga, transformed into an authentic acoustic sound. His powerful yet mellow vocals are the icing on the cake that makes listening to Winyo an almost heavenly experience.
Winyo’s debut CD as a solo artiste titled Benga Blues was first released as an EP while he was on a tour of Europe in 2011 that saw him perform in Germany, Italy, Romania, and France. Benga Blues was then officially released in Kenya and internationally in September 2012.
As one of our Influences artists, Winyo has travelled with us and played with different musical groups that we have recorded. Here he is bringing his own Benga influenced style to Nyerere Wa Konde Music Club’s performance.
#4 - Amone Watmon Matthew: A Leader for East African Music
We have been incredibly lucky to meet many people leading the way for the future of East African music; championing tradition but seeing it evolve and grow with the times. One such leader is Amone Watmon Matthew, founder and leader of the Watmon Cultural Group. We met Watmon in Northern Uganda in 2012: an initial recce, where the Ketebul team got to experience Watmon’s talent on his own, meant we had to secure a filming day on our field trip for his entire group.
The Watmon Cultural Group was created by Watmon to promote the preservation of Ugandan cultural heritage through music and dance. With almost 50 members, the youngest being only seven years old, they play an electric combination of rhythmic beats and intricate melodies, which are supported by energetic dancing.
The group performed for President George Bush during a state visit to Uganda and they were also recorded in 2012 for the BBC’s World Routes album, presented by ethnomusicologist Lucy Duran. Their performance was described by Sounds and Colours as an ‘instrumental extravaganza’.
The success of this group comes from Watmon’s love for his musical heritage and his desire to keep it alive. He started this group as a way to continue performing Acholi traditional dancing that he had learnt from his grandfather, and the popularity of this group continued to grow as the people of Kampala looked for an escape after the fallout of the war against Idi Amin’s regime. Watmon saw that his cultural heritage still brought joy, escape and peace to so many people and, under his leadership, he continues to provide that for people, young and old, today.
Amone Watmon Matthew is just one person who is leading the way for future generations to continue learning about their musical heritage. Here are some of the other pioneers we have had the pleasure to meet and work alongside:
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. You can read more about his work here.
You can watch our documentary film charting our rediscovery of the Lost Royal Drums of Buganda with James Isabirye below:
William Osusa, who is better known in the music circles as Tabu Osusa, is a key part of the East African music industry. A Kenyan native, he is the founding Executive Director of Ketebul Music and for the last 30 years has been involved in the music industry as a promoter, producer, composer and band manager. He has been actively involved in shaping the careers and running some of the top recording and performing bands and artists in the country.
Together with the director of Alliance Française in Nairobi, Tabu Osusa co-chairs the steering committee of the “Spotlight on Kenyan Music“ project which seeks to discover and promote young talent, performing a blend of African music. The Kenyan government through its Ministry of National Heritage and Culture also supports this project. Tabu is also the Project Coordinator of Ketebul Music’s Retracing Series. Supported by the Ford Foundation Office of Eastern Africa, the Retracing Series is a research based documentary project whose main objective is to research, archive and document the musical culture of Kenya.
Tabu is the East Africa Project Co-ordinator for Singing Wells. His extensive knowledge of the East African music industry is integral to the strategic planning of the field visits and identifying inspirational, cultural music groups throughout the region. His ability to connect Singing Wells with incredible musicians preserving their culture, as well his passion for nurturing new rising talent, makes him an incredible asset to the Singing Wells team, and a true leader for the music industry in East Africa.
Here is an excerpt from Ketebul Music’s new series, The Shades of Benga Online, exploring the history and foundations of modern Kenyan music, based on their book release of the same name:
Leo Mkanyia was our Influence’s artist for our field trip to Tanzania in 2017 and continues to work with us in sourcing talented and inspiring musicians to visit when we are in Tanzania. We recorded with Leo and his father, Henry, who is also a talented musician in his own right, having played as a professional musician in multiple bands in his lifetime. However, Henry did not want Leo to become a professional musician, and it took years of determination, self-study, practice with family members and ultimately his mother’s blessing to be able to pursue his musical ambitions.
So what makes him a musical leader? His roots in traditional Tanzanian music are clear; his band features the Marimba and a modified version of Mzee Morris’ drums (he modifies congas and bongos to replicate the sound as fire-tuning is not gig friendly!). But he creates a style all of his own which he calls “Swahili Blues”, inspired by his father’s music, the music of Salim Abdalah (a great Tanzanian guitarist) and Mzee Morris. He has taken his roots and musical heritage, but created something new and inspiring for his own generation and the ones to come.
Here’s a performance of ‘Afrika’ by Leo with our Abubilla discovery artists Elliot and Sophie:
#5 - Passing Down Traditions: Musical Families of East Africa
What we inherit from our families becomes part of our fabric as a person, and as a community. For many this might be via family recipes, aversions to a particular football team or a particular affinity for a certain skill. However, music may be the one thing that can be passed down from generation to generation, maintaining its original form and it’s clear, proud identity. Nowhere is this clearer than in the regions of East Africa that we have visited. Music is an identity in East Africa. By passing these traditions to each generation, a legacy is created.
Chibite are a family group but also an amazing group of multi-instrumentalists. All members are related to Msafiri Zawose, a very famous Tanzanian singer. He plays in the Gogo style of music which relies on the Zeze (stringed instruments made from gourds) and Ilimba (a lamellophone, or modified thumb piano). We spent a lot of time with Chibite on our field trip to Tanzania in 2017 and met many different family members: Ndahani Bwani, the older brother, his sisters, Tabu, Estelle and Ndekwa, and two daughters Grace and Leah.
We spent two days recording a full collection of songs with this group, as we loved the energy and musicianship that being a family brought to their performance. You can see the playlist below:
The Nyerere Wa Konde music club is located in Gede, Malindi District, Kenya. It is a family group led by legendary mwanzele singer Nyerere Wa Konde. He became a musician in 1981, and performs in the mwanzele style, originally performed during funerals by the Mijkenda tribe of the Coast Province of Kenya.
The group also includes Nyerere’s son, contemporary musician Mr Bado. We met Nyerere Wa Konde and his family group at our very first field recording day in Kenya 2011. It was a privilege to watch a family at work, and actually resulted in both father and son combining their contrasting musical styles to create their own performance. What resulted was the birth of our Singing Wells Influences sessions! You can hear this recording on the Music of the Mijikenda album.
Our 2017 trip to Tanzania was a quest for us to “retrace the footsteps” of legendary drummer Mzee Morris. Mzee Morris is Tanzania’s most famous drummer. The ‘Mzee’ in front of his name is a sign of respect – think, ‘Old Man Morris’. He was born in 1920. At two years old, he lost his sight as a result of a bout of small pox. He died in 1999. Throughout his long life he drummed. Our 2017 Influences Artist, Leo Mkanyia, described his experience listening to Mzee Morris’s music: “He wasn’t normal. He plays his drums like a guitar. You have to listen very carefully to realize not only is he keeping the beat, but he’s also carrying a melody. And he uses 10-12 drums, sometimes more. This is not normal. Every drum was a note for him. He picked the skins for the drums and made them himself, finding in each the perfect tone. I have studied his music over years and I still can’t believe what he could do.”
Mzee Morris became the sound of Tanzanian news. The TBC announced each hour with a drum riff of his drums. Every hour, for decades. He was honoured in his time, with the then Prime Minister creating a specific post for him, so he could continue drumming for all visitors to the government. Because he was blind, he was invited to perform with specific women groups, of songs for women by women, of songs that no males could see. His reputation and legacy is something that has been kept alive in the public eye but also through the work of his family.
Our first stop on our trip was to meet the son of Mzee Morris who lives in a small compound in the suburbs of Dar es Salaam. The sound of Nyunyusa Dance Troupe is what greeted our ears first, which included two of Mzee Morris’s grandsons, Abdala Nyunyusa Morris on vocals and Rajab Alli Nyunyusa Morris on drums. You can watch Rajab performing on the drums below. Surprisingly, he is one of Mzee Morris’s only family members making money from being a drummer.
#6 - Meeting the "Philosopher" of Basoga Music: Nathan Matta Nyende
When deciding with the team who needed to be in our top Singing Wells moments, the story of Bakuseka Majja Matta came up multiple times. A man who’s reputation preceded him, and then was blown out of the water by seeing him perform in the flesh. Nathan Matta Nyende is a legend of Ugandan music and a truly masterful songwriter.
We were first introduced by our long time collaborator, James Isabirye, who on an initial recce suggested the team go along to meet him. Matta was a “no one”, living in a humble homestead and blind. He lived alone and relied on his son to bring him food and look after him during the day. Life had not been kind to him at all. However, all of this changed when he began to perform his music. Every member of the team got goosebumps and knew they had stumbled upon something special. Our team even remembered a small boy stopping at the doorway to dance along to the free show he was getting to listen to! We made sure that we would record Matta’s group on our filming trip.
Fast forward to the filming project, and we gathered Nathan Matta Nyende and his group, Bakuseke Majja Matta Group in the hotel. He formed his group in 1952. They play in the Kisoga style and are from Kasokoso in Iganga District. Alongside Nathan who plays the Endongo, which is the local name for the small thumb piano, there were three other members: Kirunda Awali sings and plays the Endere, which is a flute; Fred Tavakumuwa is the main second vocalist and plays the Endingidi, which is a tube fiddle; and finally, Kisame Ndaba also plays the Endongo (the thumb piano) and sings. They played a number of songs and then we kept doing magic moments – but frankly, everything they did was a magic moment. Even at the end, when we played back their music over the speakers they all stood and danced and sang harmonies to themselves.
One of the most beautiful moments was when they put their instruments down and sang a capella, truly allowing you to hear the beautiful and laboured voice of Nathan Matta Nyende.
James Isabirye says, “He is THE philosopher of Basoga music. When I hear him, I get goose pimples. When we were young, we played these songs every evening in the village. My mother would clap to us as my brothers and sisters competed to please our mother, dancing and singing these songs. He is at the top and we need to translate their songs. If you give me a copy of the songs I will translate – I want them myself.”
Here are just a few short translations of what Majja Matta’s songs were about:
- Abalimperekera Baliba Muganda: “When I die, those that will escort me to be buried, will be many.”
- Enumba Y’eisubi Esana Buko: “If a woman refuses you, you go with a match and burn down her grass thatched house.”
– Atyamiisa Asekerera Adagha: “A person who is doing well will always laugh at one who is struggling.”
- Otabona Bukaire: “Even if I am old now, I’m still suitable for marriage.”
- Mbasaliza Ki?: “What do I do that you envy?”
- Katonda Kyakulaga Nekikwita: “God Shows You What Will Kill You”
#7 - The Mother of Taarab
Our 2020 field trip took us to Zanzibar, which led us to Siti Binti Saad, the mother of Taarab. On this trip we explored how this musical rebel was a pioneer for the taarab style, by striking out against the traditions that this music held. The first woman to sing in swahili, she practiced and learnt this style of music despite cultural reservations, and in turn paved the way for future female musicians.
This is what is said about her at the Dhow Countries Music Academy:
“Singer Siti Binti Saad is a trailblazer who revolutionized taarab music in a way the is still felt today…Whereas her predecessors were all male and sang predominately in Arabic, she was the first woman to perform in Swahili…She was born in 1880 in the Fumba village in Zanzibar…She left her home village and met Al Muhsin of Nadilkhwani Safa, a taarab group indebted to the Sultan at that time. Muhsin…decided to teach her…at the time it was considered immoral for women to join taarab groups and sing in public… She helped …transform taarab to the point where women are now usually the lead singers.…Between 1928 and 1950 she recorded over 150 recovers…It is through her recordings …that Taarab became widely accessible. Later, further Egyptian influence was incorporated into the genre by including full string sections as well as accordion and qanun, keyboard and flute.”
Throughout our journey, we heard artists talk about Siti Binti Saad, noting that she was a rebel, noting that her lyrics were part of the Unyago style about real life, about real women, about love and sex. She always sang about these things through metaphors and the poetry of Swahili. In Singing Wells, we have celebrated too few women, who we can say defined a genre, and were at least 50 years ahead of her time. We’ve found a wonderful example with Siti Binti Saad.
The most important and famous of the musical styles originating from Zanzibar is Taarab, which roughly translates in Arabic as ‘having joy with music.’ Taarab is a fascinating combination of many musical styles: predominantly African beats, with Cuban, Indian and even Egyptian influences. Taarab’s origins are in the late 1800s. Mohamed Ibrahim, studied music in Egypt, where he learned to play the Qanun and returned to Zanzibar to form the Zanzibar Taarab orchestra. Of course, there are a variety of musical styles in Zanzibar, including (every use of quotes in this post are direct quotes from the DCMA):
- Ngoma: “Ngoma literally translated means drum and is a term to encompass all local traditional forms of dancing, drumming and singing.”
- Kidumbak: “Kidumbak is a music style closely related to taarab. It is less refined and more upbeat! Musically it falls between Taarab and Ngoma..[and is] typically played..with two small clay drums, a violin played in a frantic fiddler style, a sanduku (or the bass) and the cherewa, a kind of shaker made from coconut shells…”
- Unyago: This is music by women by women and was used during rites of passage. Originally, these were ‘secret songs’ and filled with metaphors that would explain about sex and love and all the wonderful and difficult parts of marriage. As this music moved from the secret rites to more public performance, you find the audience laughing at all the double meanings. To be more specific, the women are laughing and the men are scratching their heads.
Below are some of the brilliant Taarab groups we met on our 2020 trip to Tanzania, all following in the footsteps of a musical legend.
The group is named after the drums they play and the style. This style is all about ‘Rebels’ and things that women talk about to themselves – very suggestive songs but using innuendo, so all deniable if called out. Traditionally, these were all songs that were part of wedding rituals and used to prepare the bride, songs about girls becoming women. The main leader, Amina Abdalla, studied and sang with Madam Bi Kidudi, a legendary singer in Unyago style (a chain-smoking rebel!). She followed Siti Binti Saad as a major Taarab vocalist and was considered queen of Taarab and Unyago music and died at 103 in 2013. Amina Abdalla still performs in her house, which is called Raha Leo, and people will travel from all over to watch her perform.
Tausi Women’s Taarab
The group is from Rahaleo and normally they have 28 members but brought 9 for the performance. The group leader’s name is Mariam Hamdiani, who is chair of the Arts and Censorship Council in Zanzibar. She plays the Qanun. The group has been together since 2009 and they play traditional Taarab. All songs are about love (love lost and gained) and all secular. They usually perform in Kisawandui.
Culture Musical Club Taarab Orchestra
This culture club is one of the oldest Taarab orchestras in Zanzibar founded in 1965 after independence. Generations of musicians have played in it. It plays traditional Taarab music with all female solo singers and male singers on instruments. It was clear that this orchestra had played together for a long time and were well rehearsed.
#8 - Supporting the Marginalised
Part of what has been most inspiring on our trips is how those from the most marginalized communities within East Africa continue to find joy with their musical heritage and traditions. Of the many groups we have met, the Batwa community in Kisoro, Uganda have faced significant hardship and yet create such beautiful and hopeful music. Their spirit and energy is infectious and our meetings with the Batwa community have always been memorable.
One man we simply cannot forget is Francis Sembagare, the musical leader of the Batwa. He is a master storyteller, keeping the traditions and stories of the Batwa history alive through his music, as well as being a lead dancer for the group. We are honoured to have worked with him, and the fellow Batwa people, to support their music and their livelihoods. By recording their sessions in the field, and by inviting them to Influences’ sessions in our “Hotel Studio” and at Ketebul Studios in Nairobi, we created the Music of the Batwa album to support Francis, and the other Batwa musical groups. It’s available to purchase here, and proceeds go directly towards supporting the artists that were involved.
This video below is one of our favourite musical moments of our Singing Wells Journey. As Jimmy says, “you can close your eyes and imagine being played in a Beatnik bar in sixties NYC.” so enjoy this incredible moment below:
The Batwa are a forest people living in the dense forests along the base of the Virunga Volcanoes. They were evicted from the forest to make way for the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park near Kisoro Uganda, which was established to protect the Mountain Gorillas that habitate in the park (travelling back and forth across the Uganda-Rwanda border). The Batwa are a marginalised people, living mostly by tenant farming in scattered villages around Kisoro. They live on the poorest land, and in many cases this means land high up in the green hills of Uganda far from trading villages. What we discovered in the Batwa was musicians of extraordinary talent and their music provides a soundtrack for the costs of all simple solutions; well-intentioned actions to protect an animal species have marginalised thousands of forest people who have lost their homes, their culture, their livelihood. We recorded them in their villages and invited them back to our studios in Nairobi to work with some of Kenya’s best musicians. Our visit to record the Batwa was supported by UOBDU.
What we do simply cannot be done without the incredible partners who support our work. We work with several different organisations to ensure that we are supporting the different groups we meet in the right way. Below is just a couple of the partnerships we are proud to be a part of:
United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU)
The United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda is a “Batwa-directed, community-based organisation headquartered in Kisoro, Uganda. UOBDU was created in the year 2000 with the help of the UK-based Forest Peoples Programme. Their sole purpose is to assist the Batwa in improving their lives so they may live on equal footing with all Ugandan citizens.” Two of the UOBDU staff accompanied us on our first trip to visit the Batwa in 2011, and were incredibly helpful with translations, and information about Batwa life. We continue to partner with UOBDU to support their work in improving the lives of the Batwa people.
Find out more here https://uobdu.wordpress.com/
The Ford Foundation believes in the “inherent dignity of all people. Across eight decades, they have sought to reduce poverty and injustice, strengthen democratic values, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement.” With their help, we managed to secure funding from the Institute of International Education to fund the field recording visit to Kisoro and the Batwa Communities in 2011. Their generous support allowed us to create opportunities for the Batwa to record and produce their own music, which in turn is sold to support them.
Find out more here https://www.fordfoundation.org/
You can find out more about Alliance Français here: https://ke.ambafrance.org/
You can see the full list of our partners here (https://www.singingwells.org/partners/)
#9 - Bigger and Better in Uganda
Our travels across East Africa have shown how each region has their own voice, style and identity when it comes to the music they produce. Where most groups use a combination of instruments to create the different layers of their sound, in parts of Uganda we found that many groups used a large collection of the same instrument to produce their own unique music. Some of these bands, unified by their instrument of choice, have been our favourite bands to record; how incredible to create such a varied and layered sound with just one instrument being played by all! This week, we explore some of the groups who show that sometimes variety isn’t the spice of life, and that the bigger the group (And sometimes the instrument itself!) the better!
Unsurprisingly for the Muwewesi Xylophone Group, the Xylophone is the star of the show. A giant xylophone lays across the floor, played by 8 musicians, alongside vocalists, pipe flute players and tube fiddle players. Based in Nakisenye, East Uganda, we visited the group in 2013, and when we arrived we found that the band had been there since morning preparing – they had dug the pit for the xylophone, with the bass notes sitting over the deepest part of the pit at 22 inches! We went on this trip with the brilliant James Isabirye, who said:
“Their style of music is amazing – they play drumming music on the slabs – they bring the percussion directly onto the instrument. This makes the tone so rich and it is far richer than the skin sound of a drum. The drum sound of the slab, with the hole underneath is actually unique in the world of percussion.”
It was a truly fantastic performance, including dancing and singing, but the Xylophone was never overshadowed. It was the centrepoint holding the music together – incredible to watch and listen to!
The Macedonia Band is a Likembe Band (thumb or finger harp) with about 8 Lukumbe players, 4 percussionists and about 16 dancers, all 12-15 year old girls from the village dressed in lovely robes. They are found in the village of Obuell-Lira, Northern Uganda. The whole band sang ‘response’ vocals to band leader Joshua’s lead. He was also the lead Likembe player. However, it is not just the music that they play that make this group remarkable. In fact, their story is legendary across the Teso region. Here’s a brief version of their history, taken from our Field report in 2012:
“During the civil war these villages were under rebel control from 1989-1992. The rebels came into the village to kill the men and seize the boys to take into the bush to fight. But the Macedonia band began to play Uganda Land of Freedom and the rebels started to gather round, starved for music and a chance to relax. An argument broke out amongst the rebels – most wanted to continue the raid and kill the musicians but a small group started to argue that the band could serve a purpose and help provide welcome distractions for the rebels. Eventually, after a few tense hours of debate, the village was spared. The rebels were about to take the young boys as soldiers, but by that time Joshua had gathered the whole village into the band, dancing or banging some percussion instrument. He convinced the rebels that the whole village was the band. And the whole village was spared. Sadly, as Joshua went on, he said that the only way this could happen was for some of the leaders of the rebels to convince the ‘hot heads’ to spare the village was to let them satisfy their blood lust against the next village where 20 men were slaughtered.
For three years, the ‘village band’ played for the rebels and were visited by all the leaders. They refused, however, to play rebel songs or support the rebel side. They said over and over again the music was neutral and only had allegience to Uganda not to one side or the other in the war. There were lots of scary moments when rebels would try to force them to declare allegence or die. But by miracle the rebel leaders let them live and play music as neutrals.
In 1992, the Uganda Army then re-took control of the area. One of their first acts was to go to each village and accuse them of collaborating, typically killing the men under the assumption that they must have fought with the rebels. For Joshua, this was a terrifying moment because the band was known to have played to the rebels. Again, a group of soldiers came into their village and again their mission was to kill the men and boys of the village. And again, Joshua rallied the village and started to play Uganda, Land of Freedom. A small group of the army felt the village should be spared so the men could have a break. And again, the music prevailed and the band was asked to play for the army. In this case, rather than fulfill their blood lust on a neighboring village, the army spared all the villages in the Teso area. This time, Joshua had learned and said the band was made up of people from every village. Each time someone was threatened in a Teso village, Joshua would call an army officer and explain his key percussionist, or key harpist was under threat. And the officer would intervene. Pretty quickly, everyone in the Teso region carried a thumb piano or a drum and all claimed they were members of Macedonia. The Macedonia band and the song Uganda Land of Freedom was known by everyone and served dozens of times to spare someone a fast execution as a collaborator.”
A truly inspirational and fascinating story. Joshua’s quick thinking helped spare the lives of his village, and many others, as well as influencing the musical history of the Teso region. Meeting him and the band was an incredible day on our Singing Wells journey!
Another highlight from our 2012 field trip was meeting the Adungu Cultural troupe. In contrast to the idyllic village setting of Obuell-Lira, where we met the Macedonia Band, we met this group in the more urban Naguru, a suburb of Kampala in Northern Uganda. We had seen the Adungu played in many groups before, but we had never got to witness the full ensemble until this day! The group had the big bass adungu and then 3-4 others in progressively smaller sizes. The three general sizes are called ‘bass’, ‘solo’ and ‘bass 2’. As with the Likembe, the bass adungu doubles as the kick drum and in this case the drummer was also the vocalist. The band was rounded out with shakers and 3 young women dancers. They played four songs for us, in a mixture of Alur, Swahii and English, and we then asked them to play an Influences session with artist Akello. You can see this amazing fusion of traditional and modern music below:
#10 - Recording a Musical Master
Much of our work at Singing Wells is about finding the masters of their craft: those musicians who truly understand their instrument at the deepest level. We explored this concept with our Masters of the Nyatiti series in 2017, where we tracked down the most skilled players and makers of the Nyatiti. Amongst those players was William Omondi, an elderly man who’s name was consistently brought to our attention when we were searching for Nyatiti players to speak to. His performance and skill in person matched his enviable reputation amongst players across the region.
You can see our full Masters of the Nyatiti documentary below:
#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.