Our journey to the Royal Drums: in the words of James Isabirye

Thursday, December 03, 2015

On December 1, during the long ride to Jinja, Tabu and I had a chance to interview James Isabirye about how and why we found ourselves together. This is a summary of that conversation, roughly in James’ own words. I use the term roughly for two reasons:

1) These are African roads and James was highly distracted by his own driving during our interview, dodging vans, cows and potholes.

2) I was trying to take notes in a car that seemed to be driving as fast and far left to right on the road as forward.

Between interviewee fighting to keep us alive, and interviewer fighting to stay in the car, we’re lucky we have anything at all…

James Isabirye

Centre: James Isabirye, Left: Tabu (Ketebul), Right: Musisi (one of the last remaining Royal Drummers)

Here is James’s story about how we ended up recording the Royal Drums of the Buganda Kingdom:

“Let’s first just consider the state of our traditional music. From a government perspective, it is the music you roll out for foreigners, like the Pope, or on some special occasion. But otherwise you ignore it and don’t value it. We don’t support it and we are losing the myths, the dances, and the songs that define us. If you lose that sense of identity how can you know where you’re going as a society? If you don’t know your roots, how do you know who you are?

This matter has concerned a circle of my friends deeply since around 2003 and we’ve all tried to deal with it. I have a circle I talk to all the time about this, including Julius Kyakuwa, Centurio Balikoowa, Haruna Walusimbi, Sarah Mukyala and Cornelius Mwima. We all understand that without intervention, somehow, all this music – all this culture will die. But we also know that the issue will always be resources: how do we bring new resources to a decades-long problem to revive this music?

I guess the general problem became a concern for me in roughly 2008, when I started studying the specific royal music. The Busoga King, Henry Muloki Wako, died. I was watching the age of the musicians at his funeral, and I thought: man, we’re running out of time.

My first step was to meet with James Lugolole, one of the oldest survivors of the Bigwala, the trumpets for the Busoga King. We talked about the problems: no one played the music, no new musicians knew the trumpets, farmers had forgotten how to grow the gourds used to make the trumpets, and the seeds were lost.  

That conversation started everything. We needed to revive these trumpets. I got UNESCO support, I got Singing Wells support and gradually, we formed a group. Singing Wells filmed them in 2013 and helped us tell their story. We also invested in the farmers – James Lugolole is coordinating them to grow the gourds and we are building new trumpets (we now have about 20). And finally, James Lugolole is helping train the new musicians and we now have 4 separate groups. Slowly, we think we are reviving this instrument.

I felt we had a model that would work: find a surviving musician, assemble students, build new instruments, build new groups, find opportunities for them to perform. From my conversations with Singing Wells, we are now calling this the ‘Bigwala Model’, although that sounds a bit grand, and sounds like we had a perfect grand plan. Of course, things evolved more organically.

You’ll remember in 2013, Singing Wells came to Uganda and we started to discuss the issue of the royal instruments. At the Kampala Museum, Singing Wells, Albert Ssempeke and I talked and all concluded: we really have to focus on the Entenga, the Royal Drums of the Buganda Kingdom. If we lose these, we’ve lost something truly unique. Singing Wells then agreed to kick-start a project based on what we had done together on the ‘Bigwala Model.’

So after Singing Wells left, I started the search for the drummers. I thought I was in great shape, because I knew Sebuwufu, a xylophone player who knew all about the drums and agreed to help me. Together, we found out that Peter Cooke had recorded the drums and we listened to some of these recordings.

But then, Sebuwufu passed away in August 2015 and I realised I had a big problem now. He might have been the last person who knew the drums. But I remembered that Sebuwufu had heard of someone named Musisi, a drummer that had played at the palace. Musisi had played the drums at the palace as a child and was keen to help. The only note I had was that we could reach Musisi through his sister-in-law.

Now I had to find Musisi. He said his sister-in-law lived in Kasawo. Well it took me forever to find that village. After crossing swamps and taking wrong turns I kept asking for the village. Finally I found it and started asking for the sister-in-law. I found her and had only one question: is Musisi alive? He was, she said. But he lives in Kiboga which was about three hours away. She gave me his son’s number and Musisi’s and we called. I talked to him! My only thought at the time was: GET MUSISI TO KAMPALA. I could not lose another teacher. So I agreed I would send money for Musisi to meet with me. I gave him a job to teach students how to play the drums. 

I was so relieved to have found a drummer.

He arrived in Kampala and we set out to teach. But very quickly it was clear that regular students were not good enough to master these drums. So we brought in professionals. I found Shaban and others and we started to practice. We didn’t have drums at first, we just worked on the xylophone that uses much of the same structure. And over time the professor, Musisi, and the students gradually developed a great relationship and are so committed to each other.

Then I had to order the drums. I ordered them from Mpambire, a village where all great drums are made. We sent Albert Ssempeke and Musisi out to pick the drums and tune them.   We brought in Peter Gaira, one of the best drum tuners, to tune them (see our Field Report for more detail on tuning). I felt I was on a race for time to have new musicians learn these drums. I told Musisi, ‘please teach our boys 100 songs.’ I told Shaban, ‘you must learn every part and every song.’

And that is how we ended up on this road. We filmed the drums yesterday and today we are going to see the Bigwala and discuss more lessons learned. Tomorrow, we are going to find out how much more there is to do.”

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