The Return of Bigwala

We really enjoyed this recent article on Atlas Obscura, which highlights the importance of preserving traditional Ugandan music, but also gives an optimistic and uplifting insight into the work being done on the ground to achieve this.

Bigwala is the name of a monotone trumpet, carved very simply from a long natural gourd that is a perfect shape and length for the sound to resonate. The gourds are marked and sawed at the point where the hollow fruit expands to a bulb, which creates a ‘bell’ shape that helps the sound to carry. Often multiple gourds can be bound together to create the right shape. It is also the name of the dance that accompanies this type of playing. Our first encounter with Bigwala was when we captured a performance by the Bigwala Cultural Group in late 2013.

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 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 Isabirye, a Lecturer at the Department of Performing Arts of Kyambogo University in Kampala, has been striving since 2012 to restore knowledge of the instrument, receiving help from UNESCO, on their List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, to preserve the instrument.

According to Atlas Obscura, 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.


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