First, a caveat: this blog does not claim to be historically accurate and we can’t verify all the events told here. It reports on the memories of a former royal drummer, who is reflecting back on his time at the Buganda palace, on the night the palace was attacked and on the importance of seeing his craft revived. And there is something quite beautiful in the way he remembers his own story.
Musisi being recorded on camera telling his story
We are in Uganda to revive the Royal Drums of the Buganda Kingdom, the Entenga. This project was the result of the work of a very large team, but at its center is Musisi, the last surviving drummer that we know of. Here is his story, in roughly his words:
“My father was the leader of the flutes at the Buganda Kingdom, and as his son, I was trained to play the flutes and eventually joined him in the palace. When I arrived, I found that I loved the Entenga drums far more than I liked the flutes. And every chance I had, I would go over and play with the drummers. But the flute players were very angry with me and didn’t want me to switch groups. It was a hard time, but then the Queen intervened and said I should be able to play the instruments I loved. So I became a drummer.
And for a while, playing in the palace was heaven. We were paid a small salary, given all our clothes and generous gifts of food every Wednesday. A big truck would come into the palace on Wednesdays and workers would unload tons of bananas and other food to distribute to all those that worked in the palace. That truck would spend the week going to all the villages in the Buganda Kingdom and collect food to give to the palace.
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. I remember one performance where the King loved our song so much that he gave a bull just to the drummers to enjoy in a big feast. And then he asked us to play the song again and again.
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. While we were sitting there, his assistant came in and reported that the soldiers had broken into the palace and were in the Queen’s gardens. The King asked him to go out and report any news. He came back 10 minutes later and said the soldiers were now far closer having broken into new rooms closer to where we were. The King asked him to go out again and find any other news. The man didn’t return and the King told me that meant he was killed and we must run.
Soldiers were everywhere. He grabbed me and we ran through several palace gates and came into one of his Throne Rooms (there were several). There were a lot of us, around the King and in the room there were dozens of soldiers. But I remember at the end of the room was a big white man, and he had a huge gun that he was moving around to shoot us. It would have killed all of us, it was so big. And the King took his magic electric gun and killed the white man first. And we were saved and could run again.
We ran through the palace and in every room, the King killed soldiers. This lasted for hour after hour. Sometimes a terrible gun fight. Sometimes, silence.
Then morning came. It started to rain, and rain hard. It was a mess. The palace was destroyed and now filled with mud and rain. But this was a good thing because the King’s gun still worked in the rain. And the soldiers’ guns couldn’t work in the rain unless they shot straight down so the rain didn’t go in the barrels. And this meant the King could keep shooting and he killed as many soldiers as he could. And we stayed in this hell, with chaos everywhere throughout the morning of May 25th.
I guess the Central Government heard about all this and decided the King was big trouble, because we found out then that the Government ordered that all the power to the palace be turned out. I remember this well because at about 2PM, the King’s gun stopped working and we knew he had to flee. He jumped over one of the gates and fled. I remained behind, and the soldiers finally came.
One soldier approached me and told me to start running but I looked around and saw that anybody running was getting shot. And I saw a lady across the palace who was raising her hands. And she wasn’t getting shot, so I raised my hands. And then they grabbed me and caned me. Man, I remember that. I got caned and caned. And they kept asking people where the King was. I didn’t want to get beaten to death so I said I knew where the King was. I was the keeper of the Throne Room Key at that point, so had a key to one of the Throne Rooms. So I said I had this key and knew the King was hiding in the room. They told me to take them to the King.
Well, we were very close to that Throne Room, but I didn’t want to get there fast. I needed them to calm down and me to think. So I took a long path, around all the gates and through the primary school in the palace. We came to one gate and there was the gatekeeper on the ground, shot. His guts were out on the ground and he was crying for help and told the soldier that he knew me and that we should help him. I thought that this gatekeeper had his problems and I had mine and I needed to live so I said I didn’t know him and told the soldier to hurry on and find the King.
And then we came to the Throne Room but it had already been shot up and it was a real mess. And it was clear that the King wasn’t there and the key wasn’t needed. And I thought, oh boy, this isn’t good. But then the soldiers saw all the King’s ivory. Oh, the room was filled with it – all sorts of carvings that we used to polish with love. So beautiful. And they were fighting over the ivory and forgot about me for a moment.
And I was just standing there and then the commander of the soldiers came in and he had lots of medals and I figured he was the boss, so I decided to surrender to him. I was just a boy and was so scared and this was really traumatic for me. I lost my home, my job, my music in a single day. I was just happy for the day to end.
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.
Musisi teaching drums at Kyambogo in 1968
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.”
Musisi’s work: drummers setting up to perform
And we’ll stop there. We will report more on Musisi as the week goes on, but we felt this was the right place to start, the telling of his last night at the palace, the last moments the Entenga were played at the palace of the Buganda Kingdom.