Is this really Uganda?
The idea of a festival of the arts in the Ugandan sun was welcomed. Like others themed alike, This Is Uganda was expected to celebrate the Uganda free spirit in all cultural senses. In its second year, TIU shows it has set out to celebrate a different culture. Even when the organisers expected the event to be endorsed by a big number of revelers, at the end they were not happy with the turnout. At this rate, TIU might need to change tack in the next edition.
By Steven Tendo
For the unassuming culture aficionado, the This Is Uganda festival was a mixed bag. If one came to the event with set expectations, they were in for a surprise.
But it should not have been a surprise. Like many things Ugandan, what it promised to be was not necessarily what one should have expected. A number of revellers felt the festival did not really portray Uganda as it is.
This is Uganda offered huge dollops of fun for those seeking simple fun. Some music lovers were not disappointed as the evening came. Others who had come for a wholesome experience of Ugandan culture were not so fortunate.
The main event was the musical presentation. The inclusion of all the other forms of art provided a variety though. Even if the revellers had to wait for most of the day, the music finally came. The full force was in the menu.
The grounds, sparsely populated during most of the day filled up half-way at about 8pm. The biggest composition of the audience where expatriates.
“It is as though Ugandans know all there is about Uganda and hence do not have to appear here,” a seasoned journalist observed.
Wares, murals and moves
The events included artists displaying their wares. There were socially conscious businesses there too. A solar company here and an organization supporting Down’s syndrome sufferers there, it was the perfect cultural fair in the sun at first glance.
There were more. In one corner, there was a face-painting stand where children squealed with glee. In another, a young artist was painting coarse colours on shoes and selling bright T-Shirts.
Next to the artist, a group of young boys made a huge mural in just a few minutes. The sweat flowing down their faces did not hinder them.
There was a skating rink set up next to the club house and the rollers had a whale of a time. There were time-tested painters like Arnold Birungi who said they were on a mission to make art more accessible for the common Ugandan. They even came up with innovative ways to do it (imagine a Birungi masterpiece cut up into pieces of a puzzle).
There was a group of young dancers that entertained in the midday sun with abandon. And there was the group of young breakdancers B-Boying in the grass next to the stage.
The set up was alright. A visitor had the whole grounds to explore, what with the different activities on display! From the road (Jinja Road), the music blared and enticed passers-by on their way to other persuits.
High hopes of new talents
The organizers showed they were not leaving the security to chance. Shortly after the grounds had been opened, show goers were told to all leave the place to allow security to sweep it. It is two years after the World Cup bomb blasts at the same venue but no one is going to forget easily.
Weeks before the event, one of the organizers, Tatjana Spähn had shown a glimpse of the vision of TIU. It is meant to bring young Ugandan talent together and try to give them a voice.
Three weeks before December 10th, auditions were held and a number of groups were declared the finalists. They were slated to perform at Kyadondo Rugby Football Grounds on the big day.
Following in the footsteps of the first TIU last year, Ms Spähn expected a better turnout of musicians and other artistes. There were an estimated 2000 revellers in 2010. It was expected that this year, there would be maybe 4000.
Inclusive vs exclusive
Joel Sebunjo, one of Uganda’s leading world music lights was less than impressed. He performed at the festival last year but declined this year.
“This is definitely not a true representation of what is Uganda,” he told us. “Maybe the Youtube-Uganda, but not what one would think of normally.”
Sebunjo thinks TIU is a fantasy of organizers who have not thought long enough about the ingredients of such an important festival.
“It works in Europe because of the inclusion of visiting acts,” the well-travelled musician explains. According to him, because usually there are few bands to sustain a day-long musical show, the best an organizer can do is to invite as many different bands as possible.
This is contrary to the game plan of TIU. The plan was to recruit upcoming artists through heats. The winners would be given a chance not only to perform at TIU, but also get recording contracts. Eventually, this TIU-appearance could connect the young unknowns with bigger industry players, such as producers and directors, giving them an opportunity to record and be famous.
Sebunjo thinks a festival that purports to represent all that’s Ugandan should be all inclusive.
Entrepreneurship on display
But if you were looking for variety, it was there though not musical. Like the Akutwalekiro Women’s Group from Mbuya Parish. The ladies specialize in creating utilities from waste plastics.
“This group was founded in 1989,” says the representative at the stall. “We started out making mats but eventually, we had to make the project grow. So we opted for waste plastics.”
Or Robinah Mulinde the journalist-turned solar entrepreneur, who is crusading to see that solar energy is adopted in the country. She is displaying solar lamps that her company sells. She is also dispensing free advice on life choices. “One does not have to rely on only school knowledge. There is a lot one can do with their talents to make a good life.”
Ivan “BigBoy” makes medallions out of wood. He calls it ‘Woodbling.’ He an environment management major at university. “I was sick of wearing fake diamond. Real diamonds are very expensive. So I decided to do wood art.”
Though the art is a little expensive, BigBoy thinks the market is growing. His clientele includes musicians and these come with many of their fans.
Painter Birungi is trying to make the public appreciate art. He is trying to be innovative, they have no problem with it. “Many do not go to galleries so this way we bring it closer to them,” he says. At the stall, they are displaying packaged puzzles with the name of the paintings and the stories behind them.
According to a visual artist on the scene, artists are depressed when they see mainly foreigners appreciating the work of Ugandan artists. These two say it is a two way street. Artists need to be proactive to attract Ugandans.
The soundtrack to all this is music blaring beneath the different stories. The DJ changes styles and genres at will. People break into dance when a favourite song plays. Like the band of rastas dancing to reggae tunes with abandon.
Alex is a dance and capoeira instructor. He has short dreadlocks and he is fairly tall. “I just feel like dancing. This is the second time; I was here last year. It was really good last year.” He is clearly having a good time.
Alex thinks TIU is a very good idea. According to him, people need to relax and have fun at some point in the year. TIU is as Ugandan as an idea can get, according to the dancing rasta. He sways as the positive vibrations run through him.
This is not Uganda
Further on, Marion runs Kids Planet. Her business involves organizing children’s parties. At the stall, children flock to have their faces painted.
“There is a lot missing at TIU. Where are the cultural dancers? Where is the food? Most of the activities that portray Uganda are not included,” she thinks. She would have liked to see aspects like traditional Ugandan fashion, for instance. Instead, she sees tie-and-dye samples on display.
Even the dances on display are too modern and Western for Marion’s taste.
Derrick Komakech is a visual poet who also thinks “this is not Uganda.” His huge tadooba (Ugandan-made kerosene lamp) is instantly noticeable. “I use provocative items like this in my work. Tadooba is normally tiny. When someone sees a huge one, they are pushed to think about different solutions to problems.” His contraption goes wherever he goes. He believes TIU should have more poets like him to push important messages, not just the music.
Komakech believes the art on display should communicate to the community. Artists should have been selected on that basis. He feels many are not communicating solutions that work.
Another go at enjoying culture and life
“We want to combine the music and the art. Many of these people know two arts festivals (LABA and Bayimba),” Tatjana Spähn says. “We are the third. We intend to combine all aspects of the art.”
According to Spähn, it is meant to be a full day of relaxation. “That is how we do it in Europe. We have a day for camping where people bring their tents and just enjoy the day. There is something similar in Nairobi.”
TIU is trying to force people to enjoy their life, according to Spähn. “We are not forcing a foreign culture on unwilling natives. The traditional aspect is important but the contemporary is also important. It reflects a part of Uganda that is rising up.”
She believes it is not easy to separate the many traits of what makes Uganda Uganda. “It is a combination of all of them but also about the fun. There is a story behind the breakdancers, for instance. Many of them are unfortunates.
“They are street children or orphans. Ugandans have taken them up and taught them to do something useful with their lives. It is a display of Ugandan initiative. Not only foreigners can help such children. That is the story behind this,” she continues.
Spähn admits there may be still those who do not agree. “Maybe it is not Ugandan enough for some people. Farmers in the villages may not easily identify with this. But we will see the changes as time goes.”
The absence of Live music
Before the festival, the promotion was palpable. It was decidedly more focused than last year’s. There were flyers, TV spots, mentions on radio and the like.
One aspect of TIU is the levelling effect it had on musical performers. Usually, popular or famous musicians in the country want to perform last. This is probably to be the one everyone sees since there are many late-comers.
The reason is also often linked to big egos. Musicians many times view those who perform early as the upstarts. Because of this, artistes usually show up late at events.
At TIU this time, big names such as Suzan Kerunen were performing as early as 4pm. There was no jostling.
There were performances from popular artistes like Goodlyfe Crew, The Mith, MunG, Navio, Jamal, Keko and some not very common ones like Jeff, Blessed San and Hyperman.
Though their performances earned them applause, artistes that had bands with them or made use of music instruments, like Kurunen, Lilian and the Sundowners and Maurice Kirya, seemed to be appreciated more. These were appreciated as much as artistes like Susan, Dr Riddim who taught simple dance moves.
Are you ready to be exported?
So the divide may be because of definition. There are those who believe particular ingredients should have been included. Others think what was included was good enough.
There are those who believe artistes do not necessarily have to be doing Ugandan traditional music. “You can be Western but with Ugandan message,” a local musician says. He cites Kawesa, who is considered very Ugandan though his style is ‘Western.’
Some think the Youtube phenomenon is somewhat negative. When people outside Uganda want to view local music, the website presents the most unrepresentative acts. Urban musicians doing pop music with no soul are viewed as the country’s main exports. They are the ones with the resources and access to Youtube.
Steven Tendo is a Kampala-based journalist with an interest in the arts.