“His Skin Lost Its Soup” | A Survey of Memory Loss
Kadongo Kamu is a musical subculture within Uganda which roots began in the 1950s with the guitarists Christopher Sebadduka and Elly Wamala. This article deals with how this culture has been subverted from mainstream culture through active technological and infrastructural modernization in Uganda from the 1960s till present.
Written by Serubiri Moses
One day I translated a couple of lyrics by the guitarist Paulo Kafeero, and got to pen down such lines as “I want to see Death’s tongue”. I was aware of the fact that my writings in English were mere interpretations, and could never have the impact of the original Luganda in which the lyrics were written.
However, as an experiment I brought an excerpt in the form of an untitled English poem to a poetry meeting. As it was being read by someone other than myself, I watched the strangest reactions to the poem. Like dogs with noses pointed in the air.
As one man struggled to wrap his mind around the poem, he seemed to be summoning a spirit from within. At last, they settled into the normal academic analysis of the poem, pointing out its merits and demerits based on meter, poetic form and expression. But then, a woman named Rosie pointed out that there was something colloquial about the expression “his skin lost its soup”. She noted that, having written her postgraduate thesis on Okot p’Bitek, this line reminded her of his poems, which were originally written in Acholi, and only then translated to English.
Being that the setup of the poetry meeting was academic English poetry analysis, those who were present were unable to fully understand the culture in which the poem represented, except for the scholar in African or World literature. However, when the man who seemed to be summoning a spirit from within, revealed that the lines were identical to a song by Ugandan guitar musician Paulo Kafeero, everyone exhaled loudly, glad to have solved the mystery that the poem was a mere translation from a known Luganda song.
The purity of the Western world
My primary school science teacher Mr. Kerudong recollected one day in the classroom how clean Kampala was in 1970. “Clean” was the adjective he used deliberately to impose on our 10-year-old minds how “dirty” the city had become. As children of exiled parents, the immediate effect was to further our desire for — what is commonly thought of as — the purity of the Western world. However, Mr. Kerudong did not inform us of the kind of Ugandan society he referred to in 1970.
Milton Obote’s regime led the attacks on Mengo in 1966, causing the King and President of Uganda to flee into exile. For many Ugandans, this was the start of yet another radical change in their identity, since British colonial education as well as the Arab and Portuguese trade both imparted strong culture. Obote went on to ban Uganda’s kingdom culture, rooting instead for African Nationalism.
One should note that with the dissolving of kingdoms and other forms of tribal self-governance came the rise of exile as an identity both at home and abroad. Exile involved a systematic approach to forgetfulness, in which many people would choose to migrate to the developed world to give birth there. They reasoned that if their children were born in the developed world, they could inhabit a completely new identity.
Chinua Achebe’s novel A Man of the People, released in 1966 (the same year as the Uganda Crisis), is a critique of post-colonial nationalism. In it, the media’s role as a tool for the propaganda, and through which information is leaked about the coup d’etat which ends the novel, cannot be overstated. A military coup occurred shortly after the book release causing Achebe to become blacklisted as an organizer. He escaped with his family into exile where he spent his literary career. Bard College has named the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists after him.
The Voice of Uganda newspaper in 1977 reported on only about two arts events. One was the preview of a Polish pianist for an all Chopin programme at the National Theatre, and the other was a piece on the Ugandan artist delegation that attended FESTAC in Nigeria.
However, the newspaper was saturated with the image of Marshall, as they called him. In one of the photographs, Idi Amin is showing the white delegates wild game in the national park, and in another he stands in a t-shirt and beach shorts with his wife, Sarah Amin, alongside Russian delegates equally clad in casual dress.
The media’s role therefore was to promote political figures and subvert the intellectual arts. In Uganda, guitar music had developed in the 1950s, and had a huge following by 1975, but the media was forced to ignore its audience or the music itself because of the dictates of political society to create political dominance and popularity.
Purified the music
Mr. Kerudong’s comment on a “clean” Kampala in 1970 also denotes ‘modernization’. The guitar music of Kadongo Kamu, steeped in Uganda’s ethnic music and foreign to the occidental musical scale, was seen as retrogressive to Uganda’s modernization. Many who inhabited the new identity of modernization, and especially those who set off into willful exile, negated the value of this guitar music and its artists.
In order to combat this continuous suppression of the guitar music by especially the media, Paul Kafeero one night dragged a white woman on stage in 1991. The now famous photograph taken that night shows a white woman wearing Ugandan busuuti dress kneeling before a guitar-playing Kafeero. It would not be unreasonable to say that once that photograph got printed in the newspapers, it “purified” the music.
The photograph does not permit the viewer to be distant from Kafeero or his guitar music. In sharp contrast to images in newspapers in the early 1990s, which emphasized the presence of street kids, road accidents and armed rebel groups, the image seem to be void of such politically charged reportage. Instead, we see the coming together of man and woman, accompanied by a guitar. The image positions dialogues of race, modernization, kingdom culture, postcolonial exile framed in one moment.
Continuous alienation of African culture
Similar allusions to modernization are found within Child’s Doll, a magnum opus from the mid 1990s by Fred Sebatta. In it, the metaphor of a car captures the continuous alienation of African culture, both on the continent and abroad, characterized by the postcolonial obsession with America.
I cannot escape thinking of that engrossing line sung by Sebatta to his wife in the song, “you sleep (in a bed) so rickety-looking, it gives me the shivers.” It is only symbolic of everything else he despises.
It reminds me of negritude poet Aimé Césaire when writing of his mother, “I was even awakened at night by these tireless legs which pedal the night, and the bitter bite of the soft flesh of the night of a Singer that my mother pedals, pedals for our hunger and day and night.”
Césaire despises his mother’s poverty. And thus deliberately distances himself. Speaking metaphorically, his mother’s poverty is Martinique and the African diaspora world from an oriental view-point.
In the memory he has of home (as Césaire is not in Martinique when he writes this poem), one had to look instead at a collective Africanness, which became in writing, a collective forgetfulness. The Singer machine is what saves his family from hunger. Forgetfulness mixes with the desire to modernize Martinique, spilling onto the page as anger.
“Forget about Stella who cannot eat dolls!”
The man in Child’s Doll uses hunger as an excuse for his work behavior, but this seems to continue until the end of the song where the couple breaks up. Forgetfulness cannot be a state of identity except for those who are mentally incapacitated.
The change of Ugandan society
This series of lyrics revealer can be a metaphor for the change of Ugandan society into an individualistic one during the 1990s, the period in which the song was written. Unlike the 1970s which developed public infrastructure, the 90s showed a boom in construction of personal residencies within the country. Hence, the man’s excuse for forgetting his wife and family is that he is working hard to build a house.
Ugandan identity today remains a complex mixture of several incoherent components. For example, kingdom culture has never regained its original value, and the king of Buganda, Ronald Mutebi II, is treated as if he were a mere politician; NGOs seem to emphasize the narrative of a poverty and war-ravaged Uganda while the political and working class continues to indulge in technology and willful exile.
Because of this complex state of identity, it is almost impossible for the generation born after 1975 to fully appreciate the guitar music of Kadongo Kamu, as my experiment in translation showed. The persons who are capable of understanding such cultural metaphors, such as are in Fred Sebatta’s Child’s Doll, are scholars of African literature, a field of research increasingly unpopular at the universities.
Mr. Kerudong’s 1990s class of pupils seems to be more interested in Chinese, South Korean or American technology than this “local” guitar music. The music seems to suggest retrogression as opposed to modernization, in their ears. This “filth” of Kampala remains locked out of their air-conditioned cars and apartments confined to downtown pubs and music festivals, while they continue to inhabit an uncertain state of exile. The historical impact of exile onto this generation of Ugandans, implies a growing need to translate Ugandan culture and much-needed exercises in remembering.
This article was written during a writing residency at 32 degrees East in March 2013.
Serubir Moses has been published in The New Vision reviewing live music. As a poet, he is featured on the pan African website, Badilisha Poetry Exchange.