Curating the Acoustics Sessions

When Iso Marshall, as a young English girl, got tired and rather confused playing the clarinet under a teacher who focused on the rigorous training of passing graded music exams, she quit. Instead, she took up French horn refusing to take any exams.

Reviewed by Serubiri Moses

Iso Marshall of Sound Foundation.

This turn of events started what would almost 15 years later become The Acoustics Sessions at MishMash. The session is a monthly night that started in January, showcasing undiscovered musicians who, despite having technical and musical proficiency in music, are not confident enough to stand up for it.

As an undergraduate studying languages at university, Iso started on a journey to pursue an acting career, gaining both a love of the stage and some experience in performing.

Returning to Cambridge after a year abroad in Paris, however, her views on the theatre changed dramatically, and she no longer felt this was the right career for her. “You suddenly realize that it’s very exclusive,” she confesses.

This existential crisis forced her to search outside the cocoon of the acting world, and prompted her passion for organizing platforms for musicians to collaborate and showcase what they have.

The Acoustics Sessions is designed for this purpose, and it brings to mind a few other genres in the arts that have benefited from this kind of curation.

Organic spaces for the arts

Roshan Kharmali, a poet and activist for indigenous hip-hop, had a very similar idea when she started Poetry in Session back in 2009. She wanted to create an organic space for writers, where they could grow through performing and getting a response from an audience.

A quick testing of the waters gave immediately into the avalanche that has since been called The Poetry Movement. It was documented in a film directed by the Qatari filmmaker Luciana Farah titled ‘Someone Clap For Me’ through the Maisha Film Lab.

This film focuses on characters like Medals, the Born-Again Politician, from whose poem the documentary title is taken, and follows the poets’ daily lives, weekly performances and numerous interactions with a real-life audience.

Poetry has become an eye-catching phenomenon in Kampala in recent times, just as much as the riots and activism which have—to the contrary—made headlines both at home and internationally.

Because our country—even with such a vibrant poetry scene—has continued to ignore the arts, people like Roshan and Iso have showed up to create new avenues for music and art which they believe will have the impact of “big, social change”.

Arts and activism came about in the late 60s, when songs like ‘Baamugamba’ (a parable which means “they told him, but he refused to listen and now he is in trouble”) spoke directly to President Milton Obote.

Another example is Okot p’Bitek’s long poem ‘Song of Lawino’, which openly critiques the colonialist tendency to abandon traditional culture. Figures like Margaret Trowell, for whom the Makerere School of Industrial and Fine Arts is named, are activists of traditional African arts and crafts and encourage the study of African art forms.

These figures have clearly not got the credit they deserve for being the inspiration for many social change activists. Certainly literary works like ’30 Years of Bananas’ and the steamroll consciousness it gave masses in the early 80s would not have existed without Okot p’Bitek’s satirical, epic poems and essays.

The Curator’s role: A Communal Way

Kaz Kasozi, a multi-instrumentalist and original extraordinaire, begs honorable mention among the work of these current curators of art, music and culture, paving way for musicians like Maurice Kirya to shine all the way to the world stage.

On hearing a recording from around 2008, Kaz sent Maurice a guitar from the UK. A good instrument, which not only boosted the confidence of the then relatively underground Maurice Kirya, but also made him perform more.

One night at the Rouge, I saw Maurice invite Kaz up on stage to perform an amazing guitar solo. It was the first time I was witnessing a form of community between musicians in Kampala.

What makes Kaz Kasozi, Iso Marshall, Roshan Kharmali—and one can add Faisal Kiwewa and Maloe Klaassen to the list—the “new, young curators” is their ability to spot a skillful and serious musician and poet, and then challenge them by pairing them with more seasoned and experienced performers.

Their work and their role may especially be overlooked. In a time when our government—not unlike previous dictatorial regimes—is searching for a good face internationally, and many promoters and radio executives are controlling the music to the maximum, artist themselves do not and cannot have much power.

From the Acoustics Sessions at MishMash, Kampala 2012.

In other places and at different times, when jazz musicians like Charles Mingus and Max Roach as well as Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac started to create works that critiqued and expressed anguish towards the people’s living conditions in bondage of racial profiling and commercial slavery, they only achieved it through an active coming together; a communal way.

In doing so, they created movements that affected all areas of social life, not just music and poetry. For example, Ginsberg’s work Howl produced one of the largest court case in American history for a literary work, and ended in favor of Ginsberg.

Making it Happen

Sound Foundation, which Iso Marshall spearheads in Kampala, teaches music and encourages performance and mentorship by experienced musicians like Joel Sebunjo in three primary schools around the suburbs.

In addition, they are developing the Acoustics Sessions, a monthly night at MishMash where undiscovered but skilled musicians bring their own compositions to mentors like Iso and Joel. They may also get help to record them in the process, but the ultimate goal is to develop live performers of original music free from the pressures of hit sales and concert sales, which so many musicians have fallen prey to.

This is indeed a real pressure, many an up-and-coming musician has suffered from a lack of proper mentorship in music, resulting into low confidence in music making, especially when it comes to instrumentation.

From the Acoustics Sessions at MishMash, Kampala 2012.

Sebunjo, on the other hand, has had mentorship from some of the best traditional musicians in this country. He went on to study under kora masters in Mali and Senegal. He is a musician who can’t be intimidated musically, unlike so many of the sold-out stadium playing acts.

“We can arm ourselves as musicians. We can get together and collaborate and become a force for change. This way we enact our own change. I admire what Joel (Sebunjo) has done. He has taken total charge of his career; he has gone and made it happen,” Marshall says.

Reviewing the Acoustics Session at MishMash

At 8pm, the gallery was filled, but the performance hadn’t yet started at MishMash. Iso, the curator of the Acoustics Session, was on the phone with some of the musicians telling me afterwards that one of them had decided to cancel at the last-minute, passing it off in a it’s-the-way-of-the-world shrug. The small but packed gallery concentrated on the small stage, set up with a few spot lights and three microphone stands.

Iso walked onto the stage to invite the first performer, who started off on a somewhat unsure footing, unaccompanied, reading poetry to himself and making the audience feel like it was encroaching on his private moment. But sooner than later he came out bursting with intense fervor on each word in a poem he had written about music, describing it to a degree that we could almost see it floating in the air.

From the Acoustics Sessions at MishMash, Kampala 2012.

The air was saturated with this kind of cozy energy from the start of the Acoustics Session at MishMash. Music seemed to float freely along in the air, making people relax and chat a little with each other. There were moments that left everyone in a hush.

One such moment was when Michael the jazz sax player got halfway through ‘Malaika’, that famous standard by Miriam Makeba, catching many by surprise with the unrestrained emotion he managed to squeeze out of such an overplayed standard.

A young woman next to me said “I’ve heard that song too many times” as Michael introduced it, but slowly and surely her indifference turned into euphoria as she cheered on saying she had never heard it played that way before.

Jessy, a young singer-songwriter, really got the crowd raved up with his Babyface Edmonds-influenced approach to making music, giving simple melodies the space and time to breathe, and punctuating them with a percussive guitar sound. Somewhere in the middle of his set, he’d begun strumming his guitar, when he started to whistle in key.

Instantly, I thought of Minnie Riperton’s classic tune ‘Loving You’ and how easily this young, almost anonymous guitarist sat up there conjuring up the very best in soul’s intimate catalogue.

From the Acoustics Sessions at MishMash, Kampala 2012.

Other crowd-pleasers

Peter, another completely anonymous character, jumped onto the stage rather nervous trying in vain to engage the audience with anecdotes. His first song, sung in Acholi, turned into the ultimate crowd-pleaser. With a fast pacing guitar rhythm, he sang free but strong melodies, bringing to mind West African stars like Angelique Kidgo and Baaba Maal. Fully trusting in his musical warmth, the crowd gave into his graceful free singing.

He was a troubadour cum griot who, supported by a jazz saxophone, sung verse about places both far and near; real and imagined. There was an easiness about how he switched from singing Acholi to singing Swahili that made him a sort of pan-African musical hero.

In his way of embracing music by Malian kora masters and also the very soukous we grew up listening to, he summed up a history of popular African music all within a few minutes.

An encouraging audience thundered with applause. Something unique was happening.

Right in the middle of Kampala, just when people are getting too familiar with the live bands they enjoy listening to on weekends, these musicians seemingly appear out of the blue with a refreshing and yet subtle understanding of their music, and able to make the audience feel alive.

It felt as if a few diamonds in the rough had been polished, chiseled and come to the light alas.

From the Acoustics Sessions at MishMash, Kampala 2012.

Serubiri 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.