Bayimba Comes of Age

By Elizabeth Namakula

There is always something to say about consistency and hard work — less disappointments. This is what the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts has come to stand for amongst city dwellers in Kampala.  For seven years now, during the month of September, the festival has treated audiences to a feast of the arts; ranging from music, dance, drama and poetry to the visual arts, film, fashion and crafts.

This was not always the case. The year was 2011, the place — Femrite Resource Centre. Seated around a large table were creative writers and before them a young man dressed in a light blue shirt and grey pants. He had ear studs in his ears. Everyone wanted to know what he was planning to talk about.

A few minutes later, he had captured our attention. His topic was the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts, a little known subject. To him it was something to be passionate about; so much so that he had forgotten creative writers are different from arts journalists.

He said the name bayimba is a Luganda word which simply means “they are singing”. He continued to share that there were regional festivals in Mbale, Jinja and Gulu in the month of May and a major one in Kampala in September. He was before us because he needed writers to cover these events.

What we saw was a young Faisal Kiwewa with big dreams. In those moments we hadn’t a chance to fast forward to the 2014 Bayimba festival, where the platform extended to crowds in the upper gardens of Uganda’s National Theatre. Some of them were seated on stools playing the traditional game of omweeso; others involved in the traditional ekyoto where stories are told around a fire place, set to recollect memories of our childhoods.

All About the Music

Festivals are generally about expression and the feeling of a cultural belonging. In the past Bayimba festivals, nothing produced this feeling more than the musical performances. This year’s lineup was a blend of upcoming artists, artists of known repute and legends like Maddox.

Lady Bizo has gratefully emceed the past three Bayimba festivals. With her huge voice and larger-than-life personality. The day programmes, especially the fashion shows, depend on her to give them vibe and momentum. This year however, she appeared distracted and dispirited. Maybe the festivals are getting to be too much for her and she needs another emcee to help her out. Nevertheless, it is always fun watching her do her thing.

One could see that a lot had been put in this year’s festival. Two outdoor stages were set up for the first time. One for music performances and another for the Santuri Safari Djs who played an electric fusion of house music as well as music from Brazil, Cameroon and Algeria. Theatrical dramas like the Zubairi Family, comedy and films took place inside the auditorium of the National Theatre.

International musicians were represented by SMAJ although Dr.Bone from South Africa and Nahoreka from Zimbabwe were a no show. This was no fault of the festival organisers. Dr. Bone was heavily invested in the South Africa SMASH Awards while Nahoreka was caught up by travel arrangements. That robbed the festival of its international appeal but that was made up for by heartfelt performances from East Africa by Sarabi (Kenya), Chrispin (Rwanda), and local voices like Angela Kalule, Maddox, Jackie Senyonjo and Jemimah Sanyu.

Festival Firsts

Yoga, a new phenomenon in Uganda, featured for the first time as well as a creative writing, vocal training and pop up sound workshops, conversation platforms.

Arts Watch Africa/Arterial Network, created a forum to discuss artists’ rights and freedoms of creative expression in Africa. The panel consisted of Faisal Kiweewa (Bayimba Foundation, Uganda) Brick Bassy, of the French band CAB (Cameroon), Sarah Nsigaire from Native Travel TV (Uganda), Peter Rorvik, Arterial Network (Netherlands) and Ayeta Anne Wangusa,writer (Tanzania). Many conclusions circulated around the theme of funding. Artists will create depending on what is being funded. According to the ear-studded dreamer Faisal Kiwewa:

We are grateful that we enjoy the freedom to create and curate our annual festival. This freedom is important to anyone, artists and non-artists. In fact, we are all artists; and the products of our thinking deserve recognition and respect. Unfortunately, we are faced with various obstacles that impede the creative process. Such limitations are limitations to our development, a loss to an individual at a personal level, the creative industry and our country as a whole.

Another first was the inclusive displays of Capoeira by Senzala Uganda. Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art developed by African descendants from Angola that combines elements of dance, acrobatics and music. It was formally practiced by slaves and disguised as dance to prevent punishment from the masters. This unique art form brought new inspiration to the audience, as opposed to the repetition of breakdance and Hip Hop routines.

Dynamic Dimensions

It’s unheard of attending a Bayimba festival without hearing the sounds of Hip Hop. “End of the Weak- MC Challenge” had four of Uganda’s best MCs battling it out to see who would emerge winner to attend the End of the Weak International Hip Hop Festival set for October 25th at Open House.

Breakdance Project, a favourite feature at the yearly festival, was a no show. It was left to dance groups such as Dream House Uganda, Miracle Saints and Street Dance Force to carry the banner, but failed miserably. They put up curious performances that certainly could not be classified as breakdance.

Films Mississippi Masala by Mira Nair and The Third Grader by Justin Chadwick were crowd favourites. Rose Sembatya, a literature teacher comes to the festival specifically to watch films, commented, “Saturday is my favourite day during the festival. I come as early as midday and watch to my heart’s content. I definitely liked this year’s selections.”

Popular comedy acts like the fan factory were a no show but Abazeeyi be baama, The Punchliners and the Foursome put up worthwhile performances. An indication that comedy is a force to be reckoned with and a genre filled with tough completion.

Drama had its say in the Zubairi Family who put up an epic portrayal of the poor state of Ugandan hospitals. Definitely no match for last year’s Bakayimbira Dramactors but gifted enough to have left the audience yearning for more.

How much of art is really in fashion? If one looks at the “Trash on Fashion” by Afrika Arts Kollective and Modo Fashion House from Gulu they would see an array of outfits made from different forms of trash: buveera, mineral water bottles and take away packets. It certainly wasn’t about glamour, it was all about creativity. This contribution to fashion made it a stand out from the different fashion shows at the festivals over the years. “Unbelievable!” is how one spectator put it.

The silent disco craze remained as hyped as ever. You could tell new beginners could not get enough. It is becoming a fan favourite and it is hard to imagine a Bayimba festival without a silent disco.

Food is another aspect of the festival. Surely no one is expected to starve in the presence of rolex stalls, sizzling nyama choma, roasted chicken and an assortment of soft drinks, beer and water.

The arts journalism and photography workshops are a festival must, chiefly because they are responsible for the Bayimba magazine which contains the festival programs and snapshots of the activities. Long after the festival is done, documentation of what happened remains in print, video and photographs.

Maturing with Age

Coming of age is about growth, change and confidence, all inclusive of costs and fees. Unlike the past festivals that went for 1,000 UGX, this one had festival goers pay 2,000 UGX. No one complained and people still came out in droves. The downside to all this coming of age however is that there is so much to see. People are spoilt for choice and almost end up seeing less than they had anticipated. Still Kiwewa, in the Bayimba magazine addressed this:

When programming, we extensively discuss how you, our audience would experience the festival, the final product. However programming our annual festival is a creative process, of equal importance as the final product in itself. It is a process of experimenting and exploring, in close consultation and cooperation with both artists and partners we select. It is for this reason that that the festival program that unfolds in this process represents the unexpected, the unknown, the unusual or something that others have dubbed the Bayimbaness.

It is a Bayimba tradition to have a big artist close off the festival but no one envisioned Maddox, a reggae artist, putting up such a spirited performance and drawing such mammoth crowds. After a stint in Sweden, from where he produced such memorable music such as, Abaato album. He came back to Uganda and was hardly noticed by any one. It was unbelievable seeing him display his magic on stage. Credit goes to Bayimba then for honouring and appreciating such authentic talent.

Nothing tastes better than a bottle of wine that has come to maturity. I will say the same now for the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts. Come next year to get in the true spirit of what we now call Bayimbaness.

Elizabeth Namakula is a freelance writer living in Kampala, Uganda.

© Images courtesy of  Bayimba International Festival of the Arts