As I write, I am listening to a recording of a superb Jazz concert that took place on the evening of April 22, 1946, at the Embassy Theatre in Los Angeles, California. As the black vinyl LP spins on my record player, the voice of Billie Holiday, the finest Jazz singer that ever strutted any stage, oozes out of the speakers with a majesty that is only surpassed by its emotional appeal.
Her rendition of Strange Fruit, a song specially written for her as a protest against the lynching of African-Americans in the southern United States, opens bare the darkness of slavery and racism that are a blot on the history of that great country.
One can literally see the strange fruit of a Negro, as the African Americans were called at the time, dangling from the branch of a poplar tree. American history immortalised in recorded song, speaking to posterity.
Earlier this afternoon, I listened to two records that I have owned for 30 years. One is of a concert that took place on the Sunday afternoon of July 2, 1944, at the Philharmonic Hall in Los Angeles. This was the first of what would become the highly popular Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concerts, produced by Norman Granz, the legendary Jazz impresario whose records on labels such as Verve and Pablo have immortalised some of America’s greatest Jazz musicians. The second is of another JATP held on January 28, 1946, a swing-fest that is as enjoyable today as it was when I first listened to it.
Listening to these concerts from more than 65 years ago, featuring, among others, Charlie Parker (alto saxophone), Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins (tenor), Dizzy Gillespie, Howard McGhee and Buck Clayton (trumpet), Nat King Cole (piano), J.J. Johnson (trombone), Red Callender (bass) and Lee Young and Buddy Rich (drums), gives one a feeling of being right there – not just in spirit but also in time.
The sound that emerges from the speakers has an indefinable “feel” of age and distance in time, a consequence of the rather suboptimal recording methods of the day. And as one listens, one’s thoughts drift to the great music of one’s youth. What if all those concerts and club performances we heard in Kampala had been recorded?
What if we had available to us the great music-making by the likes of Kaumba and Professor Suzman who brought us immeasurable delight during the teenage dances at New Life Club?
Oh, how much one would gladly pay for full-length recordings of the concerts by the greats of the 1960s – Fred Masagazi, Billy Mbowa, Charles Sonko, Frida Sonko, Eli Wamala, Kawalya, Matiya Kyakamala and others! Yes, one finds snippets of their work here and there. The only recording in my possession is a compilation that was put together by John Storm Roberts whose New-York based company, Original Music Inc., is in the business of preserving and profiting from the efforts of the World’s forgotten or ignored artistes.
This, like most of the records that we collected as teenagers, has performances that were almost always restricted to less than five minutes. Their long jam sessions and other performances that used to test our youthful resilience on the dance floor probably only exist in our fading memories.
Uganda’s forgotten pop music performers of yesterday were luckier than their counterparts in traditional music. Where the former made a transient appearance in our collective consciousness, the latter simply never appeared on the cultural radar of the nation.
Many entertained us in the villages, of course. Some were featured during local or national political celebrations. Efforts to showcase our music and dance were made by Serumaga and the Heart Beat of Africa. However, for the most part, our traditional music, dance and drama were relegated to the dark alleys, partly a consequence of our religious indoctrination which ascribed evil to our traditional arts.
Happily, Ugandan traditional musicians and dancers of today enjoy better recognition and opportunities for documenting their work. The Ndere Troupe, under the outstanding direction of Stephen Rwangyezi, has had very good press and promotion.
The Ndere Troupe’s captivating performances are available to the world via audio and video recordings that their predecessors were denied. It is a priceless gift to posterity. Yet there remains a large deficit in our attempts to showcase and preserve our music, dance and drama. First, there appears to be inadequate public funding for the arts.
Second, there is no organised effort to traverse the country and systematically record performances of our traditional singers, dancers, instrumentalists, poets and dramatists. Highly gifted performers are probably toiling in the villages, unrecognised and unrewarded. This is an urgent task that the government should take on, in partnership with private business, before the westernisation of our culture completely suffocates centuries old traditions.
Likewise, there is an urgent need to hunt for any extant recordings from the past, to be collated and published for the enjoyment of current and future generations. Someone needs to document the lives and full stories of the great musicians of the past.
Third, the academic curriculum of our schools continues to treat African traditional music, dance and drama as an afterthought. In fact, these should be mandatory subjects in primary and secondary school.
Every time I listen to European classical music and American Jazz music, I am struck by the extent to which those communities have recorded and otherwise documented the performances, the music scores, the biographies of the composers and performers, and the history and context in which that cultural legacy was fermented.
Hundreds of their composers and performers have been dead for a long time. Yet their voices are still heard today, telling us, through their beautiful music, the stories of their societies during their time. Their voices will still be heard centuries from now.
Who will give posterity the joy and privilege of hearing Uganda’s varied stories through the recorded performances of our artistes – from all corners of the land? Who will ensure the survival of our cultural identity?
Dr Mulera is a consultant pediatrician and neonatologist