Uganda Folklore Overview

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AN OVERVIEW OF UGANDAN FOLKLORE

Uganda is a country rich in folklore. With over 40 languages (from three major language families) and a population of approximately 17 million, forms of vernacular expression abound in material culture, cuisine, and performance genres, among others.

Material culture

Fibers from the banana plant are widely used in southern Uganda, especially among the Baganda who cultivate over 30 varieties. Mats, bowls, screens and cooking wraps are all common uses. Barkcloth, the inner bark lining of a particular tree, was widely used before Arab traders brought cotton fabrics at the end of the 19th century. Today, barkcloth and kanzus (a white cotton robe) are associated with "traditional" male dress. Women wear wraps of patterned textile (usually imported from Kenya and Tanzania) or the gomezi, a western style dress with pointed shoulders. Other natural materials such as gourds are also widely used for a variety of purposes.

Performance

Musical forms are plentiful throughout Uganda. An unusually wide variety of stringed instruments abound, including harps, zithers, fiddles and lyres. Xylophones are popular in the southern, western and northwestern parts of the country and most regions use drums in a variety of contexts. Historically, drums were often closely associated with positions of power in many regions. These "royal drums" are personified and treated as living entities. In pre-colonial times, to possess one of these drums legitimated one's position of social power and importance. Aerophones such as flutes and sets of tuned horns (called amakondere, agwara or amagwara in different regions) are also used as are a seemingly endless number of shakers, rattles, and bells.

Dancing is also widely popular and is intimately tied with musical performance. In fact, the word "ngoma" is often used to refer to both activities. Dance styles in the south are typically waist-centered, with upper body movement minimized. In the north, foot, arm, and neck movements are emphasized and elaborate headresses are often worn. Dances like Bwola from Acholi in north-central Uganda can incorporate hundreds of people in carefully choreographed movements. The southwestern and northeastern regions emphasize leaping and stamping movements that bring the feet into forceful contact with the ground.

This description only glosses the tremendous variety of vernacular expressions found in Uganda. Other areas such as storytelling, architecture, social structure, marriage patterns, religion, medicine, and language offer exciting topics for further inquiry.

Traditional Music

In Ugandan traditional music the xylophone is king. There are two main types of the xylophone, the amadinda and the akadinda. They are both royal forms but are also played by musicians outside of the royal compound and at public events. Buganda had a fascinating system whereby national music was developed and disseminated. For each recognized form of classical music/dance, there was one man who was considered a master and who lived in the palace. Each of these traditions also had their own compounds for storing, training, and performing. These master musicians then apprenticed skilled artists from clan groups throughout Buganda for limited periods of time. When these artists returned to their region, they taught others the music, and so people throughout a large territory were familiar with topical songs from the Palace.

The amadinda and akadinda vary in size and number of keys. The amadinda is larger (in terms of the size of the keys), usually with 15 or more keys tuned in an equidistant pentatonic scale (the same scale is used in akadinda). It is played by two or more people and often involves the abstraction of vocal-based pieces performed instrumentally. The interaction of the two players' melodies (each with two hands playing the same notes, one octave apart) creates a third melody with a longer cycle. You have to see it to believe it. Two players can produce music faster than 120 beats per minute with each individual appearing to barely break a sweat. The akadinda keys are usually smaller in size, but may have either more keys (around 20) or fewer (only 10).Essentially, the akadinda is a more diminutive amadinda (in terms of key size). The compositional structure is essentially the same, except that the 20 key instrument is played by four people and the ten by a soloist (in conjunction with the Mbaga wedding dance, for example).

Both the amadinda and akadinda may be played in conjunction with percussion. The royal forms include low-end tuned drums connecting with the pentatonic scale of the xylophones. This particular form has stylistic features reminiscent of Western Ugandan music (Nkole and Butoro, for example). Both the amadinda and akadinda are derived physically and compositionally from neighboring Busoga where they are called mbaire and obubaire respectively. The Basoga and Baganda had close royal relations and shared musicians frequently. Buganda borrowed many styles and instruments from the Basoga but were the dominant ones of the relationship, often sending their own people to rule in Busoga districts. Balikowa Centurio is the grandson of the last lyre (entongoli) player of the Busoga court who used to perform in Buganda frequently. This particular form was restricted to the royal compound in both Busoga and Buganda (where they call it endongo). Balikowa plays now, and even won a scholarship for his entire primary and secondary education because of his skill in a dying art form.

This article is from the University of Pennsylvania African Studies Department

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