Last week, in our first story, we talked about the Entenga drum that used to play in the Buganda palace but is on the verge of extinction today. In this second part, we talk another type of music, too from the palace, never documented yet very important to the departments of a palace.
Now in his 80s, Ssaalongo Muyimbwa Byakyalo is still vibrant and wears the face of a strong man.
At one time he is busy in the garden pruning or fixing poles to prop up different climbing plants – all this while telling stories about Buganda kingdom.
To many residents of Ggavu in Namaliiri-Kasawo, along Kayunga road in Mukono district, it is not known why this father-of-twins is revered by researchers in music.
Byakyalo played amakondere in Kabaka Fredrick Edward Muteesa’s (King Freddie) palace in Mengo in the 1950s and 1960s.
Alongside other musicians such as the batamivu that played the entamivu drums, balere that played the mulere (flute), the batenga who played entenga drums, and the badinda who played the madinda (xylophone), Byakyalo is a descendant of the different musical families that first settled in Ggavu when it had just been given to them by Ssekabaka Daudi Chwa II.
“The people that lived here were mostly the bakondere. Ssaalongo is one of the living ones. The batamivu and balere lived deep in Ggavu but many of them died and their children have even sold some of the land,” says Steven Kagimu, one of the men I found at Byakyalo’s home.
Ekkondere (amakondere, plural) is a traditional trumpet carved out of the muboga plant, a long-necked gourd classified in the Cucurbitaceous plant kingdom.
This wind instrument was also popular in other palaces of Bunyoro, Ankole and cultures in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.
Unlike the Ganda instrument that was made from a gourd, in other places including Ankole, it was intermarriage of a gourd and an animal horn, later covered with cowhide.
The music or sound produced by makondere is similar to that produced by the enzamba, a conical traverse horn.
Yet, despite the striking similarity in sound, the two played different roles.
For instance, the makondere were played in the palace and could even grace celebrations, while the enzamba was a hunting horn used to announce success of an expedition.
To produce sound from the makondere, trumpeters would draw breath from the depth of the lungs and press their lips on a hole that was made on the gourd. The music would then be heard coming out of an opening at the end of the gourd.
“It was easy to blend it with any of the other instruments at the palace and its sound was angelic,” says Byakyalo.
Little is known about the introduction of the this rudimentary trumpet in the Buganda palace, although it is said to be one of the palace’s oldest music thought to have been borrowed from Bunyoro kingdom or Tooro where it played with an accompanying dance.
Byakyalo says in Buganda the makondere played when the Kabaka had an occasion, for instance when the Lukiiko (Parliament) was sitting.
According to Byakyalo, it was the sound that preceded all other instruments, waking up the different departments of the palace.
Like many of the other musical instruments played in the palace until the 1966 attack by Apollo Milton Obote’s soldiers on the Mengo seat of Buganda Kingdom, makondere too are on the verge of extinction.
Byakyalo, who was in Ggavu when the attack happened, says many things were destroyed at that time.
Much as some instrumentalists survived, the instruments they left behind did not; but this was not the real death of the sound.
“People continued playing in their homes, because they believed the situation would improve,” he says.
He recalls that when Idi Amin (then president through a 1971 coup, who, however, had been Obote’s commander for the 1966 attack) returned Muteesa’s body from England where he had died in exile, the batenga, balere, bakondere and other players of the instruments he had cherished lined up Entebbe road to play for him one more time as the cortege left the airport for Kampala.
“We were clad in our uniforms and proud to be sending off our Kabaka in grace,” he says.
Kingdom musicians back then had uniforms.
For the bakondere, it was a cream tunic complete with a belt whose buckle bore the Buganda Kingdom emblem.
Fifty years later, the now rusty and old belt is what Byakyalo holds on to as the lone evidence of his connection to the music.
In his view, the sound has been lost because Baganda are too welcoming of other influences, neglecting their own in the process.
He says Baganda and Buganda stopped caring about culture and norms, allowing to be assimilated by other cultures.
“Today, our culture uses the drums to show those that a cultural event is taking place, but when it gets to general entertainment, our instruments are abandoned for a guitar or DJ,” he laments.
Professor James Isabirye a music researcher at Kyambogo University says one of the reasons the sound got lost was its lack of documentation.
The makondere playing in the wee hours of the morning could have been the reason why the sound was never documented or recorded.
“By the time people arrived at the palace, it was already silent,” he says.
Isabirye also notes that whenever a good artiste was identified, they would be taken to the palace to perform there.
As a result, all talented performers worked hard to get the prestige of being members of the palace’s different music outfits but never recorded their music for economic gain.
“Performers were more satisfied to perform for the Kabaka than record professionally,” explains Isabirye.
When the kingdom ceased to exist after the attack, many musicians did not find reason to keep playing their unique sounds.
Makondere in modern culture
Even when the original sound went silent, its influence never waned; the word makondere is often used in Luganda to reference sweet, uplifting music.
In fact, in a song Makondere by gospel outfit God’s Way aka G-Way, they praise God for uplifting them from bad situations to glory. The traditional trumpet is not featured, however.
Rising folklore artiste Giovanni Kremer Kiyingi earlier this year released his highly anticipated album, Makondere.
Mostly done in Luganda, the album features instruments including the akogo, congas, mulere and adungu among others, but has no documented play of the makondere on any of the tracks.
Even people much older than these artistes have not heard the sound of the original makondere. Clare Nora Nantongo, a resident of Timba, a village in Janda Ziroobwe, in Luwero may have grown up with a gourd cleaner for a father, but her father did not teach her how to play.
Neither did he invite her to the Bamunanika palace where the music was occasionally played.
“The music was occasionally played when the Kabaka visited the palace, but no one would allow us to walk to the palace because we were girls and above all, young,” she say. Much as she would have loved to enjoy the music at least once, it did not happen.
Byakyalo, who is in the evening of his life, seems to be the sole custodian of everything concerning makondere.
Byakyalo almost got his prayers answered when Isabirye took him to Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi’s 23rd coronation anniversary at Kabasanda, Butambala county.
Although the makondere were not sounded, Byakyalo went back to Ggavu contented that traditional music still has a place in the kingdom, since other familiar sounds were played.
Now with the help of his grandson, Byakyalo has a garden of muboga plants; he still hopes to make his beloved trumpet and teach youths how to play it.
Join us next week as we learn about the king’s war drum, Entamivu.