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Recollecting the tunes of Buganda’s lost sounds 

During the DoaDoa arts market that took place at the National Theatre earlier this year, the Ntenga Royal Drummers opened the showcases. However, besides their unique sound, many didn’t also know that the music they played, Entenga is Royal with roots in the Kabaka’s palace and now at the brink of extinction. In the four part series that will be published in The Observer and here, we examine the different sounds endangered as well as efforts to revive them. 

A celebration in Buganda usually goes with music, when they initiate twins, marriage; even the celebration of the dead which cultivates into giving them successors. Today, music and Buganda kingdom is mostly witnessed when the Kabaka decides to visit a county in the kingdom, people along the road he’s meant to use will decorate the road with banana leaves and on the eve of the visit, they will get drums and start performing trans night – most of the times, the performers are doing it voluntarily. In fact, even in the different palaces, music played a big role as far as communicating was concerned, for instance, there was special sound played to warn people of an outbreak, one played to prepare soldiers for war and others played to inform the subjects that the Kabaka had left or comeback to the palace.

This was the birth of sounds like Gwanga Mujje and Saggala Agalamidde, both done with a support of instruments.

It has been widely written that the  May 24 Buganda crisis in 1966 affected the country’s politics in many ways; for instance, plunged the country into crisis that many believe we are yet to recover from; then Kabaka and Ugandan president Edward Muteesa’s exile and the abolition of kingdoms in the country that has affected culture ever since.

Musisi Mukalazi, was above fifteen at the time, and living in the Mengo palace where it all started. Initially, Musisi had gone to the palace as one of the musician trainees to play the flute aptly known as the omulere thus was a resident there on the eve of May 23 when the first tear gas cans were shot into the Lubiri.

“The Kabaka had sent many of the instrumentalists and other subjects out of the palace since he had sensed the danger but of course some of us stayed longer,” he says adding that they thought the fighting wasn’t going to last that long.

He notes that the palace used to have very many instruments that were rarely quiet; some of these were drums, wind instruments while others were stringed. 

Daniel Kimoomera Mukasa, a custodian at Kabowa ku Mujaguzo, the designated place where many of the royal drums are kept says that music was vital in the palace and thus the presence of all the instrumentalists. He says that there was always a different sound played for a particular event or time of day.

However, when the attack, said to have been ordered by then Prime Minister Milton Obote happened, Mukasa and Musisi say that many instrumentalists at the palace were killed during the raid, some were arrested while others fled to save their lives. 

Today, almost 50 years later, even when the country is enjoying relative peace, many of these instruments, instrumentalists and the sounds they represented have never returned to the palace; many were apparently destroyed by the soldiers and as Kimoomera puts it, others were simply stolen while the players spread to different parts of the country.

Entenga, Amakondere and Entamivu sounds are some of the music that suffered with the crisis; they were three sounds that barely went quiet because of their significance.

Entenga is a set of fifteen pentatonic drums with twelve of them tuned to the notes of a xylophone. Thus on a full song played on the drums, one can experience the percussion, bass, rhythms and melodies across its six players.

Many stories have been suggested about the origin of the Entenga but the most common one and as written on the kingdom’s official website is that the drum and sound were brought to the kingdom by Kabaka Kyabagu from Kajujugwe of Bukerere with its drummer Nagamala of the Lugave clan. 

In fact, culture dictated that people that play the Entenga drums – the Batenga were to come from the Lugave clan. However, Musisi notes that Mutesa loved the Entenga  sound so much that he asked children whether from Lugave or not to be taught, and that’s how he (Musisi) ended up as a player even when is from the Mamba clan.

“Entenga entertains the Kabaka, thus, he would listen to it play before he went to sleep and even when he woke up,” Musisi says.

But to appreciate the sound better, Musisi says that Mutesa asked the drummers to play every morning at 3am; “he felt that the drums were so perfect and could only be fully appreciated at this time when it was quiet enough.” 

But besides entertaining the Kabaka, entenga was the travelling drum of the Kabaka, especially if he was going to cross a water body. 

According to Musisi, the royal Mujaguzo drum doesn’t cross lakes or rivers and because of this, they would take the entenga to play its role.

However, Kimoomera differs saying that it was only to Sese Island that Mujaguzo wouldn’t cross to; he says that in Buganda, it is believed that power is inherent in the drum and thus; “taking the Mujaguzo to Sese where it apparently came from, is equivalent to giving its power back to the island.”

In fact he also notes that the Mujaguzo doesn’t spend a night in a palace where a king is meant to reside, because that would be equivalent to giving palace two kings at ago.

“Mujaguzo as a drum is a king,” Kimoomera says.

The power of a drum as a whole is non imaginable, for instance, one Afande Mukwaya, who was researcher and maker of drums behind the Sikyomu Drum Makers, said that in the ancient Buganda, whenever a prince assumed his father’s place as the new king, they would mostly say; “Omwana alidde engoma” aptly interpreted as; “He has eaten his father’s drum”.

In fact, in Buganda, different kings usually order for a drum to be made, a drum ordered by a Kabaka is followed by a theme or special message, for instance when Muteesa was faced with rumors about his style of rule, he’s said to have ordered for the making of a drum whose theme was Tebyasa Mutwe a Ganda proverb completed as Ebigambo Tebyasa Mutwe, that much as he was being criticized, their words were not about to kill him.

Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi has too since ordered for the making of Buganda Bumu, a drum whose theme is aimed at uniting a kingdom that’s rather divided.

What exactly happened to entenga performers?

Kimoomera says that after the raid and the ban on kingdoms, many instrumentalists as well as other cultural practitioners ventured into other things since even showing up at the Lubiri was risky.

By the time kingdoms were restored in 1993, situations were different, even though some of the Batengas were alive, there was no way they could easily return and play entenga in the Lubiri where the Kabaka wasn’t residing.

He notes that many of such ritual instruments are meant to sound in a palace where a king resides.

“Why would I go play entenga in a palace without a Kabaka?,” Musisi asks.

Kimoomera says that much as the Kabaka stays in other palaces like Banda, it’s the one at Lubiri that is official and thus the only one where much of the royal music is meant to be played. Thus, the absence of the Kabaka in the official palace has been one of the reasons the sounds are missing – “there’s simply no reason to call the Batengas back to service if they’re going to play for an empty palace.”

Hajjati Zahra Nalugwa, one of the guides at the Lubiri in Mengo says that the reason the Kabaka is not sleeping in the palace is because of its brutal past, she notes that a Kabaka can’t sleep in a place where his people have shed blood. 

Nalugwa notes that after the raid on the palace, part of the space was used by Obote to create a torture chamber that stayed open and even expanded  when Idi Amin became president.

“Incidents that happened and saw many of the Kabaka subjects lose their lives make the place an abomination for him to reside in,” she says.

This leaves Entenga  and many other instrumentalists to only come in whenever they are needed at events. But Kimoomera notes that the way instrumentalists are generally treated these days could have played part in eroding the craft.

“Those days such people used to stay in the palace, they had houses specifically meant to be occupied by them, today, when they are needed, they are only summoned and seen off later,” he says adding that they also no longer attract the kind of respect they used to then, in fact, even the houses that used to act as residential for such subjects as instrumentalists are now filled by tenants.

“There are more chances that they will leave an official kingdom function without pay,” he adds.

The frustration of the few remaining Batenga has partly forced them not to teach their children the art since they don’t see any benefit it will add onto them.

A source that requests anonymity argues that today, the kingdom as it is has many officials that know way too little about the Ganda norms and culture.

For instance, she notes that much as there are people meant to entertain the kabaka or play certain instruments at specific events, these officials usually ignore such elements and go for troupes usually formed by money makers that have no respect for culture and what it stands for.

“There are dances that are simply obscene to be done before the Kabaka but people have continuously done them and to make matters worse, they are even not the people meant to do the job,” she says adding that she has even seen non Baganda do ritual dances for the Kabaka.

She says that the people at the kingdom can successfully go for troupes even when the people meant to carry out certain routines are still alive and willing to deliver.

This has left the people delivering such services including Batenga, Balere that played the Mulere, Badinda who played the xylophone or madinda and Batamivu that played an original war drum Entamivu feeling useless and thus seeing no need of continuing with a craft that’s no longer peculiar to their kind.

In the next part, we are talking the Amakondere, music from long neck gourds whose sound were relatively shared in Toro, Busoga, Buganda and some cultures in Rwanda but are on the brink of getting extinct.

About Kaggwa Andrew

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