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Recollecting the tunes of Buganda’s lost sounds


It is easy to imagine nothing happens in the areas of Kitovu, Kasana/Katoogo in Mukono district.
The brown dust that envelopes your feet, eyes and hair plus the quietness give it the sense of a forlorn community.
The well-organised compounds, moderate houses all have evidence of life, yet there is no one to talk to.
Apparently, many of the residents are farmers and spend most of the day in their gardens.
Yet Kitovu is a village with lots of history.
For instance, many of the families that ended up in Ggavu (see last week’s article) originally came from Kitovu.
Kitovu is also where the official house of the famous Buganda drum, entamiivu, is located.
Because of the drum, the village has almost lost its original name to Nabitimpa, a name used to define the drum’s custodian.
Many of the boda boda riders are more familiar with Nabitimpa, even when they actually have no idea where it came from.
Entamiivu was a drum originally played in the company of six other drums: katemyo, enjongo, nakku, lusonso and two others called bwayita. These were accompanied by the xylophone, locally called amadinda.
Nabitimpa was the person who stayed at the Entamiivu house, referred to as a palace.
The position could only be occupied by a man; his role was to protect the house, the drum shells of the entamiivu and the accompanying six drums, with a number of rituals done by Nabitimpa in the process of making new drums.
Abdu Nuru Kimbowa and Kyobe Evaristo were once palace players of the entamiivu and say the drum was played when the Lukiiko (Buganda parliament) was meeting.
“The madinda section was the most active. Much as the entamiivu would often go quiet, the madinda didn’t; they played all through,” Kimbowa says.
He says in the run-up to the 1966 crisis, the instruments’ playtime in the palace was reduced.
“The Kabaka (Fredrick Edward Muteesa) wanted the instruments quiet so he could listen to the news,” Kimbowa reveals.

According to Buganda.org, entamiivu was brought to the palace by Kabaka Kyabaggu from inhabitants of Kyaggwe, said to have been from the Nyonyi (birds) clan.
Then, it was used as a war drum the Kabaka himself would sound while appointing a chief of a war.
Other sources say the drums’ sound was also heard on the eve of any battle.
The drums were played for soldiers to get them ready for war, thus the term, okutamiira olutabaalo, (getting drunk on battle), which gave birth to the name entamiivu.
But the drum, whose sound Kyobe relates to that of entenga, became famous outside warfare and found its way to the entertainment menus in kingdom courts.
This led to compositions including, Omusango gw’Abalere, Muno Muno, Ekyuma Kya Cotton, Agawuluguma and Nagenda Kasana, a song that was always played last to inform the Kabaka the instrumentalists were retiring for another shift of instrumentalists to take over.
“The sound of the entamiivu was so beautiful, especially when it played alongside a superbly-played xylophone,” says Kyobe.

Like many of the cultural values upheld in the palace, music too had its rituals.
For instance, entamiivu was not supposed to be touched by a woman; it was believed the drum would burst.
The restrictions did not affect only women; according to Kimbowa, the long drum known as lusonso, was not supposed to be placed between one’s legs (the way engalabi is) while being played.
“That was disrespect of the highest order. It would bring bad luck to the kingdom,” he says.
However, even when the rituals were highly valued, at some point they were the very reasons why people avoided the music.
For instance, Everence Nakijoba, currently an illegitimate custodian of Nabitimpa house, notes that until Ssekabaka Daudi Chwa’s reign, whenever a king died the custodian of the drums would also be killed.
“People were afraid of being custodians since you could not be sure if you would still live in case the king died,” she notes.
Besides the etamiivu, however, other musical instruments also had rituals that at times called for personal sacrifice.
According to Prof James Isabirye a music researcher at Kyambogo University, all instrumentalists were not allowed to sleep with a woman while staying in the palace.
“The explanation was that the gods would not be amused,” he says, adding the real reason could have been that since all girls in the palace were considered the king’s, they were avoiding a scenario where a king could end up with his subject’s lover and vice versa.
For the makondere, Nora Nantongo, whose father was a gourd cleaner, notes the instruments too had rituals guiding their planting, weeding and making.
For instance, even though they are climbing plants, it was not allowed to let them spread and grow on the ground, like pumpkins.
They were to be supported with poles to ensure the plant is not lying in the dust.

Today, the entamiivu and its sound are one of the least popular sounds in Buganda. In fact, many people have never heard of the drum.
Kimbowa says: “The problem was that for many celebrations, the entamiivu was played alongside the madinda,” he says, and the madinda sound always overshadowed the entamiivu.
After the 1966 attack on the palace in Mengo, Kyobe says a lot in the palace was destroyed but soldiers also went to neighbouring Buganda districts raiding and burning different artifacts and regalia with attachments to the kingdom.
As a result of the fear those acts generated, many denounced the music they lived for, since it could cost them their lives.
It was at that time that the Entamiivu house in Kitovu was also deserted by its custodians.
“It became hard to associate with any of the kingdom practices; staying away was safer,” Nakijoba says.

Instrumentalists including Kyobe and Kimbowa want the music played again.
However, there is little they can do, considering that none of them is culturally right to help in the making of new drums (entamiivu).
Much as Nakiboja knows a lot about the drums and how they are made, being a woman means she is culturally prohibited from doing it.
Besides, she is an adopted daughter of that family who does not even belong to the eligible Nyonyi clan.
“Before our father died, he had introduced us to a fairly young man who he said was meant to replace him,” she says.
However, the young man rejected his role and the drums. Today, at least two of the drums have been destroyed with the remaining four surviving in bits.
The house where Nakijoba has lived until July this year is also in a sorry state.
“I wanted to stay, at least to protect the remaining drum shells, but the house is a grave danger to my old age,” she says, adding that with neither toilet nor bathroom, living in that “palace” was becoming hard.
At the moment, this house is at the mercy of a well-wisher who knows nothing about its significance or the magnitude of the drum shells he has carefully placed in a grass-thatched makeshift enclosure.
According to Nakijoba, if the sound is to be restored, it must all start with that house.
“Entamiivu is a rather special drum and without that palace, there’s no drum.”

Don’t miss these amazing series’ climax, next week.

First published in The Observer

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