By Ogova Ondego
Published December 5, 2008
It is shortly before 4:00 PM when the master of ceremonies announces a break for prayer from the music performance that has been going on over the past hour. Although the performers get off the stage, music lovers remain standing or sitting in their respective positions, awaiting the prayer break to end so the cultural troupe may resume its unique traditional African performance. Under normal circumstances, the audience would have dispersed. But not when Dynamic Adungu Cultural Troupe from West Nile Province in north-western Uganda are the ones on stage at Forodhani Gardens on the ancient Indian Ocean Zanzibar archipelago. OGOVA ONDEGO reports.
Despite the onslaught of Globalisation that many people consider inimical to cultures and identities of the Developing World pushed through Western mass media, education and lifestyles, the Dynamic Adungu Cultural Troupe, under the leadership of Jimmy Adokuwun, is using music, dance and traditional instruments to preserve the culture and traditions of his Alur people.
Over the past 15 years, Adokuwun and his group have used Adungu (a harp played by the Alur since time immemorial), Ndara (xylophone), Lukambe (thumb piano), Agwara (trumpet), orum, shakers, ankle bells and horns to entertain, educate and inform Ugandans and tourists on life during weddings, parties and other social functions in the Pearl of Africa.
Of all the instruments the Dynamic Adungu uses, perhaps the Ndara is the most attention-grabbing.
While the Agwara is a long tubular rid, air-tightened with leather cover and blown from the thinner end of the cylindrical head, the Adungu is a string bow instrument with a belly covered with leather amplifying the sounds from the strings of various thicknesses and gradual lengths providing vibrational effects for harmony, pitch and tonality.
Dynamic Adungu Troupe founder and leader, Jimmy Adokuwun, explains that the ndara usually consists of 24 pieces played by 12 people at larger festivals.
“However we carry only an 18 piece-set played by six people whenever we travel outside our home,” he says.
In Uganda, the ndara has become the climax of all state functions. But the ndara of Dynamic Adungu is special. In their native Nebbi District, the Alur usually dig a hole in the ground and place the oak wood pegs over the hole which acts as the resonance room for the ndara. The Dynamic Adungu, because of their constant travels, now have a portable ndara for the ease of traveling and performing in various venues.
The ndara is made of oak wood with pegs of various sizes and gradual lengths suspended over the vacuum in wooden and/or metal frames which amplify the pegs already tuned into several octaves of the diatonic scale through only the “C” key.
Although the ndara was originally made to scare away wild animals that plundered crops in Alurland, 32-year-old Adokuwun, the heart and soul of the 10-member Dynamic Adungu, is using it to entertain, inform, educate and caution.
“Music is in my blood. I just feel it,” Adokuwun says.
RELATED: 7th Sauti za Busara Loses Focus
A full time artist, Adokuwun is keeping pace with the times and hence the “dynamic” description of his troupe.
“We use both modern and traditional instruments as the need dictates,” he says.
Besides being group leader, Adokowun is a versatile dancer and lead vocalist.
While Vincent Kaliru Mugisha plays the keyboard and produced the first album by Dynamic Adungu, Jimmy Nega plays the Adungu and Moses Motiti plays bass with Paskwale Wadhano on second bass.
Godfrey B Tolas Okul, Medi Mbaziira, and Geoffrey Okecha play percussions, saxophone and solo adungu, respectively.
Maria Omika and Sarah Dhugira put on their best dancing shoes for Adungu on the dance floor. And what a graceful trio they make with Adokwun!
When not travelling, the Dynamic Adungu perform at leading tourist Kampala hotels, restaurants, festivals, and social functions. Some of the establishments where they perform are Imperial Hotel, Speke Hotel, and Mama Mia Restaurant. They also participate in world music festivals in Kampala and in May perform at Amakula Kampala International Film Festival where they play the Ndara and Adungu to accompany silent film classics of the 1920s.
Adokwun, who first came to Kampala with his father who worked as a guard with the Bank of Uganda, says he grew up listening to the rhythms of his Alur people in Naguru suburb where a large number of Alur live. “At a young age I got involved in dancing and music,” he says.
He joined Wadikura, a traditional Alur dance and singing group while he was still in primary school. He was to remain with the troupe until he joined secondary school and it was from it that he picked up the interest for dance and music.
At sixteen, Adokuwun joined Inner Space, a multi-ethnic group he says experimented with ‘modern body movements’. It was from here that, he says, he learned much about choreography and started working in a multi-cultural setting. Even though he was a member for only a year, he says, “Inner Space was very important for me because it gave me confidence.”
Adokuwun’s next stop was at the Sharing Youth Centre in Nsambya, a Roman Catholic Church centre that also housed Blood Brothers, a reggae group that he says attracted him to the centre.
“It was the roots reggae vibes that attracted me to the center,’ he says.
Together with Michael Tabbs and ‘Bad’ Mike (who eventually ended up abroad in pursuance of their musical career), Adokuwun formed New Image, a group that would remain intact for five years. It was during these formative years that he started growing dreadlocks and got his nickname, Rasta Warrior.
“I was nicknamed ‘Warrior’ because I came up with a choreographed dance based on the Alur hunting dance which I dubbed the ‘warrior dance’,” he says.
Having noticed his music and dancing artistry, Jambo Star Band, a popular Kampala group that played Congolese music and consisted of Ugandan and Congolese musicians, invited him to join them as a dancer. Besides their own compositions, the band also performed ‘cover’ versions of famous Congolese groups.
Adokuwun later joined the Light Rays Band in 1997 as a dancer. After three years of entertaining tourists at the Imperial Hotel he joined Simba Sound Band of the Rasta couple, Rachel and Tony Senkebejje, and performed with them as a solo dancer at top venues in town like Canaan Bar, Half London, Grand Imperial Botanical Hotel in Entebbe, and Hotel Equatorial. All along he had underplayed his talents as a singer and composer. But this changed at the dawn of the new millennium when he founded his own cultural troupe.
“After years of dancing to modern African music,” he says, “I returned to my Alur roots when I set up the Dynamic Adungu Cultural Troupe. Musically the repertoire is based on the traditional music from my home area.”
The difference between Dynamic Adungu and most other cultural troupes in Uganda is that the former fuse their serving with modern elements.
While performing at Speke Hotel, Adokwun came in touch with South African theatre director Brett Bailey who was in Uganda in 2002. Bailey asked Adokuwun to be one of his lead actors/singers in his play, Safari (journey). The renowned Dutch World Music and Theatre Festival that takes place in The Netherlands annually commissioned safari.
After four months of rehearsals and a successful month long tour with Safari, Adokuwun returned home to beat cultural troupes from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Congo to the first prize at the annual Table of the Sun Festival in Kampala’s Mandela Stadium.
With the support of the Alliance Francaise in Kampala, Adokuwun and Dynamic Adungu recorded their first professionally done album at the beginning of 2004. They have just performed at Zanzibar International Film Festival and are set to tour Madagascar. Adokwun says he is determined to preserve the roots of his Alur culture despite living in a fast globalising world.
Adopting modern techniques and other influences, he says, does not mean one has betrayed one’s own traditions. To reach a wider target, Adokuwun uses English and Kiswahili besides his Alur vernacular. His singing about contemporary social issues like poverty, need for food security, steering clear of war and other socio-political instability, and AIDS makes his music educational and appeals to a wider audience.
Adokuwun says he wants to establish a cultural centre through which he can teach children how to play traditional instruments and also record music of traditional cultural troupes.