The dope Kenyan DJ with the girl duo singing “Kenyan Girl, Kenyan Boy” as dancehall. Photo: Awuor Onyango
Sunday 18th October. It rained the better part of the day. A few people were huddled around fires, smoked weed, and a few had mouth-herpes after kissing too many mouths and God knows what else. Standing next to the crew from Nairobi, I shielded my pride at seeing my colleague Marshall Edgar on stage. The guitarist from Sabar Zibula, an Afro-jazz band–without keyboards, Thank God!–was performing one of his soaring jazz guitar solos during their one-hour live set. The Marshall Edgar I met 5 years ago called himself Marshall the Great. Back when he had dreams of becoming a guitar hero. Like the Macbook app.
I knew where Marshall got his licks. Back in the day Marshall often talked about Django Reinhardt, a guitarist who played jazz with only three fingers yet with the kind of melodic complexity that matched the best saxophonists of his time. I was more obsessed with Scott LaFaro’s innovative free bass movements than with Reinhardt’s lightning speed playing. But Marshall seems to have learnt a few things over the years. His guitar solo evoked the bluesy Prince from the 80s; the virtuosic Santana from the Miles Davis period; and, of course, the polyrhythmic nnanga from Western Uganda. You couldn’t help but feel proud when your friends were rising up in the world.
The road leading out of the Nile Discovery Resort Beach to themain Jinja Road highway at 10 pm was very slippery, even for a masterful boda-boda. As the bike’s headlights beamed into the distance, you thought about the sheer madness of being out dancing in an enclosed ghostly part of town at this time of night. The ludicrousness of riding bodas in the rain after midnight made you wish you camped instead.
I am surprised at how late-night-boda drivers riding through slippery slopes in the quasi-wilderness cannot abate the desire to ask pointed questions: Hm. What is going on there? I saw too many people. How much do the tickets cost? Why are you leaving this early? I hardly declined to answer, bursting in laughter when I couldn’t deal with the interrogation. It is something being on the back on a boda-boda bearing all sorts of post-festival feelings, and driving up a muddy and slippery slope. I must have zoned out while he asked the fourth and fifth question. I watched the maize and the cattle in the dark, and thought village life quite uplifting. An unusually low-roof building was a converted club banging out more dancehall than I had seen onstage. In the distance, an extraordinarily large factory stretched across the cityscape.
Can You Stand The Rain
New Edition, R&B song
Sunny days /
Everybody love them /
Tell me baby /
Can You Stand the Rain
2 pm. Saturday, 17th October. A troupe from Gulu danced in the park. Two artists, one holding a camera, the other a rolex, were gushing, in a way, about the troupe’s performance in general. In fact, one of them passed me his rolex and went to their tent to pick a recorder, since he made his interest out to be ethnomusicological field recordings. The dingi-dingi dance. A knee-jerking performance, accompanied by choral singing, flutes, and screams. I was, in some Pan-African way, taken by the troupe. I thought it would go on for almost an hour, when it stopped as soon as it had started. The artist in search of the field recording was back from fetching his recorder. There was nothing to record.
4 pm. The music gets livelier, thanks to a DJ Ben aka BBrave playing what sounds like electronic dance music with Lingala. I joined in, if only casually, with two friends dancing in the park. So there were a couple of special things: One was watching Wanlov from FOKN BOIS, running towards the stage in a skirt, and really shaking that thing (both ways) to the music while waving at the DJ. The other was when I looked over my shoulder at the previously observant and mostly cool Awuor Onyango turned dancer in an aerobics workout. Oba where was her camera? I don’t know.
There was a time when soukous flooded the living rooms of Ugandan families who watched UTV after 6 pm, that is when transmission was re-established. This was 1994. One of those days after 6 pm, Pepe Kale, the Congolese grandmaster of Soukous came on the TV. His queen dancers and boy dancers were gyrating like I had never seen anyone do so in my then short-life. What did one do except join in? That’s how you learn to dance. A white boy was busting moves that took me back to Pepe Kale’s queen dancers from 1994. Then, out of nowhere Mildred Apenyo, pounced onto the park and we began a round of shake-your-body dancing. It was then that I realize that old feeling. To be on the dance floor and gel with someone.
Friday 16th October. At the gate I overhear a couple just in from Belgium get their wrist bands. Many others are setting up camp all over the forest-looking gardens. This place: so ancient, so of-our-time. Half a century ago, the lake-cruises and beach-concerts were reserved for an aristocratic elite. As I tour the colossus of a site I notice most of its buildings covered in dust and cobweb. Take the massive concrete elephant with a broken trunk, made the park look like it hadn’t been used in years. Down at the beach, I sit down with the two artists from Nairobi, and get to discussing the bigger picture. What was this place and this festival really about?
I have to stop and take in the imaginary distinction between Uganda as Kampala and Uganda as Jinja. How could one live in a country for years before visiting the Source of the Nile, as we call in it History and Geography books? We sit there near the water and dip our feet into the Nile. A kind of magical experience. My own cynicism about John Speke and his discovering the Source of the Nile is silenced by nature all around. How many species of birds are living on rocks and in the trees, and those gliding in the water. I recall the flying cormorants from the Egyptian hieroglyphs, after seeing some take off in a flock. How cool the atmosphere of a river that feeds nine or ten countries is. How great the river would be, I suppose, in the imagination of one discovering it for the first time. We are at Nile Discovery Resort Beach after all.
It was about 9 pm on Saturday 17th and we were confessing about death or some grave thing that rain pouring that close forces out of you, when a group of festival fans who’d collected under a tent began their brand of festival protest. They wanted music and the rain wouldn’t stop them. Resolved to protest against silence, they carried the tent and proceeded to plant it in front of the stage, and continued chanting in the rain. If there was ever a moment of solidarity, that was it.
Early afternoon, Sunday the 18th of October. The guys from Who Killed Captain Alex were filming Nyege Nyege Island. Earlier on Friday, I’d heard how frustrated the film producers were in realizing their ‘Island’ project, as the location was heavily guarded by the army. I was overjoyed on seeing one of the soldiers trying out the fake guns that the film crew designed for the set. How weird was this brand of truth-telling as one of the producers and prop-designers showed the Ugandan soldier a clip of their latest action film. The soldier said: “When it is time to fight, what else is there to do?” I sensed in his words the weight and burden of war.
Sunday late-afternoon was less retrospective, as the crowd swayed to island reggae vibes, when it started raining heavily. Like a syndicated episode, the MC synchronized the start of the public recording of Nyege Nyege Island, with the rain-muffled instructions: Run! Run! Then, Die! Die! A mammoth wave of people ran uphill chased by a gang of mock-assassins shooting them. A few dying off like flies.