To mark 50 years of Uganda’s independence, New Vision will, until October 9, 2012, be publishing highlights of events and pro ling personalities who have shaped the history of this country. Today, JOSEPH SSEMUTOOKE looks at the life of Stephen Rwangyezi, the teacher, lover of music and a nationalist at heart, who took Uganda’s folklore to the world
In 1984, the man who trained the students of Lubiri S.S in music, dance and drama realised that many of his talented students were dropping out of school due to lack of tuition fees.
That trainer, Stephen Rwangyezi, was perturbed, especially as he had been one of those who had made it through school because of his talent. Adding that he had long been looking for a way to preserve the country’s diverse musical endowment.
Organising the students into a professional performing arts troupe was a matter of urgency, because the earnings of the troupe would pay for the performers’ education, while also preserving the country’s music and dance wealth.
Formation of Ndere Troupe
In 1984, before it could perform or rehearse a single item, Rwangyezi registered Ndere Troupe with the culture ministry as a cultural development organisation. He called it Ndere Troupe to symbolise the beautiful diversity of Uganda’s music and dance traditions. Much as he registered the troupe, Ndere would wait two years for a performance.
It was in 1986 that Ndere Troupe began performing in schools, to a great reception, but when he ventured into performing for the general public at a fee a year later, Rwangyezi, who had had the idea of running the troupe as a business, soon realised the public’s mindset had been accustomed to viewing native arts for free. So he decided to offer his performances free with the hope that he would later add a price to the shows after audiences had started appreciating them.
Between 1986 and 1995 Ndere performed free of charge in schools and between 1988 and 2003 the troupe performed at the Nile Theatre every Sunday, also at no cost. It was after the troupe’s demand had surpassed its supply that Rwangyezi began to charge for every performance.
Preservation of Uganda’s heritage
According to Joseph Batte, a veteran music analyst, there have been many organisations and people who have worked to preserve Uganda’s music and dance heritage since the country came into existence, but none has had a harvest as bountiful as Ndere’s. Today Ndere is the sanctuary of over 50 dances, from almost all of Uganda’s ethnic groups/tribes.
It has also kept the music styles of different ethnic groups, singing and playing nearly every traditional musical instrument in Uganda. In there too, Rwangyezi and the troupe have researched extensively on the various cultural beats connotative to the dances and music.
To properly preserve the performing arts heritage in an organised and durable manner, Rwangyezi, with the help of a grant from the Austrian government, established the Ndere Cultural Centre in Ntinda. The centre serves the troupe as a home, a training ground and a library containing all the recordings of the troupe’s performances since they started.
In 1997, Rwangyezi started the Uganda Development Theatre Association, where performers from different localities of Uganda get trained by Ndere and then sent back to their communities to train others, start up groups and preserve their art, while also using the art for education purposes.
There are now 2,084 groups affi liated to the Ndere Centre under the Uganda Development Theatre Association. Since 2000, the troupe has also been running festivals at its centre.
Education and sensitisation
Away from promoting cultural heritage, Ndere Troupe also uses its art to sensitise and educate the masses on the issues affecting Uganda.
The troupe has since its formation used its plays, dances and songs to deliver to different communities messages on themes such as health, economics, education and governmence. The troupe also performs at graduations, weddings, anniversaries, dinners, launches, conferences, expos, festivals and state functions, among others.
Rwangyezi says in Africa, written word did not exist thus Africa’s history literature; knowledge and wisdom were recorded and passed on through the medium of performing arts, music, dance, storytelling and poetry.
Uganda’s cultural ambassadors
In 1990, a Dutchman who had been impressed with Ndere’s performance invited the troupe to a maiden tour Europe, where they performed in The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.
The tour started off a globe-trotting dimension in Ndere’s performing life, where they have since toured all the continents and garnered much acclaim, exposing the country’s music and dance wealth to the world. President Yoweri Museveni has previously recognised Ndere’s performances abroad for the role they played in marketing the country’s tourism industry, as many who have seen Ndere have visited Uganda.
The man behind Ndere
The man behind everything to do with Ndere is driven more than anything by a passionate love for his country’s culture. “I grew up seeing the new ways brought by the whites washing out every bit of our culture,” he says.
“Everything to do with our culture was being reviled as backward, primitive and evil. Yet as one who grew up having a taste of both sides, I knew our culture was beautiful in many ways and there was a lot that needed to be preserved.
“So I set out to preserve and show off the beauty of our culture, particularly in the performing arts which have been a part of my life,” says Rwangyezi. Rwangyezi was born in 1955 in Itojo, Ntungamo district, to a family of musically talented persons.
By the time he was 10 years old, Rwangyezi had mastered the fl ute (endere) and it was the instrument that saw him through primary school despite having problems with school fees. Every time they sent him home for fees, they would call him back because there was no one else to play the fl ute at the school’s music, dance and drama (MDD) events.
He went to Itojo Primary School, starting in P.3 in 1970 at the age of 15. After his primary education he joined the Teacher Training College in Kabale, in the four-year stay he learnt western music too. In 1985 and 1986 he studied for his diploma in MDD at Makerere Univeristy and between 1987 and 1990 he did a bachelor’s degree in economics and rural development.
Over the years, he has taught music and English in Mbarara, Kabale, Kasese and Kampala, while also training the school choirs and MDD groups and has won regional and National MDD competitions with various schools.
Ndere Troupe: Preserving Uganda’s traditional music