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Uganda’s love affair with the adungu

By Vision Reporter

Added 22nd April 2005 03:00 AM

When Alur men played it, the seductive tunes made girls run wild. Bagungu women played it to calm them down after fights with their husbands

When Alur men played it, the seductive tunes made girls run wild. Bagungu women played it to calm them down after fights with their husbands

By Serunjogi Titus

PASTOR George Okudi, who won the 2003 Kora Music Award for Best African Male Artiste is in love with the adungu (bow harp). “Melodies from the adungu are so beautiful,” he says, “They remind me of herdsmen and girls dancing together on a moonlit night in the plains of Teso.”

Okudi’s upcoming album, Iteso recalls this background. While he is belting out the lyrics, girls are ululating in the background. The song combines melodies from the adungu, the thumb piano, the flute and shakers. This blend is locally known as akembe. But Okudi has spiced it with electronic dance beats, repeated over and over again to create a hypnotising effect. The six-track album steeps towards techno music.

Okudi will launch Iteso in London on August 18. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Emorimor (chief) of Teso will be invited guest to the ceremony.

Wipolo, which is Okudi's most popular single, was also inspired by the adungu. Its simple, happy-go-lucky rhythm swept through Africa like a wild bush fire. It has earned sh220m from the sale of Wipolo single in five years. It earned him two Kora Awards (Best Male artist, Africa and Best Male artist, East Africa), two Pearl of Africa Music Awards (Best Gospel Single, Best Gospel Group) and a whole string of other titles. Wipolo made Okudi a superstar overnight. No wonder he is in love with the bow harp.

But he is not alone. Jimmy Adokwuni earns a living by playing the adungu to patrons at Speke Hotel. He plays jazz music, sometimes urban blues and hip-hop. He also tunes fans in to the ecstatic reveries of Africa’s people. “I fell in love with the adungu while still a child,” says Adokwuni. “Whenever grandfather sat by the fireside and plucked the strings, all the villagers would come in to listen,” he adds.

Okudi's role model, Youssou N’Dour from Senegal, marries Arab blues to melodies of the kora to make his music. The kora is a Senegalese harp with only one string. Okudi wants to believe that the kora is a prototype of the adungu, that migrating tribes added more strings to the kora over the centuries.

However, Steven Kasamba, an ethnomusicologist at Makerere University believes the bow harp originated from Egypt in 2000B.C. Archeologists recently dug up an instrument that resembles the adungu. It had eight strings made of cow's gut, an arched bow and a hollow sound box. A minstrel would pluck at the strings with his forefinger and thumb.

Nilotic tribes brought the harp along as they migrated up the Nile. The Dinka also added a percussion sound to it. Minstrels would place the adungu over a shallow hole in the ground. And while one was manipulating the strings, another was drumming the sound box with a club. Two musical currents were thus produced; one melodic, the other rhythmic.

Gipir, legendary founder of the Alur tribe, brought the adungu to West Nile. He used it to accompany ancient folk songs. It is said by the time he reached Pubungu, his company was short of young women. So, he taught his male subjects to play courtly melodies on the adungu and this attracted native girls and drove them wild during twin-naming ceremonies.
Milton Wabyona of the Uganda Heritage Roots says once the Bagungu had brought the harp into Bunyoro, they put traditional female virtues at risk owing to the seductive tunes of the bow harp. King Kamurasi thus confined the harp to the royal clans.

However, most Bagungu women still retained an adingili (very tiny adungu) in their homes. Its melodies brought moods of despair and resignation. Women often plucked at its strings after household fights.

Wandering singers carried the bow harp into Buganda.

White missionaries were so awed to find a local instrument that could be tuned to sound like a guitar or piano –– western instruments.

“The adungu was suitable for church music because it could drive people outwards into rapture and inward into confession,” says Kasamba. Missionaries thus carried the adungu from Buganda to Busoga, Mbale and Teso. They played it on a pentatonic scale to accompany the Catholic hymns.

However, Okudi's vigorous gospel dance music inherits from the diatonic scale. “This was a scale that the Iteso came up with when they tried to imitate the melodies from a box guitar,” says Albert Sempeke Bisaso, a curator of musical instruments at the Uganda Museum. The Iteso blended the diatonic adungu with the thumb piano, the flute and shakers to produce akembe - a recipe Okudi used to produce his multi-million Wipolo.

Iteso casts Okudi as the missing link between akembe and techno. It ought to win him a vast audience from all over the world, thanks to the adungu.

Uganda’s love affair with the adungu

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