Uganda’s extraordinary artist, whose music was deeply rooted in his traditional Acholi culture, has passed away, leaving an ominous emptiness in the fabric of African heritage. By Kalundi Serumaga
News came through that Geoffrey Oryema passed away on 22 June. As a musician who had lived and worked in Paris since about 1977, he became a figure in the then emerging sub-culture of music coming directly from a non-Western source, but which was integrated into the Western industry, where it was called ‘World Music’.
He came from the Acholi people, a community that suffered massive pogroms and human rights violations under first the regime of General Idi Amin (1971-1979), and then again, six years later, over the first full decade of the current government.
Oryema had a very unique sound and vocal style. He came from an extended family of musicians, poets and dancers, proponents of classical Acholi music.
I first got to know Geoffrey while I was no more than 11 years old. He was among the founding membership of the Abafumi Theatre Company, of which my father, Robert Serumaga, was director. The very first time I saw him was when his own father, Lt. Col Erinayo Oryema came with him to our home one evening to introduce him to my father.
He had with him an Acholi harp known as the nanga, and played while singing along. It sounded like a gently rushing stream, and he had a voice that wove in and out from a deep baritone to falsetto on one lyrical swoop. I was mesmerised, and have been a fan of his, and of Acholi music, ever since. As children, we admired him. With his great height and laid-back manner, we thought he was incredibly cool.
Within less than a decade of that encounter, both his father and mine would be assassinated, he and I would both be in exile, and we would not physically meet again for 40 years.
We need not dwell on details. Geoffrey’s father, a political figure, was murdered on Amin’s orders in early 1977. Reports say that in keeping with Acholi custom, he had been interred wrapped in goat hide, as a sign that the death had been in as- yet-to-be explained circumstances.
Geoffrey, who by this time had left the Abafumi Theatre Company, had to flee into exile, hidden in the boot of a car. Many of his siblings also fled. He made his way to Paris, then the informal hub of African creativity in Europe.
Towards the end of the same year, my own family found ourselves sneaking across the same border, following our father who, after months of living underground, had gone ahead. In 1980 he too – now a political figure – was assassinated, and buried in Nairobi. So, it was an eerily happy encounter for me when Geoffrey decided to make a homecoming tour to Uganda in 2016. I managed to get backstage before his performance and re-introduce myself. There was much to say, and no time to do so. He went out to perform. Then he left for France, saying he would return. He went quiet. I was not surprised because I had always known him to be a bit private. Then he died. We are told that he had been unwell for some time.
Something very significant has occurred here, and I am not sure this has been understood.
Death of living knowledge
I distinctly remember, in the first encounter, how his father – a legendary exponent of the instrument – initially interrupted him as he started playing, and after some gentle coaching words in Acholi, told him to start again.
I also recall his mother leaping to her feet in the audience during an early Abafumi performance, joining in with very loud ululation. She was then the head of Uganda’s National Dance Troupe. This was a family rich in their performance traditions.
Therefore with the deaths of his father, his mother, and now Geoffrey, a critical body of living knowledge of a very unique musical art, belonging to a much traumatised culture, may have been terminated.
But the world simply knew him as a wonderful, multilingual exponent of World Music.
In a statement, his one-time colleague, the British musician Peter Gabriel said: “I was very upset to learn of Geoffrey Oryema’s death… It feels as if we have lost one of our original family members…. With his rich low voice and beautiful songs he could mesmerise audiences, whether in a small club or Wembley Stadium. A big man has gone and left a big hole but he leaves behind a lot of warmth and many beautiful and emotional songs.”
In accordance with his last wishes, the ashes of his cremated body will be scattered in his ancestral home in Nwoya. There were some protests about this from siblings.
Is this an ancestral message? If we go back to 2014, there was a similar kind of disharmony in according Geoffrey’s father a fitting re-burial.
Once can imagine the circumstances of the first burial in 1977. How do you organise a funeral for one so prominent, and murdered by the government still in power?
Media reports at the time indicated that there were strong disagreements over the details of the government’s role among the surviving siblings. Geoffrey did not attend. I was really struck by this. In about 1993, the same NRM government undertook to exhume my father’s remains and have him re-buried in Uganda. A similar disagreement ensued, and some of us did not attend. Geoffrey, well-versed – perhaps more than most – in the ways of his people, must have known what his decision to opt for a cremation would mean, and therefore must have had very strong personal reasons for making it. Perhaps he felt he was not worthy of the kind of burial his family did not collectively deliver to their own father.
It is an unfolding moment in an ongoing cultural discourse.
We need to reflect deeply on what exile means to a person, especially to one whose life and work, as an artist, springs from and depends on a deep umbilical connection to their motherland.
For an artist, exile is a dilemma. To settle where you land, you need to forget home and the things it meant to you, but your means of survival, not to mention your passion, is the very thing you need to forget. You are trapped, in a sense.
And then returning from exile is in itself a process, not an event. With his first tour, Geoffrey had really just begun the process. “It feels like the fire of a deep wound. I’ve lived with those wounds for most of my life. This is a rebirth and a new beginning,” he said to the East African newspaper at the time. Now, it has been cut short. Given all that unfinished business, this is just a many-sided tragedy.
His Kampala concert was brilliant. Part of the challenge of being a native performer in exile is to avoid getting frozen in time at the moment you left home, but also to avoid pandering to whatever passes, in an attempt to remain relevant, or to lose your creative umbilical cord, and get trapped in folkloric abandonment, just surrounded by new acoustic technology.
To a great extent, Oryema avoided this. And I think it was because of how deeply grounded his family was in the tradition of classical Acholi/Luo music, which is very rich and very deep. Basically, they were Acholi griots. Apart from the nanga, he could play the flute and the thumb piano, and seemed to sing in multiple octaves at once. His voice was amazing.
What is our obligation towards our intellectual and cultural human assets? Something very huge has been lost, but this process began a very long time ago. Physical death has simply caught up with it. It is not inevitable for African matters to end badly. But often, they will.
Geoffrey Ochieng Oryema is survived by his partner Regine, and their children Ajoline, Chantal and Oceng. My deepest sympathies to them. NA