Berklee Today

Coda

Unanticipated Rewards in Uganda

 
   

It was more fate than fluke that I ended up moving to Kampala, Uganda, a few years ago. For years it had been my dream to live in Africa and learn about African music. During the 1990s, I played in a band with Senegalese percussionist Ibrahima Camara, and the musical heritage of this land piqued my interest. So I committed to the idea of spending two years in Africa. By September 2002, I was on my way. But there were many unknowns. I was unsure of what I'd find in Uganda, a country troubled for decades by brutal leadership, the AIDS pandemic, and 20 years of guerilla warfare. Originally, I had hoped to make the trip to discover a thriving music scene, but after some time in the country, unforeseen events drove me to explore the power of music to bring about social action. I learned that music has great potential to influence lives in positive and unexpected ways.

Synchronistic Meeting

En route from Boston to Uganda, I had a layover at London's Heathrow Airport. At the gate, I met Nick McWiggin, a Brit who carried a bass on his back in a gig bag. During our conversation, I learned that he was returning to Uganda. In addition to the bass he carried, he was bringing back a double bass purchased with money he and his band mates had raised in Uganda. McWiggin invited me to sit in with the band at a club in Kampala where the group played regularly. After jamming a few times, I was invited to join the band. My synchronistic meeting with McWiggin would lead to a turn of events that profoundly shaped my next two years in Uganda.

Initially I had hoped that my visit would allow me to learn more about the country's indigenous music. But every time I wanted to play traditional music, someone in the band would say, "Sure, but first teach us some jazz." Jazz is a rarity there, and the musicians exhibited the same hunger for jazz that I had for their music. So I decided to view this interest in my music as an opportunity to bring jazz back to Africa, and I worked to make the group the best jazz band in Uganda. As this theme of bringing jazz back to Africa crystallized, the U.S. Embassy took notice; and in 2003, my band the Kampala Jazz All-Stars received a grant to play throughout western Uganda. Our tour ended back in Kampala with five performances at the National Theatre and Cultural Centre.

As my Ugandan sojourn neared its end, my friend Stefanie Pollender mentioned a project of hers that brought together youth from countries bordering Uganda in an effort to raise awareness and show solidarity for the internally displaced people (IDP) within the country. Because of the two decades'-long guerilla war that has devastated so many lives in northern Uganda, this population has been uprooted from its homes and lives in unconscionable conditions. Currently, two million people inhabit these camps, with entire families crammed into tiny mud huts with thatched roofs. The camps do, however, offer some protection from the fighting simply because so many people live close together.

 
Jim Logan is a guitarist who lives in Cambridge and operates an organization that is building an endowment to benefit underprivileged African artists. Visit www.caravaan.org.  

Diminishing the Stigma

Pollender and our band decided that the group should perform at the IDP camp. And once again, with the help of the U.S. Embassy, I raised the necessary money. When we arrived in the town of Soroti, Pollender and I had another brainstorm. What if we brought health organizations in for the performance? In Uganda there is a deep social stigma associated with HIV and the process of testing for it. But it occurred to Pollender and me that the music could diminish the stigma by creating a festive atmosphere. And if the performance could attract a large number of the displaced, perhaps local nongovernmental organizations could offer testing and other services.

The results of our concert far exceeded expectations. Within the first few hours of the gig, the assembled health-care organizations used all 100 testing kits they'd brought-an unprecedented success for health-care providers and members of the band. None of us musicians had ever been to an IDP camp, so our experiences there moved us to tears.

A few months after the Soroti show, I returned to the United States and began to put my own life back together. But I had a persistent feeling that the project shouldn't just end. I'd discovered a way for music to be personally rewarding and create change, and I realized that I had to return to Uganda to continue this work.

In the spring of 2005, I requested Berklee alumni grant funding to return to Uganda and continue this musical outreach. I asked Pollender to try to find matching funds in Uganda. It took us a year to secure the money to return, and we played at six camps. The Berklee grant was matched with funds that Pollender obtained from Christian Aid and Save the Children in Uganda. Additionally, I received a commitment from Abbott, a pharmaceutical company, to donate 2,000 HIV test kits. I'd also learned that bassist and Berklee faculty member Herman Hampton had a daughter serving in the Peace Corps in Uganda. Our band needed a replacement bassist, and with additional funding from Save the Children we got enough money to bring Hampton over to play our gigs.

This past May, we returned to Uganda. We made an arduous six-hour trek, on the Post bus from Kampala to Gulu, a small town in the north with many outlying IDP camps. With armed escorts, the band and health workers traveled by caravan to the camps. The performances were a complete success; we averaged 200-plus HIV counseling and testing procedures per camp, which far surpassed these organizations' previous results. Organizations delivered health-sanitation education, distributed condoms, and provided safe-sex education. The Red Cross conducted blood drives while checking for the prevalence of HIV, and in one camp alone the Ministry of Health delivered more than 1,200 deworming and vitamin A supplements to children.

A Higher Purpose

My time in Africa has given me an opportunity to use music to facilitate the delivery of health care and to serve a higher purpose. We performed to audiences that by and large had never been exposed to jazz. The music presented a completely new paradigm for them. If our performances tweaked the ear of even one child who can develop a different way to express himself through music, that new perspective might prompt a ripple effect within the culture.

As a result of our experiences, Pollender and I have established the nonprofit organization Caravaan, which strives to enhance the education of young Africans with demonstrated artistic talent and provide access to the best available resources for advancement within their country or abroad (visit www.caravaan.org). Godfrey Lubulwa, the pianist in the Kampala Jazz All-Stars, has since been accepted to Berklee and awarded a partial scholarship. Caravaan is working with Berklee to cover the remainder of his expenses through charitable donations.

With these events now behind me, I have often thought of Pete Townsend's statement that those with musical talent have a certain responsibility to the world. My experiences in Uganda have persuaded me that whenever and wherever we can, we should use music to its full potential and make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate. In doing so, we can fulfill our responsibility to the world as musicians.