The lament of the exile

Issue 

Beat the Border
Geoffrey Oryema
Real World through Larrikin Entertainment
Reviewed by Norm Dixon

"African music" and "World music" are wholly inadequate terms to describe Geoffrey Oryema's beautifully crafted album. Lazy or ignorant record company publicists and even lazier music writers have pigeonholed the music of an entire continent of more than 500 million people and tens of thousands of cultures, with all their nuances and varieties, under that category. As a result, "African music" for many people implies a narrow range of relatively homogenised dance musics from Africa's main urban centres.

Paris-based Ugandan emigre Oryema's music is an example of the diversity of music from the African continent, which confounds the "African music" stereotype and challenges the listener.

Beat the Border, Oryema's follow-up to his debut album Exile, is a mellow blend of acoustic folk using traditional instruments from his homeland and the guitar, African rhythms, backed by the dreamy ambience provided by the synthesisers and keyboards of Brian Eno. Gutsy oomph is provided by French electric guitarist Jean-Pierre Alarcen's bluesy interventions as well as more restrained, almost classical passages.

Oryema's rich, baritone voice, at times sensuous then melancholic, glides up and down the scales as he sings, calls and wails his heartfelt laments and stories of everyday village life in the Acholi and English languages.

His lyrics dwell on stories from his childhood, the pain and confusion of being cast out from his homeland, parables of justice and equality, and the need for unity among people.

That the themes of exile and unity are never far away in Oryema's music comes as no surprise considering his life story. He was immersed in the rich culture of Uganda from birth. His mother was the director of the national dance company, the Heartbeat of Africa, and his father played many traditional instruments. Young Geoffrey was encouraged to learn the nanga — a seven-stringed harp that was played in the royal court as long ago as the 15th century — the lukeme — a metal thumb piano — the guitar and flute. He became engrossed by the stories he heard from Ugandan singers, poets and storytellers.

In the early '70s, Oryema enrolled in Uganda's Drama Academy, then formed his own drama company, which combined traditional African drama with the avant-garde European theatre pioneered by Stanislavsky. The company produced intriguing and courageous theatre on the situation in Uganda as the murderous Idi Amin consolidated his power.

Oryema's father, a minister in Amin's government, was killed on the dictator's orders in 1977. The assassination was made to look like a car accident. That same night Oryema escaped to neighbouring Kenya in the boot of a car. He made his way to Paris, then, as now, the African cultural capital of Europe. There he mixed with the musicians of French-speaking Africa and came across all the music styles and traditions of urban Africa as well as Western pop.

In 1989, Oryema's talent was recognised and he began performing at World of Music and Dance (WOMAD) festivals throughout Europe. His first album, Exile, appeared on Peter Gabriel's WOMAD-related Real World label in 1990. That same year, he performed at the monster Nelson Mandela tribute concert in Wembley Stadium.

His experiences have made him pessimistic about ever returning to Uganda but determined in his own way to try to bring change to Africa. "I have no desire to go back and become a refugee for a second time", Oryema said in an interview last year.

"What does democracy mean as far as Africa is concerned? To me it means you are willing to leave your seat and let somebody else take it, continuing to have dialogue with that person, whatever their opinion. But this is not the case in most so-called independent African countries ...

"I chose not to join any guerilla movement, although I was asked to. Instead I chose the musical path. And I think putting across a message which disturbs the mind — especially those in government — at the same time with a mixture of beautiful sounds, would make people think twice ... I'm not saying that I am playing a political role but I just contribute whatever I can."