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Book Review: The Soul of Uganda Through Song by Michiel van Oosterhout

The Soul of Uganda Through Song by the Dutch journalist, music archivist and documentary filmmaker, Michiel van Oosterhout, is a lyrical telling of Uganda’s history in the period starting at independence in 1962 to the end of Idi Amin’s rule in 1979. Drawing upon his extensive music archive and profound passion for Uganda’s popular music and politics of the era, Michiel painstakingly curates the lyrics and sounds recorded by numerous magnificent singers of a bygone era; lyrics that spoke to the events of the day and thus providing a unique insight into the country’s history and zeitgeist. The Soul of Uganda Through Song is the first compendious work of Uganda’s popular music and it spans across music genres, ranging from kadongo kamu – one guitar player (think Christopher Ssebadukka and Dan Mugula) to Congolese rumba-inspired bands such as The CranesThe Rwenzoris and The Tames. In a sense, the book, a leisurely read with a rich and well-researched content, is the welcome comprehensive sequel to Michiel’s successful documentary, Bwana jogoo: the balled of Jessy Gitta, which explores the tragic fate of Jessy Gitta Kasirivu, a member of the 1960s/70s Kampala boy band, The Cranes.

In the period 1962 – 1979, Uganda had its share of problems and conflicts. But it also had periods of vigorous excitement and great hope. In choosing popular music to recount the country’s history in what the author refers to as an “alternative history book”, Michiel recognizes the singer and songwriter as both an entertainer and a legitimate custodian of a nation’s past. The Soul of Uganda Through Song, a strikingly ambitious work, offers some detailed accounts of unique events that have scarcely received mention or have been totally ignored in major historical accounts about Uganda. The book is more than a passing retelling of the country’s popular music and its societal, political and economic significance; it also highlights the contributions of a generation of musicians that emerged in the post-independence era and how they shaped Uganda’s popular culture through their music.

Most of the lyrics of the songs included in the book are straightforward narrations of momentous events; others are complex multilayered allegorical songs. Some are defiant and others farcical. However, all the songs have a historical congruence that overlay the highly rhythmic and bouncy sounds of interlocking instruments – guitars, drums, maracas/tambourines and saxophones/trumpets. Michiel’s choice of Mike Musoke to translate the Luganda language lyrics into English does not disappoint. Musoke expertly demonstrates his familiarity with the cultural connotations of the music, ensuring the essence and nuances of the Luganda songs is not lost in translation. All in all, the songs in The Soul of Uganda Through Song provide for a fascinating appreciation and understanding of the times as they played out on the verdant picturesque Uganda landscape – the Pearl of Africa. Michiel has an uncanny ability to hold it all together and keep it exciting and exhilarating to the very end of this musical historical safari.

The  latest book of Dutch journalist, music archivist and documentary filmmaker, Michiel van Oosterhout, ‘The Soul of Uganda Through Song’ is for sale now at the African Studies Bookstore at the Uganda Museum in Kamwokya, Kampala. 540 pages of music and politics of a bygone era!

Robert Bwire is an author and  physician living in the US. He is the author of “Bugs in Armor”, and has also published numerous scientific articles.

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