Music and culture have had a relationship for ages.
In Buganda for instance, different practices either had a dance, specific drum sound and in some cases, a drum specifically made for the occasion.
In this way, people easily relate certain songs, sounds and dances to situations. Even in home settings, music was easily used to pass on messages that would in any other way have been uncomfortable.
It is partly the reason why dances or moves such as the mabaga or mbaga existed. The dance was synonymous with weddings or preparing people for marriage, thus, it was a pseudo sex education. It was normally performed by a woman who has reached the age of 18 and was being prepared for future marriage.
Isaac Buwuule - Mpambire Drum makers Association
In this dance, topics on how to be a good wife, birthing and taking care of children, managing the house and the like are expressed. They use instruments like tube fiddle (endigidi), drum (namunjoloba ), shakers (ensaasi), long drums (engalabi).
Music and the community
Then there is the magunju, the dance that involves thunderous stamping of the ground and throwing the feet was invented by an uncle of a young king. It is said that during the Lukiko, the young king always got bored and the dance that was only performed by people from the Butiko (mushroom) clan was invented to keep him entertained.
In fact, besides passing on cultures and norms, many things about music in different tribes across the continent were and are very political. In different settings, the best musicians were always singing at the palace and courts; they loved serving their kings in this manner.
Years later, it almost became hard for people to look at art generally as a professional service they had to pay for.
Which explains why many found it difficult to turn their love for music or creating it into a viable business venture.
And constantly, drum makers from Mpambire along Masaka Road have faced such challenges.
Mpambire, located in Mpigi District is thought to have the biggest number of drum makers in the central region.
The village is synonymous with drum making alongside other musical crafts such as the bow lyre, arched harp as well as the xylophone among others. Many of the makers were born in the craft that they don’t remember the first time they made a drum.
Most of them learnt the craft from their parents, most of whom had also been taught by their parents and so on.
Isma Kyambadde, one of the drum makers that owns a workshop in Mpambire says drums like many other Ugandan crafts are not appreciated by many Ugandans because of different reasons.
“Many people don’t look at them beyond the musical instruments that they are, they can’t imagine having a drum as part of their decor,” he says.
Like the rest of the world, Uganda was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. In a bid to curb the spread of the virus, Uganda like the rest of the world set up different measures, and gatherings were banned, which directly affected the creative economy, education and the religious sector.
“The churches are open at the moment but they are not buying as expected because they are still recovering,” Kyambadde says.
But he says there are people that are at least buying them as souvenirs, these usually take smaller drums that can be used as wall hangings, “but still, most of these are foreigners, Ugandans are yet to fully embrace craft.”
Willy Kalule, one of the drum makers starting out, still works at the workshop owned by the Mpambire Drum Makers Association. He says drum making even without a stable market among Ugandans is one of the reasons many youths in Mpambire have jobs.
With the association, many of the new drum makers join and instantly have a place to work from. In this case, they don’t have to worry about setting up their own workshop at an early stage in their careers.
Besides having a workshop to call a home, craft men also get a chance to handle big assignments, for instance if a client wanted about 200 or more drums that one person can not handle, the association can mobilise its members to take on the assignment and share the profit.
However, even with an association that seems to get much of the work done, there are challenges.
Isaac Buwuule, one of the leaders of the association says that at the moment, they wish to have a better and presentable workshop. At the moment, the workshop is a makeshift wooden and reeds building that acts as a workshop, store and at times the waiting room for visitors.
“Initially we wanted to put together a structure but we failed to raise the funds,” Buwuule says.
He adds that because Mpambiire is where many Ugandans go to either buy or learn about drums, the association had caught the attention of the Uganda Tourism Board and they had intended to help the association out.
“However, they couldn’t put up a structure before we presented a land title to prove we own the land,” he says.
It turned out that the piece of land where Mpambire’s association of drum makers sits is disputed, apparently the land title is the hands of the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA).
Like Kalule, Buwuule says when schools open, they believe things will become better. He says, schools have a number of activities that usually require them to buy drums in big numbers.
Catching up with nature
Buwuule says they could have a stronger market but many things have been going wrong of late. For instance, he says that the weather and climate change have affected their work greatly.
“The weather has affected many things we use during our work,” he says, adding that it is hard to access some of the trees they need while curving drums.
One of the vital drums in a Ganda celebration are the long drums commonly known as the ngalabi. The high pitched instrument usually works as a support instrument spicing up the whole sound.
Unlike most of the drums, the long drum was initially covered by the skin of a monitor lizard, which is the reason it was able to produce such an infectious high pitched sound with ease.
However, monitor lizards have since been protected by the Uganda Wildlife Authority that hunting or being found in possession of a drum with the skin is punishable with at least 20 year jail term.
“We have been forced to switch from the monitor lizard skin to goat’s skin which has drastically changed the sound,” Kalule says.
There is hope that the industry will open up in January, Buwuule is hopeful that the situation may improve for the better, but he still says more needs to be done.
“For instance, we have not taken on opportunities such as digitizing our businesses, people can not find or buy our products online,” he says.
He also notes that it is important for them to start regular markets where people can always come and interact with the crafts, “maybe some may not be buyers, but who knows they will hire a drum or two for their events?”
At the moment, with the creative industry still under lockdown, many drum makers are only hanging in there hoping things will become better soon. However, even if they are to get worse, they are determined to keep going, because it’s the only job many of them have known since childhood. For them it’s not just a job, it is a way of life.
Written by Andrew Kaggwa HOW TO REACH: Mpambiire Drum makers(+256 701767236) Photos by : Andrew Pacutho & International Trade Centre
This article was produced as part of the Handicraft Souvenir and Development Project implemented by the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities and the International Trade Centre funded by the Enhanced Integrated Framework .