The Lyre of the African Odysseus

A conversation with Geoffrey Oryema

An interview by Opiyo Oloya

His sister says he is a daring man who will deliberately step out of line just for the sheer ecstasy of it. This description of the Paris-based Ugandan Geoffrey Oryema might help explain his latest album Night to Night (Virgin, France). Unlike his two previous albums, this is probably the most complex and as other worldly as any African sound can get. On the album, Oryema is an African Odysseus, travelling through time, listening to different sound on the landscape. The lukeme sound is not just that any more, but the sound of a train arriving at the station. There are wild horses in the mist, sound you think you know but are not quite sure where you heard it. Moreover, rock and roll goes hunting on one of the tracks when a man picks up his spear and disappears into the African bush. Says the softly spoken Oryema from his home in Normandy, France, "You need to go further beyond expectation. My idea of being an artist is first and foremost to explore the world between roots and modern music. It is a search for an identity, a musical identity."

Talking to Oryema, one gets the impression that he is searching for more than just a musical identity, but the meaning of life itself. After all, his childhood world fell apart one day in 1977 when his father was brutally murdered on the orders of dictator Idi Amin. Up until that day, the young boy had enjoyed a privileged childhood befitting the son of Uganda's most respected police chief who later became the Minister for Natural Resources. Moreover, Oryema had forged a close bond with his musical father, one of the last great nanga players in the whole of Acholi land. This was where Oryema learned to play the traditional nanga. Then came news of his father's death announced on public radio. Devastated and only 24-years old, Oryema had to be smuggled in the trunk of a car to the safety of a neighbouring country. Like the fable Greek character Odysseus who begins wandering after the fall of Troy, Oryema was launched into a journey of searching for meaning in music.

Indeed, Night to Night is a testimony of Oryema's eclectic musical journey which includes appreciation of The Rolling Stones, The Shadows, Roxy Music and Peter Gabriel's Genesis, Baaba Maal, Lokua Kanza and Ali Farka Toure. Not surprisingly, the album reflects the duality created by combining African roots with western pop. And yet because of his sheer veracity and indeed a touch of genius in songwriting, the songs are not just a clutter of odds and ends. Lead guitarist Jean Pierre Alarcen used the guitar very sparingly, nary a chord is wasted where it should not be. The melody is meant to float for a while in the air before it settles on the ground like a fluff of feather.

But Oryema is keenly aware that his critics will charge him with murdering the African roots that brought him world fame in the debut album Exile (Real World). So much so that he is quick to defend his westernised artistic inclination. He wades into the controversy head on. "Third world artists are criticised when they borrow sound from Europe. Yet, western artists like Paul Simon are praised for digging deep into the rich cultures of Africa. This is a double standard that is no longer acceptable to many of us."

The "us" must surely include his friend and music collaborator Zairean musician Lokua Kanza whose minimalist album Wapi Yo has divided critics around the world. Kanza indeed waves his magic wand on the tracks "Naa Dream", "Miracle man", "At my window" and "To the Metro". Like a gentle weaver, he pulls together golden strands from Oryema's whimsical voice and moulds them into a wholesome experience.

So, like the Greek hero Odysseus, Oryema, whose background is in theatre, refuses to give in to quick temptation of easy success. He says proudly, "My music comes from my heart. I don't want to be pigeon-holed into a ghetto where I am defined by just one genre of music. I want to be universal."

Strong words spoken by an artist who is daring enough to uproot the pumpkin in the old homestead. The jury, though, is still out on how African music purists will receive his new craft. - O.O.

Read a review of the album in Afrodisc.

See also: Africa, AfroDisc

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