My tears started flowing freely last Friday night just three minutes after I had taken my seat at the Ndere Centre.
I was hosting a couple of journalist friends from Finland to a night out on the town, on their first visit to East Africa, and Uganda in particular.
This should have been their first evening treat in Kampala but we had to push it to the last night because of scheduling issues since they had arrived so late the Saturday night before and immersed themselves straight into work.
Even as I was considering the idea of going to the Ndere Centre with them, I was emotionally shaky because of my links to the place; Stephen Rwangyezi, the proprietor, producer, lead performer and cultural guru, had been my primary school music teacher and made quite an influence on my life – directly and through my brothers as well.
As I was taking my seat I marvelled at the way his personal energy was projecting from the centre of the arena through the open amphitheatre that guests occupy at this place.
The first time I had visited this place, in Kisaasi, the road there was dusty and the trip a little taxing, but the passion he expressed as he walked us round the venue back then made it look as neat and flowery exactly as it did last Friday, and the comparison unnerved me considerably.
In my mind, the first real home of the Ndere Troupe was in my childhood neighbourhood in Lugala, at the very top of the hill where my parents now live and that we all lovingly call home, where the dancers had (maybe still do) dormitories and practice areas whose drums sounded every so often without irritation and complaint from those of us in the surrounding area.
So when Rwangyezi began the move to Kisaasi it was natural for us to pay a courtesy call, and again a couple more times thereafter, noting on each visit how much closer he was to achieving the dream he had set out for back when I was still an impressionable, wet-behind-the-ears child, wide-eyed at his wealth of culture, melody and humour.
Last Friday, I was an adult again wide-eyed at this wealth of culture, melody and humour, and wet in the eyes at how well this man has done for himself and for his country.
In fact, I was a little ashamed that I had gone so many years without coming back here.
This year Ndere is celebrating thirty years in existence – Rwangyezi launched his group back when he was my music and drama teacher, and I remember the temptation of joining him but I but had far superior rivals who didn’t take up the opportunities either. Two of them – Peter Kagwa and my young brother Paul – now run their own events management firms, no little thanks to his personal tutelage back then.
Watching the performances, I realised that many of us cherish weekends because we get to attend traditional ceremonies where the highlight, let’s be honest for a minute, is the dancing and singing by hired troupes such as Ndere and the many branches that have sprouted from Rwangyezi’s brave move starting a cultural troupe.
Some of you only watch national ceremonies on television because of those traditional dances.
That night, Rwangyezi introduced an old Munyankore man who he said had left his home comforts to join Ndere so that the cultural knowledge he had in his head could be shared with the next generation.
Later, he had us learning how to respond to akarimojong – with “Maatta” – and went through a volley of greetings led by a nubile ngakarimojong who enquired after the weather, cows, crops, rain, soil, furniture…everything. And all was “Maatta“.
And after the akarimojong greeting tutorial, he announced: “In our cultures when we greet we don’t just say ‘Hi-Hi!’ …I mean who is low?!” triggering another burst of laughter at the unexpected flippancy.
The entire Ndere production is amazingly creative, maintaining the authenticity of our cultures while mixing in modernity in movement and choreography, punctuated by Rwangyezi’s humorous narrative that makes you feel, in those muscles at the top of your shoulders, as if you could have spent the evening at a stand-up comedy show but are getting much more value for your shillings.
And for me, the flow of the dancers brought fresh tears with each successive dance.
When the Rwandese Warriors broke out with Nyaruguru I remembered many a night with my father-in-law smiling in appreciation and a couple of times joining in the dance to this very song, performed live by Jean Paul Samputu himself.
Some of you may never have heard of the trumpets of West Nile, even though you do know names like Louis Satchmo Armstrong and fork out ten times the Ndere entrance fee for the annual Jazz Safari.
The Agwarra and Adungu sounded fantastic and led to a humorous lesson in geography and history narrated by Rwangyezi in full and embellished as, “The Agwarra and Adungu played by Adiku of the Alur, whose neighbours are Arua and Adjumani and produced a President called Amin…”!
The thundering Barundi drums heralded in the climax of the night but could themselves have allowed us to leave on a justifiable high.
But that was the job of the Larakaraka, erupting in Ndere’s signature pot-balancing dance – high tempo, technicolour, upbeat, vibrant, vibrating, throbbing, promising, pulsing, pulsating, undulating, ululating, mellifluously causing us to draw in breath while cautiously applauding with an irrational fear that out movement might topple the pots the girls had stacked on their heads….Two, three, four…seven, eight!
NINE pots stacked on the heads of girls with different hairstyles, of different height, all gyrating and swinging and smiling and weaving in and about each other in the choreographed beauty that Uganda always presents if you visit the right places and meet the right people – as my Finnish friends did last week.