One of the first things I did, in the name of scholarship, when I embarked on my research into orature in 1968, was to inherit a widow.
Now, this was not any shenzi bush widow but a royal music star who had regularly performed before two Kings: my kinsman, Daudi Chwa and his son, “King Freddie” Edward Mutesa, the first President of independent Uganda.
Elizabeth Namale of Salama had, at the peak of her career, been a top-flight vocalist with the Buganda royal orchestras and her voice was readily recognisable all over the region.
She had been one of the first Ugandans to be recorded on the “His Master’s Voice” discs and played back on their increasingly popular gramophone machines back in the 1940s. She was thus following in the footsteps of the other eminent crooner queens of the times, like the Egyptian Kulsum and our own taarab legend, Zanzibari Siti Binti Saad.
What I particularly liked about Namale was the air of quiet tranquillity about her, which was reflected in the perfectly controlled pitch, volume and timbre of her voice. Indeed, when I finally got her to sing for me, her best song for me had the lyrics: saagala bayomba/nze saagala baleekaana (I hate wranglers/I loathe noisemakers).
I was, and still am, totally sold on Namale’s opinion. I hate noise, and I firmly believe that it is one of the foulest evils in the world. Noise-makers can never go to Paradise. John Milton called the home of all daemons “Pandemonium” (another name for noise).
It was, indeed, the incessant and increasing pandemonium around the places I live and work that set me nostalgically remembering my Namale and her aversion to noise. But one is never short of alerts to this evil in the East African environment, as I remember mentioning to you earlier this year. I may be wrong, but I suspect that one of the reasons for the recent assertive resistance to the “Michuki Rules” was that they included orders against noise, to which a lot of the matatu operators are addicted.
Recent medical research reports indicate that excessive noise is harmful not only to our hearing but also to our heart health and even our blood pressure. I regard this as more of a scientific endorsement of existing common sense knowledge than a new discovery.
We will not go into the details of all the health risks, injuries and damages of noise. But we all know the discomfort of close exposure to noises like the sonic booms of “woofers” and other exaggerated sound amplifications of modern electronics. If they rattle our houses to the foundations, you can imagine what they do to all the delicate organs of our bodies.
The medics should also give us data about the insomnia occasioned by the round-the-clock noises around us. Few people can sleep soundly, or at all, under the constant assault of the cacophony of all the blaring noises from advertisers, revellers and worshippers, with all their aggressive paraphernalia. You have heard of the trumpets that brought down city walls. Could the hullabaloo around us be about to bring down the walls of all our civilisation?
Incidentally, noise is also a serious security threat. Thugs are attacking us, robbing and killing us almost at will, on the roads, in our workplaces and in our homes, however fortified. Raising an alarm was the age-old recourse in the face of an attack. But hardly anyone is likely to hear an alarm, however loud, in the midst of the barbaric dins that surround us.
There was even a strange noise twist to the latest major robbery I suffered earlier this year at my home. I had, literally, stuffed my ears with cotton wool and tied a band around my head in an attempt to dampen the boom from the open air nightclub across the road from my house. This helped the robbers to break into the house and get to me, and drug me, without my detecting anything. I was cleaned out, but things could have been worse. Do I have good reasons for hating noise?
Back to Namale, my golden-voiced widow, our affair was clouded by the vagaries of history. As I mentioned earlier, I looked her up very soon after I joined Makerere and embarked on my search for oral literature texts. I knew of her performing prowess, both from the popularity of her recorded songs and from the memories of my mother who, as a girl, had seen her perform at the palace.
I easily found her at her residence in Salama, a suburb of Kampala, close to the Kabaka’s lakeside palace to the southeast of the city. But she was living in depressingly deprived circumstances, and she was glad to accept my invitation to stay “for a while” at my residence in the heart of Kampala, just about a mile outside the Makerere walls.
Her visit lasted for about a year, and she was grateful for it, saying that I had “taken her over from my brother, King Daudi, the husband she had lost (in 1939).” According to Baganda lineage conventions, where royalty actually inherit descent from their mothers, the departed King belonged to the Antelope lineage, like me, so that made me a plausible “husband” for Namale.
She, however, did not get round to singing for me during her visit, and here was the really sad part of the story. 1968 was only two years after Milton Obote had overthrown his predecessor and abolished the whole kingdom establishment.
People like Namale, who had depended on the Kingdom, were left in disarray, not only materially but also culturally and psychologically. In any case, they knew it was not safe to undertake performances that would be inevitably associated with the suppressed institutions. It was only after the overthrow of Obote that Namale agreed to sing for me.
“How shall we sing a royal song in a kingless land?” Namale might have paraphrased the Psalmist.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]