´I want to be universal´
A dread-locked descendant of Uganda´s royal warrior race the Acholi, Geoffrey Oryema´s story transcends the expected. His parents were Ugandan intellectuals, and conveyed their love of the arts to their young son, surrounding him with music and poetry from an early age.
His father combined his profession as civil servant with his passion for music, being a skilled (in fact renowned) performer on the seven-stringed harp the nanga. As a child, a rapt Geoffrey would sit by the side of his father as he played.
His mother, for her part, lead the national dance troupe the ´Heartbeat of Africa´, and would take her small son on national tours. The boy balanced his interest in African culture with his appreciation of Anglo-Saxon pop and rock, acquired in his elite school in Kampala where he rubbed shoulders with the children of Uganda´s expatriate community.
Following his schooling, he opted for a career in theatre, attending Uganda´s National School of Dramatic Art, developing a reputation both as a playwright and actor. But the peaceful days of the late sixties came to an abrupt end with a coup in 1971. Idi Amin overthrew the then-president Milton Obote, and the land descended into turmoil. Brutality became commonplace – Oryema´s father, who had become Minister for Natural Resources in the Amin regime, was killed in a mysterious car crash in 1977. Amin had a deeply-held grudge against the Acholi people, and the death of Oryema´s father is long since held to be one of a multitude of political assassinations commissioned by Amin.
Then aged 24, Geoffrey Oryema decided to flee, and in 1977 was smuggled in the boot of a car, over border to Kenya. He sought refuge in the French Cultural Centre in Nairobi. Coincidentally, the Centre had recently mounted a production of one of his recent plays, which no doubt smoothed his entree. He took up residence in Paris later the same year, driven as much by his Francophonia as by the fact that France was becoming the new centre of international development in African music.
It took a while for Oryema to find his feet in a new country, but by the early 80s he was making music once more, and demos arrived at the desk of Peter Gabriel, who was at this time responsible for one of the first ´world music´ arts festivals WOMAD. Gabriel invited Oryema to visit his studios in the UK, and signed the Ugandan musician to his Real World record label.
His first album release (´Exile´ / Real World / 1990) was produced by the self-proclaimed ´pop intellectual´ Brian Eno, known for his provision of egghead context to the temporarily-bereft of ideas, including David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2. The result, a blend of Oryema´s African roots with the cultural and technological trappings of Europe, was received warmly by press and public alike, and created the mould for his emerging musical identity.
Developing his theme further, his second album ´Beat the Border´ (Real World / 1993) became an international success, taking up residence at the top of the prestigious Billboard World Music charts for twelve weeks. For his third release (´Night to Night´ / Real World / 1997), he continued in the same vein; critics detected traces of the Rolling Stones and Roxy Music as well as the influence of Baba Maal and Ali Farka Touré. Assisted by his colleague Lokua Kanza, the African roots of his muse were overshadowed by his European influences, and this was indeed the basis for some criticism at the time. This album was less successful than his previous efforts, and he took a break from recording to reconsider his strategies.
Returning with a new label (Sony) and a new producer (the British tech-wizard/songwriter Rupert Hine), he released ´Lost Spirit´ in 2000, and this return to form and was followed in 2004 by ´Words´.
Oryema explains his musical journey as a ´need to go further, beyond expectation. My idea of being an artist is first and foremost to explore the world between root and modern music. It is a search for identity, a musical identity´. Responding to criticism of his blending of African and European traditions, he notes the double standard that is often applied. ´"Third-world" artists are often criticized 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´.
He vigorously defends his position, and indeed his right to create his own musical identity: ´My music comes from the heart. I don´t want to be pigeonholed into a ghetto where I am defined by just one genre of music. I want to be universal´.
* 16. April 1953 in Soroti
Masters at Work
Piri Wango Iya - Rise Ashen´s Morning Come Mix
The Odysseus/Best of
Night to Night
Beat the Border
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
Concerts, Films, Exhibition, Discussions
(22 July 10 - 13 August 10)