Life & Work

Kampala now leads revival of the accordion


Vivian Arnoux performs during “Reviving the Accordion” concert at Alliance Francaise concert garden. Photo/ALI ABDI

When Ugandan musician Godfrey Lubuulwa plays the accordion he sometimes attracts snide remarks from people who call the box-shaped gadget ‘Amin’s instrument’.

In his home town of Kampala the instrument is associated with the late President Idi Amin .You see, the late dictator was known for his love of the accordion and publicly played the instrument at functions, during his rule, in the 1970s.

In Kenya, memories of the accordion are invariably linked with the dance formations of Mwomboko troupes, who have been known to entertain the nation during public holidays.

The troupes are usually elderly dancing partners who sway and move to the beat of the accordion player accompanied by a bell-player, in a style that first gained fame in Central Kenya in the 1940s.

The influence of the accordion has been widespread throughout the history of Kenyan and East African music. Western Kenya had its era of outstanding kinanda players like Oguta Bobo and Anton Mito while taarab has over the years evolved from its East African Coastal roots to incorporate Western instruments including the violin, guitar and accordion.

In the course of research on various genres of Kenyan music, Ketebul Music, an independent record label, noted very few traces of the accordion sound in contemporary music still remain today.

The instrument is now thought of as exotic or old-fashioned and even when used today. It’s often used as a sampled sound created by producers in the studio.

So it was almost surreal to recently have Lubuulwa, having traveled from Kampala, play with fellow accordionists in Nairobi. Also playing was a musician from France, taarab artistes from Zanzibar, a jazz guitarist and traditional percussionists.

This group of musicians, brought together by Ketebul Music, spent last week at a creative workshop at the Alliance Francaise, in Nairobi, titled ‘Reviving the Accordion in Popular Music of East Africa’.

There were two accordionists, Tatu and Tawadudi, from the all female outfit, Tausi Taarab group of Zanzibar. From Mombasa was Mohammed Adio Shigoo, an accomplished player of tashkota, the stringed instrument said to have originated from India, while Mohammed Awadh Salim a veteran violinist.

French accordionist Viviane Arnoux, who was the facilitator of the event, has had a long association with African music since she was in music school in the 1980s. “I discovered and was fascinated by the music of Papa Wemba,” she says, “It was a revelation, the rhythm, harmony and melody.”

The album that really opened her ears to the continent was the 1993 ‘Accordeons go to Abidjan’ by the Ivorian group Le Zagazougou, because its exciting musical style, brought together accordions, percussion and powerful vocals.

The first African artiste she worked with was Congolese legend Ray Lema on his 1995 album ‘Tout Partout.’ She also went on a much-acclaimed retro rumba world tour with Sammy Mangwana, in 1999, before joining Kekele, another group of Congolese veterans like Papa Noel and Nyboma for the Rumba Congo CD and tour.

Congo Station

Viviane Arnoux started playing the accordion at the age of four and formed the group MAM in 1992, with Francois Michaud, to explore ways of playing jazz. Michaud had spent eight years studying music formally and six years in Africa.

Together they created a new jazz form improvising folklore and ethnic world music into original compositions. The group has eight albums and is famous in France for recording a rendition of the theme song from the film “Mission Impossible.”

Arnoux is currently part of a musical project called “Congo Station” the brainchild of her long time collaborator, Ray Lema, which premiered in Paris, in March 2012.

The series of performances uniting traditional artistes from Congo with a new generation of urban musicians from Kinshasa will resume in September.

This is the first time she is working with East African musicians and she is “very excited”.

“I feel very deep emotions,” she said, after a recent rehearsal of three songs with Mombasa singer, Nyota Ndogo on lead vocals.

The next day the entire group will be at the Ketebul Studios at the Godown Arts Center in Nairobi to record six songs with producer Tabu Osusa. According to the French musician, there should be greater interaction between the Conservatoire of Music, as the main teaching institution for music in the country, and the performing artistes themselves.

“The old orchestral style which is still taught in our schools is outdated and even in France, the Conservatoire is now embracing jazz and world music to remain relevant,” she says.

The fast-rising Kenyan jazz performer Eddie Grey, who was played the guitar during the rehearsals thought that being part of a process involving such a diverse group of artistes was enriching.

“The sessions have been great not just because Viviane has been sharing her solid experience but she has also been very ready to learn from us.