The adungu is a bow-shaped harp that accompanies epic and lyrical songs. The woods, skins, and fibers that make its body are now far from Uganda where they were cut and cured. The strings are nylon, though, readily available in Vermont. It is often tuned to the diatonic scale, which is rare in Ugandan music but was standard for music of the British and other Western colonizers. A traditional instrument like the adungu is created in tandem with its purpose; this adungu’s purpose is to last, and to teach, and to sing the students who play it into another culture.
Damascus Kafumbe is the oldest child of schoolteachers. Except for a period when armed conflict forced his family to flee to the bush, he grew up in the village of Kagoma, outside Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Through the day, music streamed from two neighboring royal enclosures of the Kingdom of Buganda, accompanying royals and the king in their duties. As a young child, Kafumbe stole time from his chores to linger by the reed walls of those royal enclosures, to watch and listen. He started to make instruments from papaya leaves and stems, tin cans, and plastic bags. He took so naturally to “real” instruments that while still in elementary school, he represented his country in the 1994 World Festival of Children’s Theatre and was invited to play in a leading Ugandan troupe.
Kafumbe recalls, “One of my teachers told me, ‘an instrument is not just something you strike to make a sound. It is kin, like a brother or sister, a wife or husband, and you must care for it.’” From Baganda master musicians, Kafumbe learned to craft lyres and fiddles and drums and harps, which calls on spirit and intention as much as skill. He journeyed to learn other Africans’ songs and dances. He recorded his own playing and and that of others. He began a scholar’s path at Makerere University in Uganda and did his graduate studies at Florida State University, where for seven years he directed an African music ensemble. “I wanted to be an ambassador for my culture,” he says.
“Ethnomusicology is about understanding the role of making and being music in a society,” explains Greg Vitercik, head of Middlebury’s music department. “Damascus embodies both.”
The “why” is more important than the “how,” Kafumbe tells his students. Why do humans make music? Why do these people make this music now? In his courses, Kafumbe and his students ask these questions of cultures as diverse as the Irish and the Balinese and as deceptively distant as Congolese and Cuban. The students learn the facets an ethnomusicologist cuts into these questions to help illuminate a culture.
Kafumbe has also stirred student interest in performing by creating the semester-long African Music and Dance Ensemble, already known for rousing concerts before packed audiences. No audition is required, the class schedule is rigorous, and 90 percent of the performers have no prior instrumental experience.
The ensemble rolls out unfamiliar terrain: students sing in Ugandan languages, learn to play instruments they’ve never known, and learn to work in scales, timbres, and rhythms that dovetail and depend on each other. There are no scores—Kafumbe is the score. He is a quietly rigorous yet brotherly presence with a bottomless repertoire of illustrative stories and cultural details. He teaches the students to play as his elders taught him, through aural and oral instruction and a sense of joining in. The music he composes and arranges for the ensemble speaks in voices both modern and ancient, of celebrations, migrations, lessons from nature, struggles against power. By the end of the semester, his students hold and play their instruments and complete each other’s musical sentences like kin.
Kafumbe continues to plumb the meaning of his own people’s music. An upcoming book examines how the Kawuugulu royal drums of Buganda (and their singers and dancers) embody and influence the kingdom’s socio-political structures and processes. This time he’s inside the reeds of the royal enclosure, and his mother’s membership in the clan with hereditary rights over the royal drums grants him access to secrets any scholar would envy.
His students have begun traveling to Africa to experience for themselves how the people live with music. One young composer is expanding his musical vocabulary by living in Uganda with Kafumbe’s musician friends and with the madinda, ndara, and mbaire, which are wooden xylophones; a fledgling ethnomusicologist is headed for Middlebury’s School Abroad in Cameroon; a psychology major will travel to Uganda with Kafumbe to explore how music salves the wartime traumas of children.
For all of Kafumbe’s students who have heard the life in music and the music in life, could anything be mute again?