When Ugandan singer-songwriter Geoffrey Oryema sang political or protest songs, he sang them differently to most other singers. This was because many protest singers’ songs are prompted by an emotional, intellectual or political attachment to a cause, party, organisation, movement, group or country. Or perhaps because of their opposition to a politician, a party, a government, corporations and their actions. But seldom more than that. In Oryema’s instance it was much more extreme as politics was a case of his own life or death.
Oryema was born in 1953 in Soroti, eastern Uganda. His family were Acoli storytellers, poets and musicians. As a teenager, Geoffrey wrote songs and learnt how to play guitar, flute, lukeme (a metal thumb piano) and nanga (a seven-string harp) from his father.
After school, he enrolled at Uganda’s Drama School of Academy, specialising in Polish director Jerzy Grotowski’s avant-garde acting methods. The result of mixing these techniques with traditional African theatre was an original “theatre of the absurd” embellished by African sounds and improvisation.
Oryema’s father, Erinayo Oryema, was a minister in Idi Amin’s government. He was assassinated in February 1977 by Amin’s thugs on the dictator’s orders. Fearing for his life, Oryema, then 24, fled Uganda. He spent four hours in the boot of a car being smuggled across the border to safety in Kenya.
After another arduous journey, Oryema ended up in Paris, where he settled and learnt French. Exiled in France, Oryema found a ready audience for his unique music, incorporating the music of his motherland with 1980s Western music.
His 1990 debut, aptly titled Exile, tells of his yearning, pain and nostalgia for his home country. Recorded at musician Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios in the UK, Exile is a gorgeous 10-track African folk album that’s almost unbearably sad without ever becoming morose or self-indulgent.
Take the track Makambo. One doesn’t need to understand the Acoli lyrics to be deeply touched by the universality of the sound. Oryema’s gentle vocals and atmospheric accompaniment express his despair about his land of broken dreams and shattered lives.
Translated, it is clear from the lyrics that Makambo is a sigh, not a shout, and a resignation that peace will remain elusive:
I've been asking for peace
But all I got was war
I've been looking for love
But I didn't find togetherness
One hears the weariness of a perplexed man who has been in exile and cut off from his motherland for 13 years:
What is wrong with the world?
What is wrong with the people?
Why don't we want peace?
After Exile, Oryema recorded another five fine albums, but none of them were as heartfelt as Exile.
He also toured extensively. In recent years, he focused on the issue of child soldiers and trying to help bring peace to northern Uganda. Last year, he went back to Uganda for the first time in 40 years.
“I couldn’t continue living for all these years with the deep wound I left Uganda with,” he told Uganda’s The Observer. “To be able to move forward, I needed to come to my roots and feel the country.”
Oryema died from cancer on 22 June 2018.