One of the last films I watched before I left the States was War/Dance; a beautiful documentary about a choir from a refugee camp in Northern Uganda preparing to compete in the national music competition. This moving cinematic experience was followed closely by my viewing of High School Musical (1). What it may have lacked in subtlety, HSM more than made up for in cheesiness. And boy do those Disney Channel geniuses know how to make a girl want to put on her dancing shoes. My recent experience chaperoning the AAH choir at the regional music competition acted as a sort of merging of those two films: an experience that veered between the sublime and the ridiculous.

I have finally come to accept some of the more frustrating aspects of the Ugandan method of event planning. Therefore, I was not surprised when the headmaster told me that the choir of over eighty students was going to spend the night sleeping on woven mats in an empty classroom in an Mbale school so they could be on time for the competition the next morning. I was not surprised when the bus hired to come and pick up the children at 6pm did not arrive in the village until after 9pm. I was not surprised when I arrived at the venue the next morning, about thirty minutes after the published start time, and was informed that the competition would not begin for another two hours. I was not surprised to discover that even though there were eight schools performing in ten different categories, for a grand total of eighty performances, there was no prepared schedule or plan to speak of. Mostly though, I was not surprised to find the AAH students draped over every available surface in the barren classroom/dorm room in high spirits and completely unfazed by the organizational Armageddon unfolding around them. I took my cue from them, and decided to roll with it.

Students snacking on porridge waiting for the competition to start

The duel themes for this year’s competition were “Go to School, Stay in School, and Return to School” and “Sanitation.” I find the former a little confusing. Surely if you have gone to school, and are now staying in school, it’s pretty much impossible for you to simultaneously return to school. Redundant as it is, it’s definitely more inspirational than sanitation as a topic. Several of the ten performance categories require original compositions (poems, songs, dances) on these themes. If you think choreographing a dance to convey the message ‘stay in school’ is hard, try performing an epic poem on the issue of sanitation. The situation provided for some very honest moments, surely unprecedented in the world of performing arts. “Men squatting in the bushes, as if in a latrine. Alas!” The eight young women from St. Agnes Primary School chorused, as they raised their fists to the sky in despair. The judges nodded approvingly. When has poetry been so practical? The education theme provided more fertile ground. The opening event of the day was the Western Choral Piece. AAH took the stage early on and belted out their tribute to education called “The Source,” sounding for all the world like the Vienna Boys Choir. They lined up in their crisp uniforms and polished shoes and did that funny thing professional choirs do when they open their mouths really wide to sing. Although most of the lyrics reminded me of a government memo more than a song (‘we shall built industries, we shall build factories, we shall build the roads and the hospitals’), it was goose-bump inducing stuff.

Arlington Students perform their Western Choral Piece

The day flew by in a whirlwind of chanted latrine references and varied depictions of what can happen to the poor soul who eschews the free education now offered to all by the Ugandan government. It was hot and dry, for once. Food vendors set up a mini-market outside the main door offering burnt samosas and loose candy. Groups of children in various outlandish costumes littered the large school campus, sucking down ice-pops and beginning impromptu games of soccer. Giant wooden instruments were carted around and harassed teachers herded over-excited youngsters back and forth, back and forth as we slowly worked our way through the mammoth performance list. The judges chugged soda after soda and tried to stay awake.

Students waiting to perform

Instruments

The only seating option left by late afternoon

As evening approached the hall grew more and more crowded. Finding a seat became a matter of violence. Of course, the electricity was out, so the hall was lit by three weak light bulbs, powered by a generator chugging its little heart out in the back. After seven straight hours of music competition, I had to wonder what in the name of god was keeping all the spectators there. Just as it began to get dark outside, the answer became clear: the traditional dance category. Turns out traditional dance is the pinnacle of all things music competition-related. It’s the climactic car-chase scene, the lion tamer in the big-top, the fat lady singing. It’s frackin awesome. AAH also happens to have an ace up its sleeve in this category: the Lunyege. It’s a traditional courtship dance, and it involves shirtless boys in brightly striped shorts with rings of bells around their legs from their knees to their ankles. These are the weapons with which they seduce rows of girls in mini skirts and midriff-baring tank-tops who parade the stage shaking their hips outrageously.

AAH kids get ready to bring the funk

Once the AAH kids entered the hall and the audience realized what dance they were about to see, the mood took on a sort of rock concert vibe. The percussionists set up a furious beat on the drums and were soon joined by the thundering row of boys who jumped and hopped and lunged around the stage, creating their own manic music in pursuit of the girls. There was heckling and cheering and hootin and hollerin. Old women shrieked with laughter and small children looked on in wide-eyed amazement. The girls kept twirling away and the boys kept chasing. Finally they faced each other in opposing lines across the stage. Even in their static line, the boys kept stamping to keep up the frenetic beat, doing a frenzied version of the running man which left them all dripping with sweat. One brave soul ventured into the no-man’s land of the middle of the stage and did his fanciest moves, before approaching the line of girls. He moved down the line, examining each girl’s face, offered his hand to the one he found most attractive, and off they went together on a bell/hip shaking tour of the stage. This happened several times, until one girl upped the ante by refusing her suitor, forcing him to try to impress her with more and more energetic dance moves. Finally he called upon his friends to act as wing-men, and the girl finally capitulated. At the dramatic finale AAH got a standing ovation.

Now, on the one hand, this dance would seem to represent a very crude version of what we in the West have turned into an excruciatingly complicated ritual. I mean, if all your average New York male had to do was determine which girl he liked the look of most, then jangle his way over to her bar stool convincingly, we’d all save a lot of money on cocktails. So, you could say it demonstrates the relative simplicity of African social customs compared to ours. On the other hand, we’re talking about twelve and thirteen year old kids doing this dance. While middle schoolers in the US are focusing on Clearasil products and who’s older brother can buy them beer, these kids are tapping into something ancient from their culture. Just the name of the category illuminates the difference: traditional dance. There is a depth and a wisdom that the children here seem to grasp early on—a tradition. It’s a dimension that I didn’t find in most of the American kids I taught; the connection these have with the bigger picture of their community and its roots. That doesn’t mean that they all think they can just point at some random girl on the roadside and take her as a wife. In many ways, the times have a-changed, and there are a lot of people spending a lot of money on vodka-sodas in swish Kampala bars. But watching the AAH kids, and all the kids from the other schools, singing and dancing about death and grief and love and betrayal, I sensed the heft and the complexity of the history here. Not to sound like a Republican or anything, but I sensed the importance of their tradition.

By 8:30pm, after nine and a half hours of music competition, I was done for. The huge school buildings were still alive with hundreds of hyper kids, racing around by flashlight and casting animated silhouettes on the walls. They were giddy with the excitement of the day and the relative freedom the darkness provided. It felt like some sort of Halloween fun-house crossed with back-stage at the Pantomime. I stopped by the AAH classroom and found the kids clustered in dim groups around candles, chatting excitedly about the day, some still getting into make-up and costumes for performances to come.

In the end we placed 6th out of 8, and so did not qualify to go on to the national level of the competition. I also found out that the kids didn’t leave Mbale until after midnight, and the mud on our local road was so bad that they ended up spending the night on the bus. I never heard a word of complaint about it.

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