Gourd trumpets face threats of extinction

Thursday January 31 2013

A bigwala performance and gourd trumpets (right), bigwala, in a basket. Photos/Morgan Mbabazi

After assembling and fine-tuning the sound of his gourd (ekigwala) trumpet, James Lugolole notices that all the trumpets are worn out, which may affect the overall performance.

“We need to replace the trumpets with fresh gourds,” Lugolole tells The EastAfrican as his troupe prepares to perform the bigwala, the gourd trumpet music and dance of Busoga Kingdom in eastern Uganda.

However, it is not only the gourds that need replacing – the monitor lizard (embulu) skin on the main drum (engalabi) is torn as well, so the troupe will perform minus the engalabi.

“We don’t have money to buy the monitor lizard skin to repair the engalabi and fresh gourds,” Lugolole laments.

Despite these shortcomings, the troupe managed to perform for the audience that had assembled to watch bigwala traditional music at Bukakaire village in Namalemba in Iganga District on January 15.

The trumpets were blown by Lugolole (band leader), Suleiman Kifembe, James Kisanye, Siraje Dongo and Dalawusi Dongo. Stephen Menya, Richard Mugabe and George Gulele played the drums.


They began with their popular song “Muwe Bwobona Asaba, Muwe Kyayenda” (What he or she asks, give it to him or her). They followed it up with “Mwene Wamwenda” (You chose him or her by yourself).

Women in the audience ululated and danced along. While young boys imitated the gourd trumpets with their own trumpets improvised from pawpaw trees – indicating that there is no age limit to performing this music and dance.

Just as they were about to play “Mpelekela Omwana Womulembe” (I am escorting a modern child), the bass trumpet collapsed; it would no longer back up the other four trumpets. So the performance was cut short and the people left in disappointments.

The above hazards, just as Lugolole had feared at the beginning of the performance, reflect the challenges that the endangered bigwala gourd trumpet music and dance, recently inscribed on the Unesco list, is faced with.

Bigwala is one of the four new cultural practices from Botswana, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan and Uganda that were inscribed on Unesco List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding by the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage on December 4, 2012.

Bigwala is a cultural practice of the Basoga, performed at royal celebrations such as coronations and funerals and, in recent decades, on social occasions.

Bigwala is a set of five or more monotone gourd trumpets blown in hocket to produce a melody, accompanied by a specific dance. A typical performance begins with one trumpet followed by the other four before the drummers, singers and dancers join in.

Each trumpet contributes a tone to a song; a song is completed when all five trumpets are played. Each tone could be represented by a pair of trumpets thus enriching the sound. Like all African traditional music, bigwala employs the pentatonic (five-note) scale.

The trumpets are accompanied by five drums (two engalabi drums and three others made of cow skins) providing the rhythm for dancers. This gives strength to the music. In other words, the drums thicken the texture of the music.

The singers and dancers move around the five drummers in a circular formation, swaying their hips gently and raising their hands in time with the music and rhythms. Women spectators ululate as the performance nears its climax.

Bigwala plays a significant role in the unity among the Basoga people. The lyrics of the songs narrate the history of the Basoga, focusing on their king, thus symbolically reconfirming their identity and links with their past.

Bigwala also addresses issues such as leadership, marriage problems and acceptable social norms and practices.

“At present, however, there are only four remaining older master bearers with skills in Bigwala making, playing and dancing, and their recent transmission attempts have been frustrated by financial obstacles. As a result, Bigwala is performed infrequently, which poses a real threat to its survival,” the nominators warn.

The surviving masters are: Lugolole, 74; Suleiman Kifembe (cannot tell his age); James Kisanye, 60; Ahamada Kakaire, 88; and Sulait Dongo. Both Kakaire and Dongo are ill and elderly; they were not able perform on January 15.

The bigwala music masters are optimistic that it will not die out provided the required support and resources are available.

“Bigwala will not become extinct as long as we are alive because we are training the young ones like Stephen Menya, Siraje Dongo and Dalawusi Dongo to take up our positions. I learnt how to play the bigwala from my father. Busoga kingdom should also lend a hand in preserving its royal dance,” Lugolole said. 

“If we have resources, we shall be able to buy the required items and train the young to take up from us,” Kisanye said, adding: “The government should emphasise cultural education in the schools curriculum so that our cultures do not become extinct.”

Inscribing the Bigwala, gourd trumpet music and dance, Unesco noted that: “Bigwala music and dance, an essential component of royal ceremonies and important community rituals, gives Basoga people a sense of shared identity and historical continuity, reinforcing social cohesion and allowing today’s people to communicate with their departed ancestors;

“Bigwala currently faces severe threats to its viability, including a limited number of elderly bearers, the weakness of traditional modes of transmission, the absence among the youth of knowledge of the tradition or interest in practising it and the economic insecurity of the bearers as well as of future possible performers;

“Past safeguarding efforts include raising awareness at the community, local and national levels of the need to safeguard the element, notably by its inclusion in university research programmes; in addition, a feasible safeguarding plan for the viability of Bigwala is proposed to include education, documentation, video and audio recording, dissemination, and organising festivals and workshops on making and playing musical instruments, with the involvement of communities, including the four remaining elderly performers, the four local cultural groups and the State.

“In 2010, bigwala, gourd trumpet music and dance was included in the Basoga Community Inventory of Intangible Heritage, carried out under the authority of the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development.”

Unesco takes note of the importance of bigwala music and dance within the royal ceremonies of the Busoga Kingdom and encourages the government of Uganda to work closely with the royal authorities in safeguarding the element.

Unesco has invited the Ugandan government to consider implementing the proposed safeguarding plan in 2013 instead of 2014 as provided within the nomination file, giving particular attention to strengthening the capacity for the transmission of Bigwala from elder practitioners to younger generations.

Unesco has encouraged the government to establish a strict link between the planned activities, the responsible actors and the budget allotted.

Unesco further encouraged the government to prepare an inventory of similar music and dance traditions elsewhere in Uganda, the knowledge of which may help in safeguarding bigwala within the Basoga community.

The nomination process was led by James Isabirye, through the Culture Department of the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development with the National Council of Folklorists of Uganda (Nacofu) as the lead agency.

The government in conjunction with Nacofu is preparing a proposal to protect bigwala music and dance that will be sent to Unesco.

Isabirye believes that Unesco inscribed bigwala music and dance because of its cultural importance to the people of Busoga.

“The fact that there are only four surviving master players of advanced age means that once they are gone, that is the end of bigwala music and dance,” he said.

Including an element on the Unesco list is one thing and the government putting aside resources to preserve the tradition is another. So, supporting intangible cultural heritage elements like bigwala demands a lot of political will.

Traditional performances like bigwala music and dance should also be commercialised to attract the youth, who may wish to take it up as a profession and employment. Farmers should be encouraged to plant gourds.

As Kisanye put it: “Our forefathers were paid in form of a chicken after bigwala performances but today it is all about money. We have not commercialised bigwala so the youth see no value in it.”

According to Isabirye the inscription of bigwala music and dance on the Unesco list is an assurance of its continuity and the possibility of mobilising funds for its preservation. “Because the stage it is in now needs funding, it cannot survive in its current form.”

“When we get the funds and support, we shall train young people how to make the gourd trumpets and play them. We shall collect the repertoire that exists today. The repertoire will be recorded for archiving, references and to expose this art form to the Basoga and the rest of the world.”

There is hope as the 16-year-old Mugabe, who played the drums and pawpaw trumpets expresses determination to take up bigwala music in future. “I would like to play it in future,” Mugabe said.