Henhouse Prowlers have returned to Africa on another cultural exchange mission for the US government. Here is a report from banjo picker Ben Wright on their 2015 trip so far.
We’re back in Africa for our third trip in three years, which is hard to believe. These trips are arranged through the US State Department, and are designed to be an exchange between American bands and indigenous musicians and folks all over the world. These opportunities are rare and incredible experiences. You can read about our past few days in Uganda below as we’re heading towards Rwanda.
Before we get too far into this, you should watch and listen to this song by Eddy Kenzo:
Pop music in Africa gets around. This tune is a huge hit across the continent and it’s pretty easy to see and hear why. We spent a couple days before we left for Africa learning and absorbing Sitya Loss in hopes that it would go over well.
On our first day in Kampala (the capital of Uganda), we were set to go one of the most popular television shows in the country. Word got out to Kenzo that we learned his song, and he came out to the TV studio to meet us. We played a couple tunes on the air and then there was about a 10 minute break. Eddy walked in, shook our hands quickly, and then asked us to play his song. As we started playing, this look came over his face that I can only describe as a mix of wonder and disbelief. You could feel it through his dark sunglasses. These strange guys in suits from Chicago, Illinois knew his song.
In all of 10 minutes we worked up an arrangement and then went live to thousands of Ugandan viewers.
Day two was set aside for us to get together and jam with a Kampala music group that plays traditional Ugandan music. As we arrived we found a spread of handmade instruments and a team of young men and women ready to play with us. They gave us a wonderfully thorough workshop on the history of each instrument. Check out this video below, going over how different melodies appear when more than one person is playing the xylophone.
Then they asked us to return the favor. We played a couple tunes and then gave them a breakdown as to how our instruments blend together (quite similarly to theirs in some ways). This exchange felt so natural and perfect. It’s never clear how these things are going to work out until you’re sitting there and this was spot on.
As the lessons wrapped up it became clear that we should play together. One of the immediate challenges was figuring out what to tune to. The xylophone player hit a note that was close to ‘C’ and we adjusted our instruments. There was a brief discussion of the scale being different than ours, but in the end it really wasn’t difficult at all to follow what they were doing.
We jammed. It was perfect in chaos. A simple chord progression, some melody…and then they sang. I had trouble not getting lost in the sound, honestly.
The boys were in the moment so much that we didn’t really get much video, but Lisa Larson with the US Embassy got some quick bites.
Day three consisted of a final show at the National Theater in Kampala. It’s been around since British colonial times and it must have been built in the early part of the the 20th century. We’ve played these kinds of places before and there’s a history that emanates from these old buildings. Being able to perform in them is unlike anything else.
Kenzo came out again and this time he brought the kids that danced in his video. It was complete and utter bedlam.
Note: Pay close attention to the end of the song when our fiddler, Dan Andree, shakes his booty with the kids. It was the perfect way to end our stint in Uganda, to be sure.
We’re in Kigali Rwanda now (just down the street from the famous Hotel Rwanda) and getting ready to head out to the Ambassador’s house.
This trip is just beginning, folks.
You can read previous reports from Henhouse Prowlers in Africa here at Bluegrass Today.