2007-11-03 - Walking home on Hoima road one day last week, I passed this guy who appeared to be carrying a large ship model. After a quick doubletake, I realized it was a musical instrument…some kind of harp. I talked for a few minutes, and he offered to play me a song for 500 shillings. I unhesitatingly accepted his offer. He turns out to be a charming guy with a crooked, winning smile a gravelly voice, and a very energetic performing style. His name is Paulo Kasumba. The instrument is an udungu. The sound box is made of wood with an animal skin covering, and a long neck coming out of the box. From neck to tail it’s about 5 feet long. The wooden body has dozens of pieces of metallic junk attached to it… old suitcase handles, bent nails and appliance name plates. Some are for sound (they rattle, clatter and jingle) some for handling (the suitcase handles) and some are just for looks. It has ten tunable strings, each tuning peg is fancifully unique, and the body and neck are painted. I dragged him back to my room with me so I could record some of his songs and take some pictures. I asked him if he would sell the instrument or make me one. He offered to make me a similar one for USh 300,000 (about $175) or to sell me that one for USh 600,000. Dennis the concierge at the motel warned me the guy could be a charlatan, and not to give him any money, but I gave him USh 10,000 to buy materials and he said he would come back in a week and show me a prototype. I didn’t know if I would ever see him again, but he came back exactly a week later as he said he would, and said he’d rather sell me the original, because it would take too long to make another one, and he needed the money. I said fine, got the money out of the bank the next day and we completed the transaction. I’m now the proud owner of a handcrafted, genuine, Ugandan udungo.
About two weeks later, Paulo turned up at my place again with his new udungo which he had just finished building. He was back on the job as an itinerant musician. His new instrument is a structural twin of thye one I bought from him but mine is much cooler looking I think. Paulo gave me some lessons and showed me the tuning. Then I asked him to perform for my P4’s who were meeting in a few minutes. The other teachers were kind of appalled, I think, but the kids loved him and stamped and cheered at his songs. He totally charmed them, just as he charmed me.