Paulo Kasumba has no cell phone and no fixed address, so I can never find him, but he seems to know when I am back in Uganda, because within a few days he shows up at my door with new songs, and new plans to cut a cd so he can break into the commercial music market.
He’s one of the most remarkable characters I’ve met in my visits to Uganda, an itinerant street musician who wanders the roads and byroads of this sprawling city playing his songs on street corners, in market places, and anyplace he can gather a crowd.
He’s bizarrely dressed…in a style something like a forest satyr with boots that look like they were sculpted out of moss, and tattered jeans and shirts. He wears sunglasses with only one lens and a beaded headband. He carries a vicious looking homemade slingshot in his shirt, that he takes out to ward off thieves and ruffians who sometimes plague him. Wandering the streets makes Paulo an easy target for petty robbers who would attack him even for the small change he has collected on a day of wandering and busking.
Paulo writes his own songs, that fit perfectly his husky voice and his rap style of delivery…he’s like a pure version of hip hop. He writes about sex, politics and God with equal intensity and frequency. He also makes his own instruments…called adungus. The adungu is an 11 string harp, a traditional Ugandan instrument that is habitually played in Ugandan ceremonies and dance performances. But Paulo has re-conceived the instrument…his current adungu is over 7 feet long and weighs about 65 lbs. Its so big he can’t fit it into a taxi cab, but can occaisionaly be seen riding on the back of a boda boda carrying the enormous harp, creating the impression of an otherworldly vehicle careening down the crowded street.
Traditional adungus are made of plain wood and animal skin stretched over a hollow body. Very little decoration or style is involved. They’ve been made the same way for centuries. But Paulo’s adungus are elaborate almost phantasmagoric creations of color, melted plastic, lots of jingling metal junk, straps, suitcase handles, interesting street trash, model soldiers and guns, bottle caps. But they still have the basic 11 strings with friction tuning pegs, and a stretched animal skin under all that decoration and personalization that Paulo has added.
Paulo hasn’t adapted well to modern civilization. He’s illiterate. Doesn’t speak English, an official language of Uganda, and a standard requirement for commerce, government, education. He lives day to day, and has never held a salaried job. He couch surfs with friends and relatives, and has never had a permanent place to call home since he left his village 20 years ago. His life style would easily fit into the pre-colonial patterns of life..the wandering musician or troubadour, moving from village to village…singing for his supper . He’s never driven a car or received an email. He can use a cell phone, but has never had a phone number. He’s enormously inventive and creative, but has never found a wide audience, because his medium is personal and intimate. No tv screen, or even radio speaker separates Paulo the person from his audience, and consequently his audience is too small to support him very well. He’s totally charming and engaging, full of jokes and good humor, and at the slightest urging he’ll burst unto song.
As I said, he’d love to make a cd. Also he dreams of having a place of his own where he can have a workshop to make adungus and other musical instruments to sell.
If I could figure out a way to help him, I would. But for now, I'm just enjoying the music.