Uganda Comes Up Short at Umoja Festival

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Uganda came up short at its Umoja Cultural Flying Carpet debut that took place at the National Theatre at the end of September. The initiative requires artistes to create a hybrid performance across multiple genres including but not restricted to music, dance, circus and acrobatics.

The Ugandan troupe exhibited a glaring failure to comprehend the concept brief there by treating patrons to a lacklustre showcase of stuff that would be better suited to rushed creative dance segments at a National Primary Schools Festival.

The two hulking male dancers were as stiff as a rod and little wonder one was on the receiving end of audience vitriol that kept screaming Moses Golola every time he stepped up to do a solo. Their turns were stiff, their bodies exhibited an inability to dance beyond canoodling with greased up video vixens in bubble gum pop music videos. I have seen those two in a couple of low-grade music videos and perhaps they were recruited for the Umoja initiative as bare-chested eye candy. And just what was that trumpeter thinking in showing us he had two left feet? The weak dance execution which struggled to infuse indigenous dance with Euro-centric contemporary dance was probably the biggest indictment on Jonas Byaruhanga, until then one of the most decorated dancers on the Ugandan scene today. With his dance company a shadow of its former self, Byaruhanga’s genius is suffering diminishing marginal returns.

Word from the camp is that Uganda’s stage woes stemmed from a lack of adequate practice, a rigid recruitment drive of available dancers and not necessarily the most talented and a strict adherence to the 16-26 year-old age limit. At least we were honest on the latter but apart from being the hosts, the chaos on stage was not worth exporting despite the plaudit-worthy multi-talented lad that juggled voice and instrument playing.

It was the Kenyans that brought something sublime that was reminiscent of the Aladdin tale from “1001 Nights”. There was coherence to their choreography delivered by a troupe of extremely talented performers. They danced in unison and on point, jumped through hoops, did dizzying juggling and delightful acrobatic displays of towering human pyramids. No wonder Tusker Project Fame’s chief choreographer Coach Edu wore a proud grin on his face. They went one better by including a deaf girl amongst the bevy of dancing girls and that guy with shades that plucked the lead guitar strings is actually blind. Such genius!

Depending on how you saw it, Ethiopia either drew you in or put you off by way of circus-themed malleability. There was this girl that twisted and wriggled like she had a rubbery spine. I can bet my inflation-prone Ugandan shillings that she could get her face and posterior face the same side if she wished to. A circus display is after all about making the audience gasp with endless ooohs and aaahs and that well sure flowed for the Ethiopians who by the way are real eye-candy.

The Norwegians were in it for a fun ride to Africa. Their government was paying the piper after all (air tickets, accommodation, theatre rental, et al). I found most of their performance derivative; a bit of American jazz here, a violinist that played something similar to something The Corrs played and a male vocalist that did a poor job at improvising vocally. Their saving grace was the troupe of female dancers thanks to their versatile choreography that weaved Hip-Hop popping, locking and ballet-inspired contemporary routines, all delivered with crisp execution and varied costume changes. Anyone that pretends to do contemporary dance locally should aspire to grasp their firm dance technique.

The Tanzanians were in the same “weak tea” league of the Ugandans but rescued themselves by displaying an impressive array of fabulous musical instruments. The Zeze kora-like harp TID once sang about, the quanoun- a stringed instrument played horizontally on one’s lap and the oud- a miniaturised sort of guitar, all played with hypnotic skill.

That this was Uganda’s debut at hosting the festival is no excuse for not grasping a concept of such international acclaim. The clichéd fireworks gimmickry at the September 30, 2011 Ndere Centre amounted to a little more than window dressing. I have seen better dancers and better narrators than that phony-accented girl that extolled Uganda’s attributes. There is no reason to export mediocrity with a venture that enjoys quite a hefty donor-funded purse.

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