News came through that Geoffrey Oryema passed away on 22 June. As a musician who had lived and worked in Paris since about 1977, he became a figure in the then emerging subculture of music coming directly from a non-Western source, but which was integrated into the Western industry, where it was called 'World Music'.
He came from the Acholi people, a community that suffered massive pogroms and human rights violations under first the regime of General Idi Amin (1971-1979), and then again, six years later, over the first full decade of the current government.
Oryema had a very unique sound and vocal style. He came from an extended family of musicians, poets and dancers, proponents of classical Acholi music.
I first got to know Geoffrey while I was no more than 11 years old. He was among the founding membership of the Abafumi Theatre Company, of which my father, Robert Serumaga, was director. The very first time I saw him was when his own father, Lt. Col Erinayo Oryema came with him to our home one evening to introduce him to my father.
He had with him an Acholi harp known as the nanga, and played while singing along. It sounded like a gently rushing stream, and he had a voice that wove In and out from a deep baritone to falsetto on one lyrical swoop. I was mesmerised, and have been a fan of his, and of Acholi music, ever since. As children, we admired him. With his great height and laid-back manner, we thought he was incredibly cool.
Within less than a decade of that encounter, both his father and mine would be assassinated, he and I would both be In exile, and we would not physically meet again for 40 years.
We need not dwell on details. Geoffrey's father, a political figure, was murdered on Amin's orders in early 1977. Reports say that in keeping with Acholi custom, he had been interred wrapped In goat hide, as a sign that the death had been In as-yet-to-be explained circumstances.
Geoffrey, who by this time had left the Abafumi Theatre Company, had to flee Into exile, hidden in the boot of a car. Many of his siblings also fled. He made his way to Paris, then the informal hub of African creativity in Europe.
Towards the end of the same year, my own family found ourselves sneaking across the same border, following our father who, after months of living underground, had gone ahead. In 1980 he too--now a political figure--was assassinated, and burled In Nairobi. So, it was an eerily happy encounter for me when Geoffrey decided to make a...