March 27, 2023
TORORO, UGANDA — Dust and cobwebs have gathered around Lawrence Ogambo’s fumbo, the long hollow drum played during the traditional burial rite of the Jopadhola. It’s been more than 50 years since Ogambo, 90, has played it at a funeral.
The Jopadhola live predominantly in Tororo, a district of 500,000 people by the 2014 census located 200 kilometers (124 miles) east of Kampala. Most Ugandans know these parts for Tororo Rock, a massive outcrop surrounded by flat, green land.
When someone among the Jopadhola dies, tradition mandates that the body be washed with banana juice and dressed in ceremonial clothes. At 8 p.m., a bonfire is lit at the house of the deceased, and the ajore dance begins.
The men play the fumbo and dance with spears, as if to stab death itself for taking their loved one, says Ogambo. Women dance while wailing, wearing banana leaves around their waists that later will be thrown into the grave. The ceremony ends the following afternoon, when the deceased is buried.
The rite is becoming rarer and rarer these days, Ogambo says. Tororo residents increasingly prefer to hire DJs, who play recorded songs on huge sound systems villagers call “the radio.” The songs played are not traditional; any modern music goes, from United States rap to Nigerian pop.
“I listen to what is being played, and I watch how people struggle to mourn because the radio doesn’t evoke grief. … People dance their own kind of dance, and it seems more like a leisure funeral!” Ogambo says as he claps his hands and laughs. In the backyard of his grandson’s house, where he now lives, the veteran musician displays his old fumbo, which he learned to play at age 16.
Despite his amusement, Ogambo fears the tradition could disappear when the last musicians like him die.
The mourners are supposed to learn about the deceased through the songs, says Alex Okello, 21, one of the few young funeral musicians, who learned to play the fumbo from his father, who learned from his father, and so on. Relatives of the deceased provide the musicians with information that they include in the songs.
“The funeral musicians are a vehicle of Jopadhola oral history,” Okello says. “When you refuse to be a funeral musician, the Jogi [gods] will follow you until you accept. You will start making saucepans into fumbo, and then you will realize that you can’t run away from it.”
Okello says he intends to teach his children to play the fumbo but recognizes that young people increasingly prefer the radio — even though it’s more expensive than hiring traditional musicians like himself.
For the few funerals the musicians play, they charge 40,000 to 70,000 Ugandan shillings ($10.73 to $18.77). The sound system, in contrast, costs 350,000 to 400,000 shillings ($93.90 to $107.30).
Beatrice Lamwaka, GPJ Uganda
Isaac Ochieng, 22, also known as DJ Isak Pro, says the job doesn’t require much work, as he’ll play anything that’s popular — although he has recorded live fumbo music and plays that, too. His employer, Silk Events Sound Systems Tororo, does about 50 funeral events a year, Ochieng says.
The spread of Christianity in Uganda has probably contributed to the ajore’s waning as well. Two decades ago, Evaline Awori invited funeral musicians to mourn her husband. Now, she says she danced at the funeral as if she was “possessed.”
“We don’t need ajore dance anymore. Death is part of life. I don’t need to mourn anyone like that anymore,” she says. “As a Christian, when I read the Bible, I realized that that kind of grieving is not the right way.”
Many families burn musical instruments and antiquities during family prayers as they curse demons from their home, says Wandera Salmon Owino, minister of tourism and antiquities at the Tieng Adhola Cultural Institute, a Tororo nonprofit working to preserve Jopadhola traditions. “Some people associate the fumbo with witchcraft,” he says. “Until the fumbo is played in churches, people’s thoughts will never change.”
The institute is pushing the Tororo district government to ban electronic sound systems at funerals, and a recent wave of crime during services might just persuade Tororo residents to support such a move. Owino says that the radio makes the funeral feel like a party, which attracts a lot of people — not necessarily to mourn.
“The modern music is empty. We don’t know where it is made. It’s not part of our heritage, not part of our history. They are picked because they appeal in a particular way,” says Patrick Ndira, a Tororo resident who works at a nongovernmental organization.
Traditional mourning, on the other hand, is very interactive between the musicians and the mourners, says Atuki Turner, Ndira’s co-worker. “You see the sweat of the musician, his fingers playing the instruments,” Turner says. “The musician moves through the mourners as he sings.”
Ogambo has trained a few of his relatives to play the fumbo, but tradition says they cannot play at funerals while he is still alive.
He says that he’s too weak and tired to play the fumbo at funerals, which requires standing, but that he sometimes plays the tongoli, which can be played seated, at the okelo, a similar ritual reserved for warriors and prominent elders in the community. “I wasn’t being invited to play at [the ajore] anymore, and I saw an opportunity playing at the okelo, so I took it up,” says Ogambo.
Unlike the ajore, the okelo allows fathers, uncles and grandfathers to play together. The radio isn’t usually hired for the okelo. “It’s too special,” Ogambo says. It’s also much rarer.
When he dies, Ogambo’s funeral will be celebrated with an okelo. And he plans to keep his fumbo until then. “I can’t throw my fumbo away,” he says. “I will play it until I am no more.”
Beatrice Lamwaka is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda.
Regina Asinde Kasede interpreted some interviews from Dhopadhola.