• Denholm Hewlett

[Music/Culture] Leo Palayeng: Memoirs of an Elephant Warrior

The incredible true story of LEO PaLAYENG, one of the pioneers of the Electro Acholi movement, a masterful multi-instrumentalist revered for his skills playing Adungu and Nanga, the traditional bowed harps of the Acholi tribe.

Presenting one of Northern Uganda's most prominent musicians, a skilled producer, DJ and singer from the Acholilands of Gulu who has been electrifying the dance-halls and airwaves of his native land for 20 years.

This boiler room set (watch below) is a great entry point into his music...

LEO PaLAYENG, (aka P-layeng / real name AKENA P’LAYENG OKELLO) has shared the details of his amazing life story and musical journey with us to publish for this article and for the first time reveal the life story behind his music. We are also proud to share Leo's new album, Acoustic Works.

Leo Palayeng in Mexico (2020)

A rare fusion of Acholi and Mexican musical styles, ACOUSTIC WORKS features the spiritual and soothing sounds of traditional Adungu music, deeply soulful East-African Acholi folk compositions for a new generation of elephant warriors. Traditional Acholi music radiates a profoundly spiritual and heavenly energy that has the power to purify your mind and soul.

Leo Paylayeng, Otim Alpha & the Acholitronix dancers (2019)

Leo takes the spotlight on this new Lp with his virtuoso Adungu skills and beautiful Luo singing. The project features Coral Aguilar and Benjamin Kumantuk Xuxpë. You can listen to the album on bandcamp. Click the image below and support the artist's music by purchasing if you can.

For this latest project, Leo partnered up with his close friend and musical collaborator, Emiliano Motta, a Mexican producer, musician and score composer who mastered Otim Alpha's debut album, Gulu City Anthems (2018), a project which Leo was heavily involved with the production.

Leo Palayeng in Mexico (2020)

These two musicians managed to create something truly special, an whimsical and enchanting multi-cultural folk album recorded largely in Mexico between 2019 and 2020, with an additional 2 tracks recorded in Leo's personal home studio in Gulu town, Northern Uganda, in 2020.

Leo and Emiliano also worked on a new song; Acholitronix, with Otim Alpha, a heavyweight electro acholi cross-culture dance anthem (watch below).

From Leo's recent project is a humble new music video (watch below) for his masterful Adungu composition "TONG KICOL". The song is like a riddle, based on traditional Acholi stories and myths. Tong Kicol talks about "black chickens laying eggs that are later hatched by the white chickens". These riddles are brain teasers guised in myth, told around campfires by elders and contain hidden information to be exchanged over the generations.

"My first acoustic album was born as a result of having a number of my own compositions that I used to play in order to pass time when I miss home when on tours, sometimes when with friends especially from Brussels, Belgium, Copenhagen, Denmark, Dusseldorf, Berlin, Germany at times with collaborative producers and musicians.... So when choosing the best songs for my first acoustic Album “KIBOO OLEYO TONG KICOL", I chose to include a range of sounds as I used to play a number of different instruments ranging from Nanga, Adungu, Nanga Larumu, to create a fusion of Acholi & Latino Tunes."

Leo Palayeng in Mexico (2020)
"The creativity and sounds of my native people's music sometimes finds it's way to blend in with the patterns and sounds of music from the other sides of the world. I realised somewhere in the world that we share common tunes, like my major scales I used in creating the track COME ALONG for the acoustic works matches perfectly with Jarocho (Veracruz sound)".

Leo Palayeng & Emiliano Motta in Mexico (2020)
"I ended up working on a full acoustic album with the help of Emiliano Motta and Pablo Pascal & Cuan in Mexico City 2019/20. Although most the songs were made in Mexico, some songs where recorded from my own record studio in Uganda, the released songs on this acoustic album need some remixing work to suit the heavy electronic dance mix later this year under the Makabila Umoja Label"

Leo Palayeng in Mexico (2020)
"Regarding my Elephant costume, each artist may have their expression in looks, singing, dancing and more, to me it has always been a lot on how to express myself too in making my identity together to complete my story, I come out with the elephant costume in 2018/19 I have designed it for me & would associate with few talented tailors in Uganda, I’m glad the fabrics make me so comfortable in different colours and I feel glad donning it during my performances".

Otim Alpha & Leo Palayeng in Mexico (2019)

You can check out Leo's official solo band camp page below and support the artist directly. This page features all of his early albums and some of his most recent material ~ with his own unique brand of ACHOLITRONIX.


From this point onwards, you will be reading Leo Palayeng's personal autobiographical writings about his incredible life story, his musical journey, his East-African Acholi heritage and the beauties of Luo/Acholi culture. Psychic Garden are proud to exclusively share the memoirs of an elephant Acholi warrior.

Greetings, my birth name is AKENA P’LAYENG OKELLO, but I go by the artist name of Leo PaLAYENG. I was born and raised in the Acholilands of Gulu, Northern Uganda. My late father worked as a teacher and my mother worked as a peasant farmer in Gulu. I feel lucky to be born in line with the strong cultural heritage of the Luo/Acholi people of East Africa, the cultural practices such as oral traditions, farming methods, hunting & gatherings, conflict managements and resolutions that were preserved from way back by our ancestors have contributed to who I am today. From early age my mother would carry me on her back with traditional made baby pouch (OBENO), I always listen to her singing while she performs her home duties, when laying me to bed she would sing for me till my eyes close & fall completely asleep, it was the most peaceful moments I could nowadays imagine.

Learning to speak my mother tongue I noticed most of what she usually sings has strong philosophical messages with gender sensitive points, sometimes hardship, love, praises & motivation in her life experiences. My father Okello Foustino Layeng, being a disciplined teacher he never praised any child's achievements even when you perform better in all aspects, this left me yearning to be a much better person in the hopes that he would one day feel proud of what I do, but it never happened. Everything changed from the day he promised to go and buy for me a Pen to start school the next day. My lovely Father didn’t come home that night and I realised that many of my relatives were joining my family in mourning him. The turbulent year of 1986 will never be easy year to remember or to forget, it was during the current government military take over that the whole country was in chaos and insurgency was all over the country, Dad got killed by gunmen in cold blood.

Modified NANGA instrument

My first chance to touch a musical instrument was with the NANGA, a 7 strings musical instrument of the Acholi people which is pentatonic. I started playing the NANGA during the same period when our uncles were mourning my late father in our home. I remember my Uncle LUGEJO who own the instruments and hangs them on the wall, I started stealing the instruments and would play it alone from the sides of the nearby forest, one day the elders heard the sound of Nanga coming from the forest and they followed to the source, when they found me I could only look at their faces in shock and sadness because it’s very strange for a child about 6 years old to play the instruments without an elder person teaching him, they became worried and discussed reasons to keep watch on me because I was playing the music during the sad period when my father was killed and this may have led to feelings of wanting to commit suicide. This incident freaked me out until school days where I resumed my learning. From School days: I realised school music teachers rely on teaching the pupils to play instruments fixed only on major scale, the instruments introduced by the religious/missionaries, the influences didn’t take my traditional styles & patterns as anything important but negative for the new generations. I used to steal many local instruments & alter their tunes to sounds that belongs to our traditional musical patterns, I got punished by the teachers but I didn’t give up. Even though in school I excelled in my performances academically & musically I never lagged behind and was always in the lead with moderate character.

Joining Secondary School, things changed and everyone focused on dreams to be doctors, pilots etc with cost of educations that was so hard to meet, it made me start seeing less option to make it to the university. I would sometimes sneak off from school to play traditional village festivals, same time would be doing wood work making local craft chairs to sell and get my school requirements. I used to farm too and I was self reliance even with worries how the future shall be, my consciousness was so telling me that I am my father who has missed to learn from a father. My high school Sir Samuel Baker sits about 4.7 Kilometer from Gulu, now a city in Northern Uganda, it was so vulnerable to raids of the LRA rebels group of Joseph Kony, there was no proper security measures in place to protect the students from abduction, the rebel leaders abduct youths to join their arm force, raid food commodities & medicine wherever the pass, a matter of life and death for us, many of my class/school-mates were abducted & some died when government forces pursue or air raids the rebel camps, luckily I always survived because I usually sneak out of school, so in reality the school environment was totally wild, all of these un healthy environment pushed me out of studies to join the street. I can’t stand the situation at school, I didn’t know from a fight in the Dinning hall they gave me a nickname known as DEAD HOUZ, many fans called me that till now even if I am Leo PaLayeng.

I started making craft chairs for my income. I raised money to buy my first bicycle which I assembled, later I bought my camera (Yashika film analog camera), every weekends I take photos in disco clubs, churches and moving trucks convoys that goes to Sudan and started earning my own money, I used to do casual labours with Pepsi distribution deports in Gulu… Keeping myself out of trouble in my own rented house I remember being the boy in the hood with all sorts of new fashion brands in market. This made me the young local celeb about town with mysterious back ground, every fellow youth wanna hang with me & this made my network kicked on smooth with no rules broken, shaping my steps to join the entertainment group that was the only dance drama group in the region The KIDS OF NATURE mid-late 90s, this youth group had elder DJ's like Juma Jamie, Dj Afaya who could make numbers of shows we used to admire, dream come true I were admitted in the drama group where we dance Lingala songs, rap dub on western sound beats even though my traditional sounds keeps ringing in my head.


In that period I had many hand written poems & true life stories which I had hoped would be published one day, even though in the drama group I joined I saw they're not enacting many new creative ideas, I hated mimes and music without directions. I endured lots of dictations limiting my creative potential in the group, but still I hit the stage with my generous friend BESTO aka Akiiki Byarunganga (currently retired US soldier who fuelled airforce one in his days of service) he was a great hardcore rapper and pairing with him for the beginning of my career meant a lot. I later teamed up with my loyal friends & formed New Born Squad (NU BEEZ SQUAD), Allan Smokie, Tonny Areo, Later Younger fellows as MC Wangjok and many others had the chance to hang free in the group, this was a breakthrough for the healthy growth of our acholi arts. I always get numbers of instrumentals ready made beats available for all my comrades and we would tour the region opening ways for tough competition that see us grow a broader fan base in the country.


In my house I had a tape/CD house mini sound system and from my savings I nearly bought all the local and International record tapes, South Africa, West Africa, East Africa and Western music from raps to country music, this was not just for fun but a vital part of my own studies to know what has the world done to start their popular genres such as reggae, raga, jazz, disco, etc. I keep asking myself that if others can start their own styles and brand it upto the top why not me? My international social life started way back even if there was no social media like Facebook and many other means to share with the world, so in those days I used to be member of PENFRIEND snail mails sent to the post office box and I did write to a number of friends in Ireland. I can’t remember how many times we changed mails before getting to e-mails, I was getting so aquatinted with the world outside my world.



One time as I was returning from school music festival practices I happened to stop at the window of a local Band with name SAVANA BAND, they were recording their music live and mixing at once straight to master TAPE, they had the challenge of distortion & damaged audio output, I could see red light sign of clipping audio at the end of limiter which some instruments in the mix would over power the other output creating damaged recordings, I couldn’t hide to analyse and shouted that “the guitar record level had to be reduced to enable balance with other instruments & vocals all being recorded” instead they chased me away from the window but I was surprised they used my advise and it improved their recordings. The next day I met the man who offered his service to record the band, he asked me who taught me how to analyse the clipping sounds? With respect to an elder I was so shy to answer him when he already known some skills in me, I didn’t know I met the gentleman in possessions of many electronic equipments, the late BABYLON (Won Obargot) as they used to call him, he was the proprietor of BOOM ELECTRONIC SERVICES, he owned a hundreds of LPs/Players (vinyl), Tape Players and best of it he has TESCAM TAPE MULTI-TRAX DUB MACHINE imported from Europe, he showed me and gave me the chance to try the machines. He ushered me to his room full of all sort of old electronics, and he was a serious English Football and a Manchester United FC club fan. He died of cardiac arrest watching his lovely game and till now I love Manchester United because of their strong ties with Babylon's legacy.

I recorded my first rap dub music with a Microphone & the Tescam 4 track recorder he gave me from his sitting room, some of the projects were later worked on together with Emma Okanokodi at Hub Gales residence in Gulu. Gales was the local personnel working on upgrading Radio Freedom to current Mega FM in Gulu. These raps played on Radio Freedom (currently Mega Fm Gulu). I could not be known anywhere apart from my home region and there was risks of local popularity where my people who never supported my initiative always imagined I was going to be some kind of drug addict, womaniser and either end up in prison or would die of HIV/AIDS, but I knew what I wanted and continued on my journey. Here's a breakdown of my early songs - WEE YOO (AN LAWOT KAMABOO), (man about long journey) was telling my ambitions - BORN IN THIS CRAZY WORLD, (pain of bad politics & hard life from hard back ground) - I WISH I GOTTA A GAL LIKE YOU (love wishes) - G/TOWN MOST WANTED (the pride of taking the lead to uplift arts in my region) - CRAZY FOR MY FIRST BORN (thinking about future family) - GIN MA AYERO PE TURA (My choice don’t break me).

I was missing my dad a lot at this time, and remembered my urge to prove him wrong by doing my very best in life even when he cannot see me, even though I felt like the songs I had made hadn't given me enough influence in my society. I joined media companies in my region and became a radio presenter on Radio 4 89.4FM in Gulu, thats where the SLOGAN “THIS IS LEO, THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN HELP” came to exist earning me enough publicity as a radio presenter with youthful popular music radio shows gathering massive fans that demanded my own songs which I was shy to play on radio in my own shows. I use tape recorder to produce crazy fan radio bites & jingles, I noticed I am speaking with large community who would advertise our shows greatly, holidays makers would bring all big fans and money would flow into supporting my initiatives. I noticed I had monopolised all school entertainment prefect-leadership in this district to the extend that I am the only DJ in all their parties where I as well give free mic for students to sing in their parties, this gave me a business for mobile disco and video shows which school would hire my service every weekend.