[Music/Culture] LEO PaLAYENG - Memoirs of an Elephant Warrior
The incredible story of LEO PaLAYENG, one of the pioneers of the Electro Acholi musical movement, a truly masterful musician and multi-instrumentalist revered for his skills playing the Adungu and Nanga, the traditional bowed harps of the Acholi tribe. Leo is highly accomplished producer, musician, instrumentalist, DJ and singer from the Acholilands of Gulu. He has been electrifying the dancehalls and airwaves of Northern Uganda for 20 years. We are proud to present Leo's latest album, ACOUSTIC WORKS.
LEO PaLAYENG, (real name AKENA P’LAYENG OKELLO) is a dear friend of mine who I first became acquainted with while travelling with OTIM ALPHA in Uganda last year and on tour with the duo in Portugal. Leo has just shared the details of his amazing life story and musical journey with me to publish for this article. We are also proud to share Leo's new album, Acoustic Works. A rare fusion of Acholi and Mexican musical styles. Inspired by the parallels between traditional Adungu music played in the Acholilands of Northern Uganda and Son Jarocho, a traditional Mexican music from Veracruz.
For this latest project, Leo partnered up with his close friend and longtime musical collaborator, Emiliano Motta, a Mexican producer, musician and film score composer who mastered Otim Alpha's debut album, Gulu City Anthems (2018), a project which Leo was also heavily involved with the production. 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.
This project features the powerful and soothing sounds of traditional Adungu music, deeply soulful East-African Acholi folk compositions for a new generation of elephant warriors. The music radiates a heavenly spiritual energy that will purify your mind, body and soul, if you allow it to wash your troubles away. Leo takes the spotlight with his virtuoso Adungu skills and beautiful Luo vocals. The project also features Coral Aguilar and Benjamin Kumantuk Xuxpë. You can listen to the album on bandcamp. Click the image below and please support the artist's music if you can.
I spoke with Leo regarding the process of how he recorded and produced this new acoustic album together with Emiliano Mottta, here's what he had to say
"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, Dursseldolf, 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, ACHOLI LATINO TUNEs etc. The creativity and sounds of my native people's music sometimes finds it way to blend in with the patterns and sounds 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
"....While I was in Denmark with my workmate Emiliano Motta, he kept moving with the Zoom Audio recorder whenever we go out into the backyard to play music by the beach, sometimes we play surprise jam at home in Copenhagen City & even on the roadsides where we want to shoot video. In most cases I would be playing my messy sound and he would keep on picking up a few recordings and giving me to listen to them later, I could feel shy because I know it shall not carry value to my clans-mates. I had to perfect the lyrics and started recording a few composition bit by bit, we later decided to travel to Mexico in early December 2019 for a holiday and mini tours, from Mexico we had a very free recording environment and each time I kept perfecting my playing skills, 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 too later this year. Its released under the Makabila Umoja Label (Mexico, Denmark)" ~ LEO PALAYENG
ABOUT MY ELEPHANT COSTUME
"There is much in arts that we do everyday, 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" - LEO PALAYENG
Leo and Emiliano recently created a new song with the King of Acholitronix, Otim Alpha. The track they made is a heavyweight electro acholi cross-culture dance anthem. Watch the video for Acholitronix below ~ filmed, edited and produced by Jacob Crawfurd.
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's personal autobiographical writings about his life story, musical journey, his East-African heritage and the beauties of Luo/Acholi culture. Psychic Garden are proud to share the memoirs of an elephant Acholi warrior ~
THE MEMOIRS OF AN ELEPHANT
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.
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 many times 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.
THE FIRST LIVE RECORDING I CONTRIBUTED TO....
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.
At the start of 2000 I wanted something bigger and the Pentium II computer was just introduced in Gulu. I hired one with the help of a friend Black ZERO to start practicing digital sounds production, I had no software until there was a situation where 4 Tanzanian school boys who were rappers got stranded in Gulu, I called my team & organised a day show to raise fund to transport them back to their parents home in Tanzania. Later they told their parents the ordeal and that made them send me an invitation to their place & from there they gave me software. I remember fruity loops 3.45, Adobe 1.0 & logic 2.9 which helped me to produce my first Electro Acholi song called ANYADWE (daughter of the moon) a song which earned me more radio exposure, the whole region had nickname to praise their ladies as ANYADWE… meaning she is so beautiful like daughter of the crescent moon, youths have remixed this words in so many songs after me, I noticed my lyrical power has a lot of impact and boosted my hope that one day I am going to be the real Lawot Ka Maboo meaning man on a long mission & journeys.
From the years 2000 - 2003 I needed money to build my own studio, I had faced music production malice in the past when a Kampala based producer messed up and re-produced my beats and called another Kampala musician to alter and sing over my music, knowing they will get more play in the City than in my region, this got me mad to come home to team up with friends. I worked so hard both mobile discos/parties that even involved political rallies with skills to hook the crowd for member of parliaments, they all used my skills during their political campaign rallies and went through to earn their jobs successfully but being politicians they didn’t look back to support me after, I learnt not to trust seasonal leaders and focused on my own plans.
I started to make original sound beats for night talents shows in ALOBO night club, the winner is paid 40,000UGx, that means if I deploy my guys with original hot sound beats they will win minimum 80,000/= a week. I started getting money to built a computer, sound-blaster, microphone and renting part of the computer centre where the first studio was set. My best friend Black Zero, His Brother Kites & Gabriel joined me and we managed to unleash the first studio in the region and we called it 2Kleen (Later Lamyel legends Records), we produced many albums for many upcoming singers and many would later become music producers as were soon empowered to start their own studios, OPIYO TWONGWENO, BROTHER MARTINE, JOE EMROLD, USAIH, DR KAUNDA, RAX & ROMEO, LABERT DIKSON and many of my young friends all got the best of my social arts empowerment. In my heart I was fighting dependancy since we were all coming from humble back-ground with no standard job so we had to create jobs to earn from as well bring our region to the top to compete against the the dominant central musicians who always monopolise the media to deprive us the exposure.
In between the years of 2000-2005 I had made many unreleased Albums. In 2004 I saw my people dancing to my music in Diana Gardens as I launched ANYADWE & MARO OKWERO KENY, these double tape dubbed albums sold good copies independently and later Akanyango Enterprises took over the distribution in the whole country. I realised now there is a need to elevate the core traditional sound patterns I played in Nanga, I decided to bring in the traditional patterns to the electronic, the calculations to create the first LARAKARAKA LOOPS wasn’t easy, this took me a long time, I started from hitting and recording traditional drums, calabash, to get sound samples for Fruityloops software addons which I would install into a computer, I got most of the true Acholi samples with quality work. Then one time after a long night in the disco hall the club was closed down and I thought deep to make a simple project with Fruityloops sequence to hit loop play on 1, 2, 3, looping back again to 1, 2, 3, this later would make 6 bars and 6 would go in 12bars, 12 bars divides both into 3 and 4 equally that means even on 12. I would hype the BPM to 158 to help drop the calabash samples in midi sequence hanging fast like being hit live on stage, boom I got it, the loops for wedding celebration and other electronic Acholi tribal patterns that I practiced from playing Nanga instrument those early days came back into my head, from the excitements I made the craziest shouts that night.
The first traditional marriage song in Gulu I made for SEMEI OKWIRs family (a very kind father to my good friend called Chris) Chris gave me the names of both his parents and the relatives, later the in-laws too who were coming to join in the marriage celebration in Semie’s home, I made a music praising the character of the lady, good upbringing and the lyrics were most touchy truth as “Ladit Semei Okwir, won Nyako ngeyo coko ogwang oweko nyalo odongo ki deyo” (meaning Mr Semei okwir, a great father who never allows the fox to abuse the young pretty chicks making them to grow without scars) Mrs Betty Okwir min nyako in ipwonyo Nyalano weko odongo ki kwiri (Mrs Betty Okwir is a mother who have good upbringing morale to the family hence the ladies grew up with dignity as per accordance with the Acholi heritage), everyone was surprised to hear their names in the song and they keep making contacts after another, I would be called to perform number of my other love songs at traditional ceremonies as the bride and groom dance with joy together and setting powerful memories of unbreakable love.
HOW I FIRST MET OTIM ALPHA
I had already worked with very many musicians and was confident of my record output and people who had special talents as well wanted my services, the good thing was that I had more love to work and produce in the studio than perform in concerts, this as well kept people wondering who Leo PaLayeng was, it was so hard for my fans to meet me since I am always engaged with my recording teams, one day power went off in the middle of my work session producing for my clients, I came out with Adungu and Alpha too was holding Adungu along one of the guy who later they called him Otim Bosmik, we started playing the instruments together which took me back to the real love I had for the traditional instruments of my beautiful Acholi culture…we both sing and play various instruments as well with great skill.
I was surprised because I used to know Otim Alpha as OPEC BOYS (Local fuel suppliers) or as the Kick Boxer champion who was rumoured to challenge the head German engineer, a strong and heavily tattooed man who was constructing Gulu's modern sewerage and water supplies plant, I didn’t see them fight but it was the talk of the town even way back when I was still a pupil in primary class. There were many stories about Alpha in those days. In the early 2000s I realised that Otim Alpha was a son to my Aunt and we were actually related, so it was no surprise that we're both talented by nature of birth with the same love for the traditional sounds & cultural patterns, he has good energy and a strong singing voice, more so than many musicians who I have had to nurture to sing but Alpha already had the talent and determination, our partnership was arranged and we did the best from the first start. In total I released the following works ANYADWE (2005), (Tapes) - MARO OKWERO KENY (2005) Tapes - WILOBO NA WENG MEGI (2006) Tapes - AMARO NYINGA (2007) CD/Tapes
ROLES in Conflict management & resolution
Northern Uganda has been in conflicting scenarios way back from 70s to 90s & onwards. I recall from 1986 the rebels & the current government arm forces committed a number of security errors that resulted in gross human right violation especially in Northern Region. I would say the population in Northern Uganda & its neighbouring sub-region’s population were totally deprived the basics to have the same service delivery for wellbeing like other part of the country. Human rights violations, gender based violence among others, children being abducted to join arm forces when government forces were suppose to provide equal rights & properties protections. Lacking rehab facilities to council the traumatised persons affected by the conflict etc, there was no proper media coverage about the conflict in the region making the culprits to go scot-free with their abusiveness, even humanitarian assistance were less delivered or with corruptions that still leave the grassroots cheated.
From all the above conditions of which I am a victim too made me to develop a deep feeling for our own healing processes and to find lasting solution in secret simple form, I realised music is the only tool I have, as I see women groups & cultural institutions, students all could be engaged with peace messages, but then with who & how to make such voices be heard at higher platform to contribute towards its course? by that I kept telling my fellow artist and leaders that if we need to reinstate hope for economic growth in our region we have to enable peace to prevail using any means at hand. I even noticed the need to tackle negative mindset of our people’s traditional believes that underrate and stand against modern female musicians, our female musicians faces challenges of being called brat/prostitute spoilt beings. I asked everyone if they would accept to sacrifice their arts & talents in music in call for peace, reconciliation & amnesty for those who were forced to the rebel activities against their will. In my past view I saw no possibility for Investors or for tourism to have value to our region. How can I be of a better course to stimulate my people to tame the violent state of our region so our grand children could be born in peaceful environment? I recall how many poems I wrote for my books but the book has to be read by an educated person, so what if I put those poems into songs where I can sing in local language to pass the information directly to all the learnt or unlearnt?
So I wrote many peace advocative songs and shared it to initiate “women’s voice for peace” (Lady Grace Atim & Sherry Princes Lameny) were the first beneficiaries in kick starting their careers too in music since I had already established a record studio, the women voice became slogan as DWOG PACO Meaning RETURN HOME, A local radio programs aired that shares messages of parents who lost their kids to war and as well relay phone or physical voice messages of the rebels & other who returned home from the bush. it was mothers calling their abducted spouse and children to denounce war and violence for there is no use to continued bloodshed of our own Nation, this kind of initiative where we even record local village bands in internal displacement camps played a big role where all traditional to modern musical players were speaking same language of peace, it spread the formulae of peace straight in the minds of both people in conflicts (LRA/Government forces) that saw many insurgence to get communication with the community and many escaped rebel captivities to return home for rehabilitation under the Cultural institutions & International funded development partners in the region. The radio talkshow host was Lacambel (Local Traditional Radio Moderator along other Local Leaders).
I even know by those days people had no financial empowerment or not enough resources to pay for studio fee and to facilitate the producers, so I had to cut recording artists fair for studios session to be half price so every musician would afford to record their voice for peace, the half asked amount is to facilitate the producers and meet minimum bills and studio premise rents. Number of recording musicians kept growing yet all would be having great messages calling for peaceful means of solving differences among community or political fractions, sometimes land conflicts, girl child education, gender based violence & HIV/AIDS awareness etc all these songs I directed & produced at less cost because of yearns for wellbeing & peace in my region.
We continued until all the radios in the region were playing our music for peace purposes, in fact many local political leaders were using our music and rich lyrical contents which was really the voice of the sufferings, many of our local leaders would even enact their political manifestos from messages we sing to capture local voters attention when in time for political campaigns. In many occasions I was picked by many known organisations to perform in charities & other humanitarian events, the most I remember was the NUDIPU (Northern Uganda Disabled Groups) they were trusted to conduct CIVIC eduction campaigns in overall Northern Uganda during the general political season in 2006. I delivered my performances with my groups comprised of BSG Labongo and many others conveying needs for the people to take part in political voting of their trusted leaders. I like this activity because it never involve me to take sides on any political wings competing sides as we get directly involved with the public to know their rights to vote.
In those seasons I got overwhelmed as a large number of prominent talents emerged bigger than I though, of course as I wanted and this made me to call for team work, to empower the artists with skills to produce their own songs & to own their studios where they shall do to others what has been offered to them. I notice this will bring positive competitiveness to counter others regions music influences hence growing Uganda Arts industry, we initiated our Music governing body we called it NUMA (Northern Uganda Music Artists Association) the first Interim leader was Alpha Otim & later Opiyo Geoffrey whose roles were to safe guard the interest of the group to continue what used to be on individual sacrifice to become community based accessible local organisation, we worked together & this continued up to 2010 when we made regional tour under theme: KUC KI MAR IPACI WA (Peace & love in our homestead) this was partly sponsored by USAID, why we had to make those local tours is because the side effects of civil war damaged the population deeply, good cultural practices were eroded.
In Northern Uganda people were forced to live in Internal displacement concentrated camps & the insurgency left their mindset to free things from donors (United Nations), the good morale value I used to see in my cultural practices were gone, we had to use music to decongest the population from the camp life. In the year 2010 we would stage live musical concerts/drama between local boundaries which enable populations to meet mingle, have fan, interact to share our free music tapes that we donate, this as well helped the people displaced by war to have glance on their futile land to trigger needs to cultivate and rebuild from the post conflict, it created many meeting points in Northern Uganda that nowadays people use such locations for rural mass market days which the business community leaders would chose calendars then would hire our musicians to perform for pay, this was the most successful humanitarian project that I was part of it in team sprit, and gladly I witnessed the good purpose of empowering our young musicians.
THE MOST MOST SAD SETBACK
IN 2006 Uganda political elections had just concluded, I had shot great cultural appealing message for peace and cultural revival cries on videos (youtube). My studio got robbed off, I lost all my equipments in the hands of unknown people (thieves) and all my unreleased albums were gone, my team mates dropped me off grid to even access the little savings we raised from the records savings we made together, I got back to zero but with the concept of how I build the first studio, I left to Kampala depressed, I hate to remember how I suffered to recover, I was lucky some how because the music I released before were all hitting on the air in the Region, this enable me to met few friends and they offered to organise my concerts in number of places in the region, the best I had was concerts for Kitgum a town about 118 Kilometres drive from Gulu, I had great Album Launch (WILOBO NA WENG MEGI) on 11th October 2006 which I featured DOGMAN (West Nile Artist of the Year by then), still my best single handed show which the turn up fetched cash amount over 13millions Ugx, I remember that night I slept in our unfinished (not ruffed) building in Kitgum Town with 11m UGx clean after separating expenses/fees for my guests & organisers (welfare allowances), that night I had to elude thieves who were trailing me trying to ambush me on my way back to the Hotel, otherwise the total balance revenue of (11m Ugs) was enough for me to purchase all my new desktop studio equipments.
By the end October 2006 I launched Lamyel Legends Record studio Gulu Branch on AWICH Rd Gulu near bus terminal, I continue the usual work terms I set before, our upcoming musicians/producers got more updated as I would reconfigure their studios and help them purchase quality recording machines. My best residence artist come producer was Labert Dickson whom I produced his lead songs from start of his career, he was multi-talented young blood, any way in all my wish my interest was to have more studios in my region & create competitiveness. In that period I was happy seeing most of the guys I offered my skills are all owning studios and they're getting paid without depending of relief sources. I remember that year South Sudanese flocked my studio, the Likes of Silver X (an Icon in south Sudanese peace advocator) he still the most successful artist I worked from country outside Uganda.
In 2007-2010 I registered LAMYEL MULTI-MEDIA as a company under it’s license which Lamyel Legends Records operate to give back to the community inline to support raw talents & empowering them with work skills. I seriously established the studio branch in Kitgum as appreciation for their massive supports and my team mates voluntarily were offering video coverage & editing. Music productions, among the known beneficiaries were JIMMY JIMSON, CITY BOY, Eddy Wizzy, and many others both owning studios. I offered many computer skills to underprivileged kids without any funding, many organisations would ask if I need funding but I kept telling them I am fighting dependancy, the youth must get their own empowerment, meaning in reality we equip them with skills to prepare them for the humanitarian agency or any individual who may have needs to employ them…
REUNION WITH ALPHA & GULU CITY ANTHEM (2007)
The year got busy with hits after hits, I released AMAORO NYINGA (The most listened and popular ringtone for people mobiles phones which is still a house hold sound for more than a decade & half though still counts), the album hit the street in 2006/7 in Tapes and CDs, we agreed & reserved the tape distribution rights to Akanyango Enterprise Gulu & Kampala, it’s the year we re-united with Alpha in Lamyel Records, he was pleased because of the progress I made on the Records rebirth, for me and him there was more work freeness in the new setup, he would come in and out at any time to record his composition which I complied them to over 20 songs by year 2012. Me & ALPHA experienced a lot of negative forces, His home got torched (arson), Alpha lost so much of his valuable assets, me too I lost my elder Brother in 2011 (a Police officer) and responsibilities for our family felt heavy on me, we could work so hard & at times sleep on our studio carpets consoling ourselves and diverting our loss to energise and move upright.
Our strength will have shaped many artists and for some elements (people) who were trying to exploit us would in turn get jealous to play sabotage to derail us, but we made it, Alpha & I every weekend would go to many different directions for wedding parties where the less amount per event could be between 1.5m to 2.5M Ugx and on lucky seasons we may cover more than 3 events each, only when we get contracted in neighbouring countries like Kenya, South Sudan thats is when we are limited to single well paid event… I got invited to travel abroad by friends I remember foreign students from US & Australia who did their researches in Gulu, they separately gave me all the kind hopes to support my travel to their countries but I couldn’t wish to leave my home country at that time since the purpose of my work has not hit the mightier hopes. I noticed leaving my one step at a time growth pattern and going to relocate and start a new life in a new environment where people won’t understand what I do would not be easy. I don’t regret it all because I knew what I wanted and where I should reside.
A NEW LIFE A GIFT 2013
I was blessed with a Son and I named him Kijula Varrick Layeng the year 2013, 17 June, he is one day late to share a birthday with my sister whom I followed. My son was born in the period I wanted to make the final respect prayers for my beloved Dad Okello Foustino along the rest of the deceased in my family, I made a song AKURU KALAM DONG KWE in memory of my Dad (check the Acoustic Works album) this music helped me accept my father will never come back & I have to move on and I am already a man. The funeral took place in early 2014 where we united the family fragmented by conflict in the Northern Uganda, everything went on successful until the end.
THE SADDEST MOMENT & ATTEMPT ON MY LIFE
It was on 12th February 2015 evening, I went for dinner in Diana gardens a very popular hang out in Gulu, It was in the season that our leaders at high level in the East African community entrusted me with 3 customised music compositions for the decent burial of the Late General Barzilio Okello Olara, Centenary Day of East Acholi & St Janan Loums Memorial Day, all these events were happening from day 14th, 15th & 16th February 2015 respectively in Eastern Acholi (Northern Region), so I had to travel that night to Kampala to enable the committee to verify the work before releasing them for use. That night by 11:27PM as I was leaving the dinner place (Diana gardens) to catch up with the night bus to go to Kampala is when I got hit in the head with iron rod by someone I don’t know, I was left for dead by the road side, I can’t tell what the heck happened but as explained by the first aid provider I regained my consciousness by 2am in the night feeling, seriously I was like stoned without feeling any kind of gravity, a good hearted motor bike operator we called BODA BODA lifted me when half naked with scattered notes around me and the iron rod I was hit with was dropped next to my head. I lost the number of electronics and the names of the back up disks which I stored my work.. to recover fully in good health took me 9 months, I developed memory lost and couldn’t even remember my bank secret codes as well as my signature couldn’t match its original.
BRANDING THE GENRE ACHOLITRONIX/ELECTRO-ACHOLI
Even if electro versions of Acholi cultural music started way back in the millenniums, I feel it was still on it’s tender spread in East Africa with less media attention, but as we keep making music & videos ranging from weddings to other secular music to get uploaded on youtube & other social media platforms, it reached out to the Global family who found it irresistible not to dance to the energetic elephant sounds once it hit the airwave.
My music and my label LAMYEL LEGENDs RECORDS in Gulu has been on roll since year 2000, I have done all my domestic charities in empowering my region standards and there was peace. Even I have performed in all neighbouring East African countries in weddings or other events we get invited for, I feel my domestic ground should be for my young fellows growing in the industry, really asking myself what next, it’s was by end of 2015 after recovering from iron hit injury that I wanted something out of my local grown. Then in 2016 Alpha Otim as usual he pays visit to the studio at anytime, but that time he came with his friends who happened to be the founders of Kampala based Nyege Nyege Tapes labels, Derek & Arlen together we introduced ourselves, I noticed our guests interest was to know who produce for Otim Alpha of-course Gulu City Anthem Album.
We shared number of ideas and contacts, later Alpha told me he already performed at the Jinja festival but now there is need to expand the output which I agreed seconded by making sure when in Uganda we should introduce more live instruments and later electronic to make up the real story how these patterns came to exist, later in the year Gulu City Anthem was released on Tape, Vinyl and almost every where on online digital platforms, we had number electronic workshop in Kampala residence centre for the Nyege label & introducing new digital machines, synthesisers etc to enable live on triggering in our presentations, I reproduced the live stems with number of new software upgrading all the old productions I made for Alpha all adding the data into Ableton live sets.
We got curated for Nyege Nyege festival in Jinja 2017, as our preparations to the world stage nears Derek sat down with us with joy and began saying “you guys are going to smash the world” and asked how should we call this creation from Acholi?…we all found it easy to describe it as ELECTRO MUSIC FROM CULTURAL PATTERNS OF ACHOLI, ACHOLITRONIX ELECTRO-ACHOLI Kaboom there we go ACHOLITRONIX was the name of our sound. This nyege festival was also the time I meet my great mexican Brother Emiliano Motta the producer, Musician, sound technicians as well whose story I found saved the first festival output to the best. Me & Emiliano from the Nyege label residence we hit the studio straight for a collaborated music project, during the festival we were together at the sound control tents and he managed to give us the best output ever in our life performance on the main stage, I believe we hit the stage so hard & it kickstarted out international duties further.
For our first international performance, the crowd was amazing in the Polish city of Krakow, the great work of the sound engineers made our performance output sound awesome with our crafty instruments ADUNGU fusion with electronic loops from Synth made me do 10 men’s work in one session, we all sing and dance demonstrating the dance patterns of real Acholi to the world, I remember the Unsound Directors on the media saying all world festivals should book Otim Alpha, during the the interview with the Resident Adviser media personals I couldn’t hide the truth to tell what our traditions do with musical arts, “we don’t write books, we maintain our culture with music (oral traditions), I created and programmed the electronic patterns that we could have used it full time for the performance but we had to let the world know the source of the music and how its danced….We could fine our pictures on media and in different languages of which we don’t know what it means unless it is translated…
MY GROWING INTERNATIONAL FAMILY
I continued meeting my international work comrades worldwide everyday and my artistic family keeps on growing, from many tours from 2016 - 2019. The breakthrough in the Boileroom TV live 2018 earthed my other sides of being a Dj, my presentation featured the most popular wedding songs and Royal sounds of Luo tribal people which I produced way back along side my Uganda based team mates who gained their skills from my Label Lamyel Legends records. In the middle of my show I introduced ALPHA OTIM and giving birth to the most powerful full team dance themed “Elephant dance”, I shared with international students of arts from all over the world, teachers attached with Africa museum in Belgium would use social media when in need for us to exchange informations with their classes, sound experimentations and many more.
Followed by early 2019 we had initiated to do field trips in recording & re documenting the core of popular Acholi music & dance styles, the field facilitation was sponsored by Boutique Electronic (Nyege label), the technical team were Jacob Supuuky, Jack, Pete & Me along with Jann Moss who was on videography, we traveled all over Northern Uganda recording number of different troupes on live performances…later during the festivals some of the troupes performed along our team in Nyege nyege Festival Jinja Uganda, this demonstrated what my people has for the world even if there is yearn for further exposure. Followed with number of international tours we keep re uniting at Nyege Nyege festival after which in 2019 was exceptional, we too had further link with Latin American producers, visiting the region this hatch number sharing percussion of Uganda and the rest of Africa.
About my creative choices of traditional styles. In reality most people think I am an electro artist but not fully true unless on diverse perspective, I feel I am more acoustic performer and I love it so much, from innovation of my own crafty instruments NANGA, ADUNGU, LUKEME e.t.c I still value & kept playing my cultural tunes adding on what that might have not been created, not only on wedding patterns, because there re so many other music styles that is presented depending on what kind of event one presides over, there re other music style & patterns that can only may be used in very special occasion, my culture has certain kind of music that belongs to the clan or tribe and it’s Chiefdom/Kingdom leadership that none individual artist can own the rights, the artist has to be exceptionally good after the death or any form of disability of the one who was elected before, the musician which is to replace the other can be rated and ranged by the cultural leaders on ground of preserving the past historical and can add the present events, that makes the truth on why we used not write books and by use of preserving the culture with musical lyrics.
RARE THING THAT happened to me
In the evening of a Saturday, after attending a large funeral, a rare kind of African bird we call Aluru, flew around and hit me straight in chest 3 times before it then dropped below the front steps of my home on the ground, It never left so I picked up the bird & kept it in my house as a pet which I feed with the same bread I eat and later handed it to the elders, the rest I cannot disclose here it belongs to my clan’s heritage.
If I am to list the most popular Acholi cultural dances and musical patterns that are of real difference and importance to the world I would list these...
Dingi Dingi: Is nursery dance, it’s the high hyped speed dance which needs super fitness, its for young girls of age about 5 -14/15 years of age. The dance is composed of few small & medium mother drums, calabash, flute & fiddle played by boys, the boys don’t dance but they are the players of the rhythm, its the dance that help the clan to identify young women arts and fitness check in good health and others, the speed of the dance and a hundreds of different dance patterns that changes after shot times is never easy to mark unless the mind is as sharp.
Larakaraka: Is a courtship dance where in the practices girls grow to adulthood and start their maturity in knowing the person they may spent the rest of their life with, the young bachelors or even polygamous men would dance handsomely and ladies get attracted to them, in the dance men hit clabash, small and mother tomb drums, play fiddles as they all sing praises in love, ladies who always make decision to stuck their men off the line to introduce themselves to knowing where they came from, their names, what clan and which upbringing background they raise from, this help to know what is your partner incase you re related. Calabash dance (Larakaraka) is the most popular dance for courtship in my culture.
Ajere dance: This is the engagement dance, close to courtship dance, in fact after courtship here couple comes up to tell who they shall soon marry, its a pair dance where you don’t search for a partner but you come with pride for who you shall become.
Lakubukubu Dance: When in marriage celebration, the big source pan is spanked and grinned on the dance floor creating some kind of combined base drum kicks, with vocal singing mostly its derogatory fan the in-lows prays and communicate or even making fan when there was no good upkeep, the music is composed there on sport bending on the what the event is telling, sometimes its a question and answer or the other party respond according to what is thrown on them, it never lead to any violence or anger even if what is being sung about is true.
Apiti: Harvest dance, mostly for ladies prides in showing their wellbeing in marriage in the clan, it’s a tricky dance that can make the clan leaders to tell any abusive husband who mistreats his married woman, once it’s harvest time and your woman is not looking good or ever unhappy, it give questions to the clan leaders to identify any abusive man to be put to task to be responsible enough to manage the joy of his woman, the clan contributes for marriage and when a woman is not happy it brings hardback and curse, sometimes men who beats their women during raining or planting season are seriously punish because women tears or oduru (cry with luluba) can bring hailstorm that destroy crops, so the clan has to always be keen to harmonise the welding of women, its the dance that help a lot in curbing even the gender based violence.
Bwola dance: Royal dance, the most peaceful dance performed for the Kings, Chiefs on their arrivals, before speech after speech, and leaving the venues or even when being buried or coronated. It consists of very many different patterns accordance with the kind of leadership they raise from..
Nanga & Nanga Larumu: These re two types of Nanga plays, the normal Nanga goes in more lines with what people dance in courtship which means the man & woman or the married re still be celebrating their love and or maintaining communications in both sadness or joy, but when its Nanga Larumu this is more philosophical plays, norms and riddles of Acholi people, its very rich kind of music presentation that may be to tell past to present events, or an innocent depressed personality who feel neglected or by hard luck has lost all his important purpose to live with happiness. if in hard situation the person presenting the songs even alone on his own there they may be risks to commit suicide if not attended to for proper counselling by the person they may love, its the music that calls for more attention than anything. From all these I feel Nanga larumu is of more value to me, Culturally there re ratings when the musician would become crowned for preserving the oral traditions that has to be passed from generation to another, you have to be good enough to remember all the past and present event of cultural important history weather good or bad, my acoustic works album KIBOO OLEYO TONG KICOL falls in such unique categories that my Royal leaders appreciate as the best modern contribution into the traditional arts for our people & the rest of the world.
Otole & Myel Lyel: These re war dances with close battle moves patterns
MY DIGITAL ALBUM RELEASES
I made number of self release digital albums and ever since, I still have so many unreleased music in store if any label in the world would maybe interested in releasing them then I am open for positive terms with them.
KONO WIYE OCUNG OTARA (2019)
The lead song is a blend of NANGA LARUMU, it’s a white feathers on the head of the Royal messenger, I got inspired to record this song because of the Royal dance symbols in BWOLA DANCE practices & costumes that portrays peace & humility, with the beautiful white feathers on the head to me I am telling the world that “when I visit you I am bringing peace & joy to celebrate global human existence, the world has fought itself enough & its time for the mind set to change, even the unknown tradition of mankind has a big contribution for peace, this to mea means not all Traditional practices are for the dark spirits, unwinding some kind of religious influences that works to denounce these practices, we know the culture of hunility welcome any race in my region so there is need to both to celebrate humanity.
ELEPHANT DANCE - Recorded between 2014-2020
It comes from the cultural background of the Nilotic ethic groups, the Acholi/LUO people we migrated from the Nile. The Elephant is our symbol of the power & our dance that has the energy, it is part of our identity, especially when it comes to Acholi dance. It is easy for anyone to know where I come from when performing this song. It is a very popular mean of calling the strength, the freedom and the joy to dance. I help my people to tell them who they are, who are the elephants. Our music is never silent, it is always there to say stand up, jump and shake !
~ Psychic Garden