[Music/Culture] OTIM ALPHA
Acholitronix: The Son of Adungu. The incredible story of Otim Alpha, the Northern Ugandan electronic music pioneer and former heavyweight boxing champion. All illustrated with photographs by Denholm Hewlett.
Otim Alpha is a multi talented musician, singer and dancer from Gulu, Northern Uganda. One of the original pioneers of Electro Acholi dance music, the former bare-knuckle boxing champion of Uganda and a master of the Adungu harp, the traditional harp instrument of the Acholi people.
Otim Alpha is a mysterious figure, a man of many identities. He's a warrior, a fighter, a survivor, a hustler, someone whose experienced a very rich and dynamic life. Alpha is a very soulful and larger than life character, a veteran grade musician with an incredible gift for singing, music and dance.
Otim Alpha first began playing the Adungu harp at age ten, after seeing how the elders in his community who played the instrument lifted the spirits of the people, especially during times of civil war and public unrest. As a child, the curious Alpha would sneak out at night to go watch his elder's play Adungu, to study their techniques and memorise the harp's sounds.
Alpha is an Acholi warrior who hails from the district of Gulu town in the northern regions of Uganda, East Africa. The Acholi tribe are a Luo nation found in the Magwi country of South Sudan and Northern Uganda, which is commonly referred to as Acholilands, inhabited by a tribe of proud and enchanting people with a rich cultural heritage and a complicated history.
In the early 2000's, Alpha had already become a respected master of the Adungu harp and was searching for a way to establish his own unique and innovative musical style, a brand new hybrid of traditional Acholi instrumentation mixed with modern electronic production techniques. Back in those days, it was very hard to produce this new style of Acholitronix music, Otim said it would sometimes take a year to produce just one song!
Alpha soon joined forces with a young local producer, Leo Palayeng, and the duo began reimagining traditional Acholi ‘Larakaraka’ wedding songs using the computer music software Fruity Loops, resulting in fast-paced, highly syncopated poly-rhythmic fusions of hypnotic Acholi instrumentation and crunchy electronic percussion. The infectious sounds of Acholitronix gradually spread across the region like wildfire in just a few years and would eventually became synonymous with the booming war-torn night clubs, smokey street bars, & neon dance halls of Northern Uganda.
The electro Acholi movement was kickstarted back in 2003, with early pioneers of the genre (Alpha, Palayeng, Tongweno) originating from the northern cities of Gulu and Lira, back when the region was still in the midst of the devastating civil war genocide that ravaged the civilian population for decades at the hands of Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army.
Alpha initially began creating this style of music to spread important messages to his people to try and stop the devastating civil war that had raged in the Northern regions for nearly two decades. Many of his early songs centre around the themes of wartime conflict, losing family members, the importance of education and the ever changing state of the world.
Otim Alpha, Leo Payleyeng and their fellow Acholi musicians lived through this immensely horrifying LRA occupation and utilised the Acholitronix music movement to spread powerful and healing messages to the masses through the radio stations during times of civil unrest in the region. Otim's early anti-war songs played a vital role in helping to convince many abducted child soldiers to leave the jungle conflict and return back home.
Electro Acholi artists and producers like Alpha and Paylayeng, were soon being commissioned to produce personalised song and video packages for special occasions, such as weddings, birthdays and funerals, where the artist would perform at the event and produce a video of the ceremony.
In his early years, before his ventures into music, Alpha was renown as the bare knuckle boxing champion of his district Uganda for many years, a very famous and respected fighter in his region. As a youth, he began dedicating himself to sports and martial arts after being inspired by Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali. Alpha would combine a unique mixture of Tae Kwon Do & heavyweight boxing techniques into his own signature style of combat. He became a champion and never lost a fight.
Despite his massive success within the boxing ring, Otim would eventually retired from his competitive fighting career because of the lack of monetary support he received, the boxing matches were always held in the capital of Kampala, ten hours away by bus from his home in Gulu in the far north of the country. Ugandan fighters weren't receiving the sponsorships and monetary support they deserved so many top-ranking fighters like Alpha couldn't afford to enter into the international competitive boxing circuit.
After Otim's retirement from competitive fighting, he went on to build and establish the very first gym and boxing club in his hometown of Gulu and began teaching young street kids the importance of martial arts and self defence, many of whom went on to become successful competitive fighters. Otim was also supposedly the first barber in Gulu town with his own shop.
In his Northern Acholilands, Otim Alpha is a beloved musician and sporting icon for the local people, and most importantly, he's a truly inspirational and transformative community leader who has positively impacted the lives of many people through the power of music, knowledge and generosity.
Otim has taught many young men the skills to defend themselves, to become businessmen and how to earn an honest living as an aspiring fighter or as a local entrepreneur. Alpha's rich life has seen him undertake almost every line of work you can imagine, from taxi driver to barber to security guard.
The first time I met Otim Alpha was in Johannesburg, South Africa, during an Africa Express workshop to record their latest multi-cultural collaborative album EGOLI. My first memory of him was when he introduced me to the Adungu, a mesmerising twelve-string African bowed harp that I had never seen before, Alpha told me that he builds these instruments from scratch.
Alpha began playing the Adungu, like many other Acholi boys, to perform their tribe's traditional music at their local discos to charm and meet girls they fancied. During the civil war, Otim was forced to stop playing his instruments altogether and he feared they would almost disappear, but he started pursuing his passion for Adungu again once the war cooled down.
When I first met Alpha, he was very eager to show and play me his traditional Acholi instrument, he sat me down and performed a series of traditional Luo love songs on his Adungu harp. He radiates this deeply soulful and infectious energy through his beautiful singing and musical skills.
Within a very short space of time I realised that Alpha was a truly magical human being. My introduction to the sounds of traditional Acholi Adungu music felt like a truly outer body spiritual experience, this is how me and Otim first bonded, became friends and started our creative partnership.
A year and a half after we first met, I embarked on a month long solo trip to Uganda to meet up with Alpha and travel with him around his beautiful country, spending the majority of our time in Gulu town, which was a truly transformative experience. I ventured out there to film the foundation for a documentary about Alpha's life and music. I also directed two uniquely experimental music videos with Alpha for Metal Preyers, the first video (The Caller) was shot in Gulu, and the second video (Peppa) in Kampala.
Despite the fact that Alpha is a deeply loved and respected person in his community, his fame and success as a international musician and former boxing champion have also made him a target of violence from malevolent unknown individuals who reside in the shadows and operate with malice.
It was during the location scouting for the Metal Preyers videos that I learned about Alpha's recent personal tragedies. He took me to visit the enchanting jungled ruins of his former family home that he built back in 2003, which was burned down in 2013 by a gang of unknown arsonists.
Everything in the house was destroyed, the only thing Otim had left with was his trusted motorbike. A similar incident happened to him again two years later, with Otim's second home being torched to the ground in the dead of night while people were asleep inside. Thankfully nobody was hurt.
With all this knowledge and context I began assembling my concept for The Caller and started envisioning and deconstructing the meaning behind the visual ideas themselves. I wanted to create an art piece in tandem with Metal Preyer's audiovisual aesthetic; something supernatural and mystical but tangibly auto-biographical, a version of events from a parallel surrealist universe that could encapsulate the intense emotional weight of Otim's inner pain and personal loss without being too direct. The song he laments is a hypnotic electro acholi blues song with profoundly personal lyrics about the hardships of human existence and the struggles of being poor and alienated in a harsh modern world with no home, no family, no money and no peace.
We decided to film the music video for The Caller in the dead of night amidst the buzzing moonlit jungles and burned ruins of Alpha's former home. Otim proved himself as an actor, embodying the role of the lone Acholi warrior, a motorcycle riding vagabond who discovers his home has been burned down and destroyed by a malevolent supernatural snake demoness who tries to corrupt his soul with disturbing hallucinations. Otim's character suffers night terrors and inferno nightmares but ultimately survives the demonic onslaught and rises victorious at sunrise, his life and soul still intact.