"If you play that way,
the audience will come up
on the stage and kill

Professor James Makubuya,
at the final dress rehearsal of the College's
first world music ensemble










Read more about WAMIDAN and the other Wabash Music Ensembles


Read more about Professor Makubuya
by selecting faculty at the Wabash Music Department site.








"No one wants to watch you be miserable and struggle. Even if you are scared to death, you must smile. Otherwise, the audience will just shake their heads and pray that you disappear."























Maroof was smiling, oblivious of how it was going to feel to bomb in front of 300 people.

I knew the feeling all too well: the twist in the gut, the people in the front row staring at their feet, the steady acceleration of the music as the players scramble to put yet another musical beast out of its misery.



Summer/Fall 2001

Making a
Spectacle of Ourselves

by Steve Charles

"No Previous Musical Experience Necessary."

When world music professor James Makubuya added that line to his call-out for the College's first African music ensemble, the former conductor of the National Choir of Uganda and master of that country's folk instruments couldn't have realized what he was opening himself up to. Or maybe there was a method to his madness.

You couldn't have convinced me there was any method at all as stumbled through the final rehearsal for our first performance. I knew the axiom, "bad rehearsal, good performance," but I'd assumed that the players were at least supposed to know how to play their instruments. In less than a week, Wamidan (Wabash African Music Instrumentalists and Dancers) would debut at the venerable Christmas Festival of Music and Readings. From all I could see, we were about to prove that corn-fed Hoosier boys can't play African music if their lives depend on it.

Actually, we were a diverse group: five freshmen-three from towns in Indiana, one from Seattle, one from Bangladesh; two who had been discouraged from ever attempting anything musical; and three middle-aged College staffers. Brian McAfferty of the library faculty brought a stabilizing presence, solid rhythm, and instrumental experience, and Diane Norton offered her superb musicianship and aesthetic.

I was there to experience first-hand the sacrifice students make to be a part of the College's extracurricular ensembles and to learn from a master how to play and perform another continent's folk music. Makubuya promised we'd learn to improvise, a skill that had escaped me for twenty years playing old-time music on guitar and dulcimer.

As a group, we shared a sense of humor, hectic schedules, and, until rehearsals began, complete ignorance of the instruments we were to play for this performance.

We'd expected to play drums. Much as the British soldiers who encountered Makubuya's Baganda people 200 years ago, we thought that's what most African folk musicians played. Those soldiers had been astonished to find not a primitive culture, but elaborate houses, a complex society, and beautiful music played on harps (adungos), lyres (ndongos), and small xylophones (madindi). We were equally astonished when the professor told us we'd be performing publicly on two of these instruments by the end of the year. We were stunned when he confidently announced our concert schedule.

Not that we weren't being well-equipped. Makubuya is an awe-inspiring player. In hiring him, the College has given students the rare opportunity to study with an internationally recognized master musician. He's also an incredible teacher, challenging but patient, rewarding successful riffs with an enthusiastic "Wow, that is excellent. Give me five!" Meeting with each ensemble member once a week for private lessons and with the group each, his dedication and charisma made us want to be good at this.

But having the will to doesn't give you the skills. Those were in short supply as we bumbled through a Swahili carol that required us to sing, accompany ourselves on adungos, and to look like we were enjoying our ineptitude.

"You will do great!" Makubuya encouraged. He schooled us in performance technique. He taught us how to pronouce the Swahili words, what they meant and their cultural significance.

"African music is a spectacle—be joyful. Celebrate with the music," he admonished.

It was the steepest part of the learning curb for our midwestern sensibilities. "Playing music" is often an oxymoron in the concert hall. We dress in black, wear serious expressions, and try to prove our worth with every note. Playing gleefully through mistakes, risking loss of concentration by moving joyfully to the music, and making a gift of the performance despite our lack of confidence-that was lot to ask of 18-year-old males and a couple middle-aged folkies. But to James, playing without joy was worse than missing a note or forgetting the lyrics.

"No one wants to watch you be miserable and struggle. If you make a mistake, smile. If you make a big mistake, smile bigger," he pleaded in his regal Ugandan accent. "Even if you are scared to death, you must smile. Otherwise, the audience will just shake their heads and pray that you disappear."

When the group could not oblige that request, Makubuya videotaped a rehearsal and made us watch it, laughing along with us at the sullen, stiff musicians who looked as if they wanted to crawl into their instruments to hide.
"If you play that way, the audience will come up on the stage and kill us," he joked. I found the notion troublingly plausible.

At the final rehearsal, we still weren't ready. The group requested additional practices—three of them. It was almost final exam week, but the students were adamant about the extra run-throughs.

"I never insist on additional rehearsals," Makubuya told me later. "I want that to come from the group. It needs to be their determination that drives this, not mine."

But as long as we wanted to rehearse, the professor was there.

"We will play, and we will play together. The audience will not believe what they are hearing," he enthused. He certainly had that last part right.

We did improve a little at each practice, getting to know each other's quirks in the process. The two freshmen new to music approached the tunes with similar zeal but entirely different methods. Joe Warful, the only freshman on the College's "Brain Bowl" team and a Hoosier with an inordinate love of all the things Canadian, spent hours on the harp developing the most rapid dexterity in the group. "Canada," as we tagged him, often stood at the lip of the stage when we practiced to the point Makubuya thought he would fall off. We called it "playingon the edge."

His fellow neophtye, Maroof Kahn, a Bangladeshi physics and math wiz with a winning smile, developed an elaborate tablature system just o learn the songs.

Jason Hatfield '04 is a bass player with natural talent and a class clown with deadpan delivery. One of his African instruments was adorned with goat hair, which Jason would spread over his scalp as he smiled like the Mona Lisa.

Chris Borm '04 is a seasoned performer with a wonderful voice we depended on to lead the vocals, and Kevin Kinsey '04 is a trombonist who could express his pleasure in playing in way that pulled the group out of its self-consciousness. As long as Kevin was grooving during a song, we knew everything was alright.

Rehearsals became that blend frustration, concentration, laughter, and accomplishment that may be the greatest reward of ensemble work. The rapport within the group was outstripping our musical ability, but at least we'd die a team.

The Christmas Festival of Music and Readings came before I could come up with a good excuse to be out of town. We spent an hour tuning our adungos and rushed through a disheartening sound check. Then, after a Bible reading and a beautiful sacred number by the Glee Club, we lugged our drums and adungos onto the stage, wearing outfits that made us look like high-church acolytes teamed with African pirate cowboys.

It was time to put all that practice on the line. I looked across at Canada and Maroof, wondering how they felt at this, their first, and possibly last, musical performance.

Joe's eyes were fixed on his harp strings.

Maroof was smiling, oblivious of how it was going to feel to bomb in front of 300 people.

I knew the feeling all too well: the twist in the gut, the people in the front row staring at their feet, the steady acceleration of the music as the players scramble to put yet another musical beast out of its misery.

Feeling the sweat breaking out and my fingers beginning to shake, I turned to James for the count. He looked calm, with a serene smile on his face. He was either preparing for death or he knew some of that African "ju-ju" he told me about would magically protect us.

Maybe it did. As we launched into the carol, Brian, Kevin, and Diane began swaying in unison to the music. The harps were in tune! There was a strong melody to our singing, harmony from the instruments, and even a semblance of rhythm!

Then we tossed out the ace up our sleeves. MXI Director Horace Turner had recruited three girls from Tuttle Middle School to whom Makubuya taught a traditional African dance of praise. As we finished the first section of our song, James began his powerful drumming, and these young dancers stepped onto the stage, innocent and beautiful in their costumes, moving with the grace, pride, and confidence of queens.

We strummed and sang together with pleasure and abandon, plenty of mistakes but plenty of smiles, and the chapel walls echoed with a joyful African noise that had never resonated there before. I looked down the line of our fledgling ensemble-a little goofy, but certainly into the music. And, thanks to Makubuya's drumming, sounding downright exotic.

We ended with a crescendo. The dancers raised their rattles high above their heads, we bowed, and the audience offered a warm ovation to the dancers and their band-our Wabash African music band.

Any worries I had that the Wabash community might not support this new ensemble vanished as applause raised smiles on our students' faces and would inspire them for the rest of the year. It was a promising start.

But my favorite moment of the year came four months later, after the ensemble's ambitious concert with the Wabash Jazz Band in April. As the we left the audience's applause behind, I noticed Makubuya shaking hands with Maroof. Only weeks earlier at a particularly frustrating practice session, the freshman had protested when the professor referred to him as a musician.

"I cannot do this," Maroof had said. "I'm just not a musician."

But as Jazz Band members patted him on the back while they as they stepped onstage, Maroof changed his mind.

"So, how do you feel?" the professor asked.

"I feel like a musician," the freshman exulted.

"You are a musician," Makubuya smiled. "Believe it."

This fall, Maroof, Kevin, Jason, and Canada return as part of Wamidan to bring this new, old music to the College. Makubuya hopes to take the ensemble to the larger Crawfordsville community and schools, to explore with the town's dance schools the roots of the jazz dancing so in vogue with school kids here. And again he'll offer students with "no previous musical experience" the opportunity to embrace the challenge and joy of playing music and joyfully bringing it to others.
I also hear that, this year, the men are going to dance.

Method to his madness? I'm already making plane reservations.

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