2005 was dubbed the year of Africa. New commitments to fight AIDS, poverty, and instability were made at the G8 Summit, at Live 8 concerts, and in millions of homes around the world. Generalizations are frowned upon for good reason, but in the recent issue of Granta devoted to contemporary views and voices from Africa, John Ryle writes, "In the West, in the world's lucky countries, it may have been the year of Africa; but for many Africans, in much of Africa, it was another year of living on the edge."
The talented young dancers and musicians who make up Children of Uganda know this to be true. All have been orphaned because of AIDS, other diseases, or the country's brutal civil war — one of the longest-running conflicts on the continent. Yet the hardships and horror aren't on view when these engaging performers take the stage. Instead, the diverse artistic traditions of East Africa come alive through music, movement, costumes, and stories annotated by a charming master of ceremonies, artistic director Peter Kasule.
Celebrating its tenth anniversary and third appearance in Ann Arbor, Children of Uganda travels to share East Africa's rich cultural history and to raise money for the Uganda Children's Charity Foundation, which cares for more than 700 orphaned children. Those on tour have been chosen to represent their peers at the orphanage in Kampala and, more broadly, the approximately two million orphans throughout the country. The group's residency in Ann Arbor — which includes several school visits in addition to its Power Center performances on Thursday and Friday, March 23 and 24 — is an integral part of the University Musical Society's season-long Africa festival.
Throughout a performance that mixes old and new, the music is marked by sophisticated shifting rhythms. Dancers smoothly pivot, plié, and small-step, riding the rhythm. Hips seem to be in constant motion while arms branch and curl independently. As in much traditional African dance, the center of gravity is low. Drums and a gigantic xylophone figure prominently, as do gorgeous call-and-response vocals. Everyone is given a chance to show off, and gleaning something of each child's personality through her or his performing style is a special bonus.
As Kasule, an original member of the group, says, "The arts have survived in Uganda and throughout all of Africa, though borders may have moved and country names changed. Dance, music, and storytelling record our histories and instill values. . . . They are a teacher and tool of survival."
"Africa is part of everyone's life, whether they know it or not," John Ryle observes. "It has given us the soundtrack of modernity. And — here is one generalization it is safe to make — Africa is where we come from."
[Review published March 2006]