Face Music - Traditional Dance - Uganda




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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 11-2014


- see map sketch of Uganda regions

African music is nearly always coupled with some other art form, such as poetry, ritual or dance, and it constitutes one of the most revealing forms of expression of the African life and soul. They have a sense of rhythm. Some tribes combine dance and music, and they explain history and the social elements in a form like the theater of today. Dances were most of the time closely related with religion, ancestral worship and spiritualism.
We have to understand that there is an interaction between social and cultural background within different communities in Uganda. Every community or tribe has its own religious beliefs. All rituals are organised, with dances being performed by communities in order to worship or appease the gods, in order to ask for a good harvest before sowing, at the occasion of midsummer or midwinter festival, or just on the occasion of entering a new lunar phase. Or if there was need of rain. The gods were asked for fertility, or the people tried to appease the demons or diminish their influence. Everybody was invited to be present to honour the situation and to thank the gods.
These dances are part of everyday-life, they are old traditions, handed down from generation to generation, with a deep cultural background being present in a ceremony or a ritual to thank the gods, or they can constitute a local social interaction, such as the wedding party or the burial ceremonial for an important personality; courtship dance to bring together the new pairs, or ritual dances for a boy becoming a man; or it could simply be a gathering leading to a party with dance, or there has been arranged a party for guests, etc. Dance is also expression of joie de vivre.

Baganda people

- Baakisiimba, Nankasa, Muwogola is a traditional folk dance that originated in the palace of the King of Buganda, which is near by the Lake Victoria, in which there is the home of Nalubaale, the wife of Lubaale, one of the gods of the Baganda people.

A former Bugandan king (kabaka) greatly enjoyed the local beer, tonto omwenge. Tonto is made from banana plants, and the name is taken from the Lugandan word tontomera, which means, "Do not knock me". At one gathering, this king drank too much of the beer and became quite happy. (In Buganda, it is taboo to say that the king is drunk; you can only say that the king is very happy.) The king then started praising the people who had made the beer, saying abaakisiimba, which means "those who planted the bananas", and bebaakiwoomya, "they made it delicious".
The musicians at this gathering created an abaakisiimba rhythm that imitated the words of the king, who was so happy and relaxed that he began to move and dance. While the musicians mimicked the king's words on their drums, the women imitated the king's movements, which eventually became a dance that is now performed throughout Buganda by all generations. There are three major movements in this dance: the first is Baakisiimba, the second is Nankasa, and the third is Muwogola.

- Amaggunju is a folk dance of the Baganda that also developed in the palace of the king. At one time King Mulondo died without leaving any heirs. Fortunately, he left behind many wives who were expecting, so the medicine men and traditional witch doctors urgently searched for a wife who was pregnant with a boy. (It was taboo for the kingdom to be ruled by a woman). One of the wives, Namulondo, was expecting a boy, so she sat on the throne, and the people understood that it was not she who was ruling, but her unborn son. When this prince was born, he ruled as he lay on the throne. Kings in Buganda, however, are not supposed to cry, as this would bring curses and bad luck to the kingdom.
Therefore the uncles and aunts of the young prince created the amaggunju dance to keep the baby smiling. The men put "uncle bells" on their legs, and the sound that the bells made as the men danced kept the prince happy. Originally, this dance was only to be performed by people of the Obutiko or Mushroom clan, and only in the palace.

Basoga people

- Tamenaibuga, Irongo, Nalufuka is a dance from the Busoga region in eastern Uganda. This dance is a sign of friendship and unity. Once there were two men who were such good friends that they shared everything in their life. One day, they went out to drink beer, which is traditionally served in a gourd. When they had had too much to drink, they began to argue, and this developed into a fight. The gourd that they were drinking from was broken in the fight, making matters worse and separating these two friends. The men's community recognized that a quarrel between these men would break up their friendship and affect the unity of the community, so they developed a dance to unite the people.

Bagisu people

- Mwaga is a ceremonial initiation dance of the Bagisu people, who live in eastern Uganda on the border to Kenya. They believe that for a young boy to become a man, he must be circumcized in a ceremony that is reflected in the dance.
Before this initiation, the young boy must dance for 21 days, and only then will he possess the spiritual powers with no fear and become a man. If a man, even an elderly one, does not go through this ceremony, he will never be referred to as a man, and he will never earn the respect of the community. He will actually be cursed until the spirits force him to perform this ceremony.
The Bamasaaba (Bagisu) are famous for their traditional male circumcision ceremonies, held every year. This ceremony is an important cultural link between the local people around Mt. Elgon. Today during the three-day-ceremony of dancing, visiting friends and family, feasting and receiving gifts, preceded by a couple of months of preparations, e.g. bamboo strips being handed down to the candidate by the eldest uncle on the father's side in order to symbolize the responsibility and strength needed to face the challenge of manhood, the candidate is decorated with skins and waves two black and white colobus monkey tails in the air as he is accompanied in his running across villages. A combination of sounds, including the ringing of bells attached to the candidates, fiddles, flutes, and group songs, makes this event memorable to anyone watching. Intricate rhythms are played on different traditional drums of differing pitching, and this creates and often stimulates the dancing of everyone present. The person undergoing circumcision is accompanied in the running across the villages, and at the end of it he must be strong and he is not expected to make noise (scream) during circumcision, as otherwise the family will be very embarrassed. It is of great importance for the candidate to "quietly" stand strong during the circumcision to show that he is capable and ready to become a man. The initiates are admitted into adulthood after this ceremony and are expected to begin their formal contribution to the growth of their respective communities. Unlike the Bagisu, the Sebei also circumcise women.

Iteso people

- Akembe is another courtship dance from the Teso region in northeastern Uganda. This dance shares characteristics with the Larakaraka ceromonial dance from the Acholi, and it is similar to the Runyege courtship dance of the Batooro. The music for this dance, however, is played more softly on melodic instruments such as the thumb piano (akogo / sansa) and the flute.

Acholi people

- Bwola is a court dance (in the king's palace) from the Acholi, which live in the north of Uganda. This is a circular dance that is performed by the older men and women, and the circle represents a fence that surrounds the palace court. Many events and conversations take place during this dance, so it may last for many hours.

left: - Larakaraka is a ceremonial dance from the Acholi, who have borders with the Sudan. It is primarily a courtship dance that is performed during weddings. When the young people in a particular village are ready for marriage, they organize a big ceremony where all potential partners meet. As a sign of friendship, food and alcoholic drinks are served during this ceremony. Only the best dancers will get partners, so there is a lot of competition during the dancing. In Acholi, if you are a poor dancer, you are likely to die as a bachelor.
right: - The Ding Ding dance is performed by the young girls of the Acholi, and their movements are meant to imitate birds. The girls dance to attract the young boys, so the dance is usually held on bright days, when the sun is out.

Lugbara people

- Gaze is a traditional dance of the Lugbara people from the region of the West Nile in the north. This dance reflects the transition of the dance movements into those of their neigbours in the Congo style.

- Agwara is a dance from the Lugbara and Kebu people in the West Nile region, bordering the Congo and the Sudan. The dance got its name from the agwaras, the local trumpets. The men play these horns as the women dance.

Alur people


- Adungu Dance - Otwenge literally means "elbow". It is a song of the Alur people in the northwestern West Nile region, and in this song the adungu (bowharp) is commonly used. The Bowharp dance is for the talented young boys and girls of their community. The song is played on the adungu, and it emphasizes the importance of the elbow. The dancer’s body uses the motifs and movements of the elbow.

Batooro people


- Runyege, Entongoro is similar to the Larakaraka dance of the Acholi people.
This is a ceremonial dance from the Bunyoro and Batooro Kingdoms. It is also a courtship dance performed by the youth when it is time for them to choose partners for marriage. The dance was named after the rattles (binyege / ebinyege / entongoro) that are tied on boys' legs to produce sounds and rhythms. The sound produced by rattles is more exciting as it is well syncopated as the main beat is displaced but everything blends with the song and drum rhythms.
In this culture, people believe that the best dancer represents the best married life. Once upon a time, there was a problem in the Kingdoms when more than 10 men wanted to marry the same beautiful and good-looking girl. What happens is that a very big ceremony is organized and all the male candidates have to come and dance. The girl had to choose the best male dancer. In this culture it is believed that the best dancers also show the best marriage life. It is also to see who is the strongest among the men as families in Africa do not want to give their beautiful girls to weak men, for when there is a period of drought or famine, one should have a husband who will really struggle to see that he looks for water and food. So in this dance the man who gets tired first, loses first and that who dances till the end wins the game. There was a problem when some girls wanted to get married to particular men and these were the men who got tired first - what a pity! The girls did not have a choice, as their parents decide for them whom to marry. The dance also indicates who is the strongest man, and families do not want to give their beautiful daughters to weak men who will struggle to provide food and water when there is a drought. So in this dance, the man who gets tired first loses, and the man who dances until the end, wins. A girl may want to marry a man who gets tired early in the dance, but she has no choice but to marry the winner.

Banyancore people

- Ekitaguriro, this dance comes from the Ankole region. It is an old dance for both men and women. It is occasionally performed to demonstrate the love of the Ankole people for their cattle. This cattle breed has very long horns so making the dance aerial. The singing in this dance is similar to the sounds of the cow. You can even hear the sounds of the milk flowing from the udder of the cow in this dance. The flute that is played during the dance is the same that is used to herd cattle. The stamping movements of the men in this dance are similar to the walking movements of a cow, and the hands of the women just demonstrate the long beautiful horns of the cow.
- Kimandwa Dance
This is a religous dance of the Bahiru people, a worship dance for the god Okubandwa. Kimandwa is derived from the word „emmandwa“ and means the spirits that people get possessed with during the dance performed in this ritual. They believe that sanity (sacrifices) and happiness (joy and love) which they present with this dance place god in a good relationship with the community.

Bakiga people

- Ekizino is a court dance from the Bakiga people of the Kigezi region in southern Uganda. The weather in this region is similar to that of many European mountain countries, and the region is often called the "Switzerland of Africa". During colder seasons, Ekizino is the warm-up dance. Kigezi is a hilly region, the men who go out for farming early in the morning, must jump around for a while to get warm and also stretch their muscles after the hard work. Traditionally, the people also used to stamp the ground until they found signs of water. Therefore, this dance represents their jumping and stamping.
- Owaro is a ceremonial dance from the Samya-Bugwe region of Uganda. Samya is one of the smallest populations in the country.

Many thanks to Sarah Ndagire and Alfdaniels Mabingo from the Makerere University
in Kampala, Uganda for their helping with the texts.
Revised and translated by Hermelinde Steiner