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To Revive This Royal Music, Ugandans Had to Grow New Instruments

Bigwala was once illegal, and only two master practitioners remained.

James Lugulole, age 81, arrives at a house surrounded by coffee trees in the Ugandan village of Mawanga. On a papyrus mat, he aligns and assembles the trumpets he carries inside a basket. More men arrive on motorbikes, carrying drums and more trumpets. As they prepare to play, men and women of all ages gather under the shade in anticipation.

“Everytime there is a Bigwala performance, people will stop to listen,” says James Isabirye, a Lecturer at the Department of Performing Arts of Kyambogo University in Kampala, who has been working with local communities to preserve musical traditions since 2012.

Although it had been illegal for decades, James Isabirye first heard Bigwala when he was young. Growing up in a village in the Busoga kingdom, one of five traditional monarchies of Uganda, he was exposed to music from an early age. “Each kingdom had its own musical traditions,” he says. “When I was a child, one of our neighbors who was a trumpet player died and all his teammates came to play for his funeral. The trumpets were called Bigwala.”

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