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Monday, December 7, 2009

Keeping the spirit of Paul Kafeero alive

When Paul Kafeero sang about love knowing no bounds in Omwana W’Omuzungu, he was singing about his American wife, Kathryn, who has proved these lyrics true of their relationship as she fights to keep his memory alive, writes Dennis D. Muhumuza

When the Buganda flag was lifted, an animated voice floated across the assembly. The pupils of Kampala Quality Primary School were amazed by the white lady singing with ease in Luganda. The surprise singer was Kathryn Barrett-Gaines, Associate Professor of History and Director of African and African American Studies at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. When she was introduced as the American lady that Paul Kafeero sings about in his song, Omwana w’Omuzungu, an explosion of delight consumed the assembly. They were even more delighted later on when she read folklore stories, told tales and interacted with children in the local dialect.

“I began studying Luganda in the US but learned most of it here after I met Kafeero,” she says. “He loved his language; he spoke English very well but his language was his heart and I think he would cry if he were here today because many of his children can read English but can’t read Luganda. And he would say you have to know your own language. I think people should not prize English above Luganda; it’s a beautiful language; that’s why when I came here today, I read to the children in Luganda.”

Kathryn, who founded the Paul Kafeero Foundation in 2008 to keep the legacy of the gifted singer reverberating, is working on a book called The Complete Lyrics of Paul Job Kafeero to be released early next year. In his life and times, Kafeero sang lingeringly about real life experiences; about death in Walumbe Zaaya, about food vendors in Abatunda Ebyokulya and decried the city’s unhygienic conditions in Kampala mu Kooti. He also sang about love knowing no bounds in Omwana W’omuzungu and about quitting liquor in Dipo Nazigala. His true fans will never forget the 1998 Nakivubo concert where he first introduced a busuti-clad Kathryn as “the Omwana W’omuzungu I sing about - she is my wife”.  

When he crooned about quitting alcohol, his loyal followers were overjoyed. They however learnt he had not quit after all when he was admitted to Mulago Hospital where he died from alcohol-related lung complications in 2007.

“He loved alcohol and it killed him; drinking killed him,” Kathryn says emotionally as tears the size of two small peas emerge from the corners of her eyes. She regains her composure and continues: “If people think something else killed him, they are wrong. Alcohol killed him, and I hope they take a lesson from that and stay away because he was only 37 years old when alcohol killed him.”

Did she really love him?
“I loved him so much. In fact, whenever I’m on the plane flying to Uganda, it’s a very different feeling now that he’s not here; it’s like a different Uganda.”

Then what did she do to help him?
“Clearly you had never met him,” she says in a wistful tone, “because you could never tell Kafeero anything - he was a leader; he led himself; he was his own man; he made his own decisions, you could not tell him anything.”

These things, and reminiscences of Kafeero’s dexterity with the guitar, vocal ranges, stage dramatics and the unforgettable hat that gave him an inimitable star look, will be captured in his biography, also being written by Kathryn.

“We also want to preserve kadongo kamu in its true bare-bone roots; we are going to do a CD of the old kadongo kamu singers singing with just one guitar and one voice, and then we will do an unplugged show of true kadongo kamu,” says Kathryn.

 Kafeero validated his title of “prince of music” when in 1994 he won the Golden Boy of Africa Award in Egypt, and followed it with the 2003 and 2004 Pam Awards for best Kadongo Kamu artiste/group. One music critic mourned that “Kafeero’s death probably marks the end of kadongo kamu…he was the voice and sound that shunned modernity for originality.”

Kathryn insists Kafeero was Uganda’s most hardworking and finest singer.
“It was like God touched him because he was just different from everyone in the whole world,” she says. “If he was in the room with you, you would just be looking at him, even if he was just seated and quiet; there was something about him, it was like a light inside of him; I don’t know where he got it from. I know he didn’t get it from his parents because his mother did not want him to be a singer and beat him when she found him with a guitar, so it came from inside him!”

She plans on retiring to Uganda because “Kafeero gave me a whole life here; my whole life in Uganda came from him. That is why I come here thrice every year, and I’m also taking care of his children.”

--Sunday Monitor, September 20, 2009