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Monday, August 15, 2011

Finding unity in music and dance

Milton Wabyona, founder of Uganda Heritage Roots, an organisation that uses Ugandan traditional music, dance and folklore to rehabilitate street children, believes that nothing unites people like music and dance, writes Dennis D. Muhumuza

A resolve to make it against all the odds is never in vain. That’s the conviction you get after hearing Milton Wabyona’s life story. It’s a story of a boy who lost his parents as a child and whose struggles made him realise early that to excel would propel him to a better destiny.

Milton Wabyona
An unlikely path
Indeed it is academic excellence that earned him a scholarship at Hoima High School. But after S.4, it seemed the end of the road-no tuition to proceed to high school. He became a fisherman in Lake Victoria but gave up a year later, returning home in Hoima, to dig.

One bright mid-morning, while riding his bicycle to the market, he chanced upon an audition session for traditional dancers. He auditioned and won his place in the African Village Cultural Dance Group.

It was the beginning of real promise in the life of the lad, a promise that began to take shape when one of his trainers advised the lanky orphan to consider pursuing music and dance professionally.

Picking the cue, he borrowed high school text books and took to assiduous reading. It had been his childhood dream to become an engineer but in the circumstances he decided studying arts was the easy way to a better future. In 1997, he sat for his UACE examinations, scored 13 points, and eureka - was admitted on government sponsorship for a diploma in music, dance and drama at Makerere University!

His adroitness as a dancer and leader was spotted by Ndere Troupe who snatched him up. Meanwhile he got a first class diploma, and was immediately sent to Norway on a cultural exchange program, in which he facilitated workshops for people with mental problems –what’s called rehabilitation theatre.

“My stint in Norway made me realise the potential in me as a performing artist, and the potential of the performing arts to transform distressed lives,” he says.

On returning in 2000, Wabyona embarked on a fully sponsored bachelors’ degree in music, graduating three years later with another first class.

Making a difference in lives
He stepped into the world focused on using his experience and knowledge to touch lives. He registered the Uganda Heritage Roots (UHR), an organisation that uses Ugandan traditional music, dance and folklore to rehabilitate street children and other disadvantaged young people that have had the misfortune of living without a proper home.

“We get these rejected and dejected children and train them to fit in the social cultural setup of the Ugandan society; bringing them to a point of self-belief; that they are capable of using their skills to change their lives for the better. Some have gone on to start their own groups like Peace Children Africa,” says Wabyona.

You probably have seen them performing at state functions, the most recent being at Heroes Day where they were the main entertainment group alongside the UPDF. And last year, these children collaborated with Mileage Jazz Band in a performance at Serena Conference Centre, and have presented before international audiences in China, Norway and the United States.

“I’ve learnt that nothing unites people like music and dance,” says Wabyona. “There are no wounds that cannot be healed by a combination of ekizino of Kigezi, laraka-raka of the Acholi to Bakisimba from Buganda among other traditional dances.”

He is happy that traditional music and performance is fast out-competing western music at weddings and other functions, which translates to more earnings and a better life for the composers and performers.

Award winner
And because of his work, Wabyona won a Ford Foundation fellowship and is mastering music composition and performance at the University of Kansas.
Some of the members of Uganda Heritage Roots, during a rehearsal
“I’m using western music art to apply to our music so it can fit in a wider setting,” he says.

“A conscious family man married to the world’s prettiest woman, Naomi, ” Wabyona believes his life is a miracle from God without whom he would not have achieved as much, and became a born-again Christian to show his appreciation. His belief in God is so entrenched that he has turned the classic Christian hymn, Abide with Me, into the group’s prayer before and after rehearsals.