Collecting archival recordings and presenting them alongside studio material from 2019, "Bugandan Royal Music Revival" provides a valuable potted history of Bugandan court music. It's stunning work, showcasing the different instruments, styles and techniques that remain the backbone of Uganda's traditional culture.
Assembled to go alongside a documentary by brothers Basile and Jules Louis Koechlin, this deep dive into Bugandan cultural music is completely out on its own. The kingdom of Buganda was founded in the 14th century, and music played a crucial role in the royal courts; the music was centered on a drum ensemble known as the mujaguzo, and over its existence the court was said to have collected over 300, each drum with its own significance. Players from across the kingdom would flock to the court to show off their skill to the king, and ended up forming ensembles that took turns holding residence. These musicians would play Bugandan lyre, harp, hand-made gourd trumpets, tuned drums and flutes, assembling the different instruments in various ways to tell layered stories of their kingdom's sprawling landscape.
But in 1966, as the country struggled after decades of British colonial rule, the Ugandan Army attacked the palace of Bugandan king Muteesa II. The musicians were either killed or fled, and in the aftermath the Bugandan kingdom was dissolved. Over the following years, sounds that had played such an important role in Uganda's cultural history fell out of favor, and while the kingdom was re-established in 1993, it's taken time to re-introduce them to contemporary listeners. The Koechlins' documentary follows their attempt to track down the players keeping the sound alive, culminating in a studio visit to capture the music for future generations. Even without the visual accompaniment, it's powerful and emotional material.
The sheer breadth of the sound here is remarkable. Most of the recordings are contemporary, but placed alongside earlier archival recordings from the 1940s and 1960s, it's possible to hear just how this music has survived an existential crisis and how it's changed. It's such a treat to absorb this spread of instrumentation that's survived from the middle ages and developed into complex rhythmic music (peep opening track 'Mujaguzo'), rapid microtonal tuned-drum virtuosity ('Kifwe kze kya'), heartbreaking harp and vocal jams ('Okwagala omulungi') or complex flute music ('Omusango gw’abalere'). There's just so much here - each listen reveals something deeper and more delicate. An unmissable treat, honestly.