[5 May 2013]
A tourist in New York was walking down the street one morning, trusting with total innocence that he would climb the World Trade Center to see the view, when events occurred that made the activity impossible, not only then but forever afterwards.
At home in Uganda he decided that unity had to become a priority, people unified and getting along, so he organized this coffee-growing collective, Mirembe Kawomera, or Delicious Peace, where people from a similar background but different religions grow the red-brown berries, pulp them, dry them, and prepare them for sale to an international market. One in eight Ugandans makes a living out of coffee, says the album’s liner notes. Local production shrank in the 1990s when global coffee prices dropped, but nowadays Ugandan coffee is making a comeback. These liner notes would never have been written if the earlier events in New York City had not transpired: some actions have unpredictable consequences, and one of them was J. J. Keki introducing choruses of singing coffee farmers to Jeffrey A. Summit of the Smithsonian, the brown earth around them both, and the very green leaves of the equatorial and landlocked nation.
Songs are often repurposed, remarks Jeffrey A. Summit. This is one of the interesting points he makes in this incredibly interesting booklet: these people of the coffee have taken established songs and put coffee in them. So an old song about a missing wife, a man singing oh wife come back, becomes “come back dear wife, come back and let’s grow coffee”:
My love disappeared.
I don’t know if I will see her again.
My dear one has disappeared.
Come back and we’ll grow coffee.
Songs are templates that can be scribbled over, semi-erased, and rewritten. Changes occur around fixed points. The musicians compose rhythmic farming advice, like Virgil. “Dry your coffee well,” they recommend in “Let Us Continue Farming”. “Dry your coffee on a mat. / Put your coffee on a raised stand.” Don’t dry it on the bare ground between your houses or the goats will mucky it up. The majority of the songs are sung by groups, and the primary mode of delivery is call-and-response; the women in one choir wear dresses in matching shades of blue; they stand together, they sing a chorus, one woman out the front makes the call, the sough of choral voices heaves behind like the kraken, comes and goes like a wave, it happens again and again, the heave and cast and heave, the voice of the front woman sharply hooking up this monster, the monster responding, the large wave keeps coming, there is flotsam, a clap, a stamp, a lone man who breaks into one of the women’s songs by interposing himself over the calling woman for one line, but she waits and picks it up again the next time her cue comes around.
There’s a kind of endemic patience in the fabric of these performances, a mood that doesn’t depend on the speed of the song necessarily, for it’s there even in the blitteringly fast “Let Us Continue”, two men and an endingidi, each plung from the single-stringed instrument utterly short and exact, no echo afterwards, zim zim zim, as if a set of precisely square-shaped units of noise is being switched on and off in a pattern. It’s the patterns that make the songs seem so patient, these formal shapes being adapted to a temporal world, seriously spun out and adhered to by the singers, the people will go but the patterns will still be there, someone else will come along and find them, maybe someone with different interests, maybe someone who wants to sing about cooking meat instead of growing coffee, or maybe someone who wants to do some other thing that the people of Peace Kawomera have never considered, and this new person in the distant future will never think about coffee, because Uganda, in this imaginary future, will be making its money some other way. For now the people will stay in their groups, singing about drying methods, the large adungu playing along with them—so big they tote it around tied to the top of a car, there’s a photo—and the embaire. Summit will remember his time in Uganda, Keki will remember his time in New York, the Smithsonian will donate the profits from this album to the education of the coffee growers’ children—according to a note on the sleeve—and the coffee, if you want to buy it, will be available at mirembekawomera.com.