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James Makubuya starts new African music ensemble

Assistant Professor James Makubuya, new this fall to MIT's music faculty, imparts more than his knowledge and expertise with his students--he also shares his own personal collection of instruments which are unique and particular to the region called East Africa.

The instruments include the ndingidi (single string tube fiddle), adungu (nine-string bow harp), ndongo (nine-string bowl lyre), akogo (thumb piano), madinda (12-slab log xylophone), ngoma (various drums), awal (gourd crackers) and nsaasi (gourd rattles). "You just want to see them, touch them and produce a good musical sound on them," said Dr. Makubuya. "They take the player and listener to another planet."

They will be used by the new ensemble MITCAN in a non-credit class taught by Dr. Makubuya that will offer hands-on practice and performance experience on various traditional African musical instruments. The group is open to the MIT community as space and instruments are available.

The focus this semester is on the music of Uganda. "I expect the numbers to grow as the message gets out that there is an African performance ensemble," Dr. Makubuya said. He noted that MIT will soon possess its own set of instruments as he plans a trip to Uganda to purchase them, just as Professor Evan Ziporyn traveled to Indonesia to buy a Balinese gamelan when he formed MIT's Gamelan Galak Tika.

In the meantime, at the weekly, three hour practice sessions, Dr. Makubuya's students are discovering that performing the music of Africa involves more than counting measures and mastering finger placement. "One characteristic unique to the music of Africa-at least south of the Sahara-is the fact that singing, playing instruments and dancing are almost inseparable," said Dr. Makubuya. The class includes instruction in all of these things, he added.

Dr. Makubuya has taught both African and Western music from elementary school to university levels, and has traveled widely as a performer and lecturer. He is the founder and artistic director of the Kiyira Ensemble, a non-profit 10-member performance ensemble that focuses on the traditional instrumental music, songs and dances of Uganda.

As a recording artist, Dr. Maku-buya's arrangements and compositions were featured in the film Mississippi Masala. He has performed his arrangements and compositions in several television movies and documentaries including Simba: The King of the Jungle, Sherlock Holmes, The African Skies, The African Thunderstorm and The Jungle Choir. His first album, "The Uganda Tropical Beat I" is being followed with a second to be released in the middle of 1997.

For three consecutive terms of office, Dr. Makubuya was the artistic director of Cacemcho, Uganda's national choir, leading it in two successful international tours. He has arranged traditional music for the Kronos Quartet and has performed in concert with them on the ndongo. Prior to his appointment at MIT, Dr. Makubuya was artist-in-residence with the Music Center of Los Angeles Education Division and served as a member of the California Arts Council.

The MITCAN: Music of Africa Performance Class meets on Thursdays from 7-10pm. No previous experience is required. To register, call x3-4964 or send e-mail to .

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 25, 1996.

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