“Today we are going to have some fun to the maximum,” said Godfrey Muwulya as an introduction to his program at the Oak Bluffs library last Thursday. It was the first of a number of presentations by the Ugandan-born singer/dancer/actor/teacher, and an enthusiastic crowd of about 30 people had gathered in the function room to participate in and witness some examples of East African music and dance.
The very upbeat, infectiously energetic Mr. Muwulya proved true to his word. Although there may have been a few attendees who were reluctant to let down their hair for an hour, by the end of the performance/lesson and after being led through a handful of participatory songs and dances, all were smiling, laughing, and walking out with a little more bounce in their step than they had arrived with.
The program also included a few songs taught by Roberta Kirn, founder of the Song Exchange Project. Among the songs that she led the attendees through was one that was accompanied by a series of claps and hand gestures.
Mr. Muwulya’s song-and-dance combinations included one that is traditionally sung to welcome visitors, and another that honors cattle. “Look at these beautiful cows,” he translated loosely while demonstrating a dance move that imitates the native livestock’s long horns.
Some of the choreography was a bit complicated, and the call-and-response numbers took the attendees a little time to memorize, but Mr. Muwulya broke each song and dance down bit by bit, and encouraged even the most wary to give themselves up to the rhythm and exuberance of the music.
The talented singer/dancer, who has been performing since he was 5 years old, also showed off his skill on a variety of traditional instruments, including one with a single string and a much more complex multistringed harp-like instrument. Mr. Muwulya makes all of his own instruments by hand, and he explained the process and materials to the audience.
It was the first of three public events led by Mr. Muwulya at venues around the Island. He performed at Pathways at the Chilmark Tavern on Friday as part of a musical evening, and made an appearance at the Edgartown library on Saturday afternoon. Throughout the two weeks that he was in residence at the Yard, the high-energy musician/teacher also made stops at a number of the local schools and the Anchors senior center in Edgartown. As a cultural ambassador, Mr. Muwulya, with his perpetual smile and abundant charm, made good on another promise he makes at the beginning of his instructional performances: “Today, when you leave here, you’re all going to be Ugandan.”
This is the third year Mr. Muwulya has visited the Island, hosted by the Yard. Deborah Damast, who runs a kids’ dance program for the Yard, had worked with the Ugandan native in a cultural exchange program at NYU. Mr. Muwulya came for a week in 2012, was invited back for a four-week residency in 2015, and then returned for his most recent extended visit.
“I’ve just really enjoyed working with him,” says the Yard’s director of Island programs and education, Jesse Keller. “He’s become a big part of our program. People have become familiar with him on the Island, and look forward to his visits.”
Mr. Muwulya brings more than music to the kids in the school. “He adds something to their studies. It’s helpful for them to be able to actually talk to somebody from East Africa and learn about the culture and life there. The students asked a lot of questions about things like food and recreation.”
Next up, the Yard will host a group of dancers from New York City led by Chinese-born H.T. Chen. They will be offering programs in the Island schools and present a dance called Gold Mountain, based on the history of the Chinese immigrants who were among the early settlers out West in the U.S. The visit will coincide with some of the schools’ studies on Chinese and Chinese-American history and culture.
The Yard has an extensive educational program, and is always happy to share and collaborate with other Island organizations. “We want to reinforce that educational aspect, and other organizations out there can always contact the Yard if they think that dance would add to their programs,” says Ms. Keller. “We have a lot of connections, and we’re always happy to help.”