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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Spirit of Uganda highlights culture, conflict

The Spirit of Uganda, a musical production by the nonprofit group Empower African Children, will come to the Mondavi Center on Jan. 26.

The production, which has been touring since 2007, features an ensemble of Ugandan students performing both traditional African songs along with original material inspired by Ugandan culture. Their aim is to share the culture of East Africa with international audiences.

Peter Kasule, who has been the artistic director as well as a performer for Spirit of Uganda since its inception, said that his creative process was to relate the culture of Uganda through music and dance.

“I had two main ideas,” Kasule said. “The first idea was, ‘How do we showcase African culture through music and choreography?’ The second idea was, ‘How do we have our students preserve their culture?’”

Joining the ensemble for this tour is Rachel Magoola, who was simultaneously a teacher and a member of the band Afrigo.

“[Magoola] has been teaching since 1989,” Kasule said. “She performs every [weekend] while also serving as the director of a school. We wanted to show a leading example of a musician who also lives as a teacher.”

Brian Odong, who has performed in Spirit of Uganda since its inception, has enjoyed touring with the ensemble as it has exposed him to various cultures.

“I get to do a cultural exchange,” Odong said. “I get to experience different cultures, and the whole thing has been very interactive and educational.”

Kasule said that the experience is not without its challenges.

“Every year you have to be current, as you have new materials and new cast members who may or may not have travelled,” Kasule said. “Still, the students love what they are doing.”

Kasule said that his personal experience with the show has been great.

“I’ve also been a performer for about 20 years, which is a journey that has been going on for a while,” Kasule said. “I’m always looking forward to meeting new audiences and showcasing this kind of work.”

The genesis of Spirit of Uganda was in the early 1990s, when Alexis Hefley, who would later start Empower African Children in 2006, met a nun who had taught children how to sing and dance.

“I decided that the children would benefit from an audience that could see them perform,” Hefley said.

This led to a touring group that began in 1994, which stopped in schools and churches. In 1998, Hefley came into contact with a booking agent who got the touring group on to professional stages.

“The theater provides a platform to raise awareness about AIDS but also about how talented young people can be when provided with the resources,” Hefley said.

In addition, to sponsoring Spirit of Uganda, which Hefley and Odong described as the organization’s public face, Empowering African Children also provides scholarships and education to orphans in Africa.

Odong pointed out the duality of what Spirit of Uganda aims to share with the world.

“Through the dance and music, we raise awareness of HIV, AIDS, orphans and those who have been affected by war in Uganda,” Odong said. “We have experienced this, but we also tell the world that there is another side to us besides what affects us.”

To learn more, visit empowerafricanchildren.org or spiritofuganda.org.


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