UGANDA: Exile - Geoffrey Oryema
Updated: Mar 7
Oryema tackles the difficult theme of being exiled from one's homeland using the emotions from his personal hardship to guide him through this powerful masterpiece
When one ponders the term ‘exile’, it often evokes images of deposed leaders, such as former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s protected life in Belgium, or mega-wealthy tax exiles like Shirley Bassey, or the recently deceased Sean Connery, living out their glamorous lives in tax havens such as Monaco or The Bahamas. However, this does not tell the entire story of what it means to be an exile. Very often, exiles do not become this way out of their own wrongdoing but rather are sometimes caught up in difficult situations, leaving them forced to leave their country and never return, in a similar predicament to refugees seeking political asylum outside of their homeland. Geoffrey Oryema was only 24 years old when he underwent a horrific trauma that led him to join this rather unfortunate club of exiles.
“Oryema’s voice so perfectly captures the sense of wistful melancholy about Uganda’s tragic past, his personal hardship and the difficulties of all those in comparable situations across the world.”
As the son of a cabinet minister in Idi Amin’s government, it was only a matter of time when this fact would begin to put him into serious danger due to the close connection to the crackpot dictator. His father, Erinayo Wilson Oryema, was the longest serving minister in Amin’s administration in 1977, however, due to an alleged attempted coup, alongside the nation’s Archbishop and another minister, his time in charge of the Ministry of Land, Housing and Physical Planning was cut short as the trio were assassinated by Amin's security forces. Not only did young Geoffrey had to deal with the immediate grief of having his father murdered, but also the very real issue of escaping the land which the rather unpredictable “Butcher of Uganda” presided over.
After a terrifying journey, being smuggled in the boot of a car across the border into Kenya, Oryema found himself eventually exiled in France, a country very far away from home where he arrived without even the linguistic know-how to settle, making the fact that he made it as such a star in the music industry even more impressive. Due to Amin’s despotism, over the course of the last half a century ‘exile’ became a word that is intrinsically related to the story of Uganda as a whole, and as such it makes the theme of Oryema’s album relatable to many people with a connection to that country. Amin’s decree to expel the thousands of Asians who formed the backbone of the Ugandan economy forced many into exile away from the place that many, particularly of Indian descent, had worked so hard to establish as their home. Thousands of Ugandan exiles were at the heart of several coup attempts during Amin’s reign, including the final successful attempt to overthrow him in 1979 alongside the Tanzania People's Defence Force. In a somewhat ironic twist, Amin himself then became an exile in Libya, Iraq, and eventually Saudi Arabia.
Oryema’s album Exile so perfectly captures the spirit of the pain of what it must feel like to be exiled from ones’ country regardless of the circumstances. Uganda is the beautiful homeland to many people, as such the agony caused by being forced to leave without the possibility of returning is one that I imagine would deeply affect anybody. Oryema’s voice so perfectly captures the sense of wistful melancholy about Uganda’s tragic past, his personal hardship and the difficulties of all those in comparable situations across the world. The song that stands out, Makambo, is lyrically about exactly this. Yet, were one not to understand Swahili and Acoli, listening to this track in particular, they can still perfectly relate to the feelings Oryema was trying to get across as his vocals are so evocative. There is something rather beautiful about how Oryema’s tone is never totally hopeless, but rather is deeply contemplative. This creates an almost meditative feel that is sensed throughout the entirety of the album.
Musically there is real depth to the album. Quite often we find ourselves reviewing artists who have undeniable virtuoso talent. I am not suggesting this is not the case with Oryema, but rather it is not what stands out about the way in which the music is played. What is most apparent to me is the care, appreciation, and mindfulness he appears to play each note with, almost viewing the music he is playing as being sacred. Perhaps this is not from a religious or spiritual perspective, but simply the fact that music he plays must have reminded him of his murdered father. Growing up he was encouraged to learn the nanga (a seven-string harp) and was also taught the lukeme (a metal thumb piano), flute and guitar with his father patiently assisting him at his side.
Furthermore, it is no surprise to have learnt that Brian Eno produced the album, a man adept at creating soundscapes which provide intense levels of emotions. This particularly comes across on the stripped-back stunning songs such as Land Of Anaka (a song about his father’s resting place), Lakan Woto Kumu, and the title-track Exile. Part of the immense appeal of this album is that it works perfectly both as background music, and as music to be listened to intensely whilst doing nothing else. It has the capacity to reveal itself on several levels. Oryema’s wonderful melodic timbre and deep emotion alongside a perfectly weighted instrumental composition to accompany it, makes the album almost flawless. The fact that Oryema puts across a powerful message speaking to the shared experience of the pain many feel surrounding Uganda and the notion of being in exile, is simply the icing on the cake.