Kinobe Takes East Rock To School

Brian Slattery PhotoAs Kinobe Herbert of Uganda looked out over the expectant Sunday evening crowd at mActivity on Nicoll Street in East Rock, he allowed himself a small smile.

“I feel like I’m in a classroom,” he joked.

As it turned out, he had a lot to teach.

Kinobe, currently on a national U.S. tour, made New Haven a stop thanks to Fernando Pinto, who booked Kinobe for his ongoing East Rock Concert Series at mActivity. With the subtitle of “roots to hold the world together,” the series has brought artists from all over the world to New Haven, supported by local acts. This Sunday’s show became a time for teaching, storytelling, and just the right dose of social awareness.

New Haven’s own Thabisa Rich arrived onstage with a shaker, unamplified. She didn’t need a microphone; her voice filled the mActivity lobby on its own. Assuming her place before the audience, she explained that, in her childhood in South Africa, her grandparents raised her after her mother passed, and she only learned about this fact on “the streets”; before it was explained to her, she thought that her grandmother was her mother.

“I couldn’t express how I felt about this news,” she said. “I couldn’t talk about it.” Her grandparents were still feeling the pain of her mother’s passing. But “in school they used to sing this song and it used to take me to a space where I could imagine that this is what my mom would say to me before she transitioned into that other world,” she added. “That’s how I always interpreted this song, that my mom is telling me about her leaving me and not coming back again, but also hopeful that we will meet again in heaven.”

As her set continued, Thabisa talked more of overcoming adversity and finding strength, hope, and inspiration from those around you. She spoke of her deep feelings of solidarity with women in India standing up for their rights. She spoke of one of her own heroes, South African singer Miriam Makeba. And she ended with a gospel song; with her voice alone and a single gesture, she got the audience to clap along and provide her with the backbeat she needed.

“it’s truly a blessing to be able to do this,” Kinobe said when he took the stage. “People paying me to have fun? It feels good.” He explained that touring solo was a new thing for him, even though he’d been playing music since he was five and has toured in 75 countries. He embarked on his first international tour when he was nine. That was when “my life changed,” he said.

In 1995, he was on European tour when he heard another group — from Mali — with a musician, Toumani Diabate, playing the 21-stringed kora.

“I want to play that stuff,” he thought to himself. So only a few years later he told his mother, “I’m going to Mali.”

“Do you know anybody there?” he recalled his mother asking him.

“No, but I love the music. I’m just going to go.” He decided to find Diabate, who lived in the capital city of Bamako. He arrived in Bamako and asked a cab driver to take him to a museum. At the museum, he asked an employee about Diabate. It turned out Diabate lived close to the museum. He arrived at Diabate’s compound to find that the musician, fresh off an international tour himself, was sleeping, which he did until four in the afternoon.

“He wakes up and comes down the stairs, and I’m in his living room,” Kinobe said. He showed Diabate a picture from their meeting in 1995, several years before. He told Diabate he wanted to learn to play the kora. Diabate asked him if he had a place to stay. Kinobe said no. Diabate said Kinobe could stay with him — which he did for two months, doing nothing but learn kora, which Kinobe then explained to the audience.

The thumbs, he said, held down two separate rhythms, which he sang as he played, accompanying himself. Then, he explained, the two pointer fingers were for improvising, which he began to do. And a spell was cast.

Kinobe proved to be a master himself, as he swapped the kora for the ndongo, a Ugandan lyre that he said maybe four musicians in Uganda still play (although there were variants of the instrument elsewhere in Africa, such as the krar in Ethiopia). He explained that the buzzing sound on the strings was part of its design. It was “distortion before Jimi Hendrix made it.”

He further explained that kings used to send musicians to convey messages to other kings — “oh my God, I wish they did that today,” he said, to laughter. The musicians would write a song in order to set the message to music. If the message was harsh, the musician would find a way to soften it, acting as a kind of diplomat. To American ears, the music of the ndongo might sound a little like the blues. To him, this was no coincidence. People, he said, carried their music wherever they went; as Africans arrived in American in the slave trade, they brought their songs with them, and played them on whatever instrument — like a guitar — they might find at hand.

Kinobe’s most poignant moment came when he switched to the akogo kalimba, or thumb piano. “I like this — it’s like a PSP PlayStation. It’s like texting,” he said. “You just use your thumbs. You don’t have to worry about those other four fingers.” He proceeded to shred on the kalimba using those thumbs, then settled into a pattern that his voice drifted over, before he ended that piece with an improvised flourish that he sang as he played, accompanying himself note for note.

He then turned to a song he had written for the kalimba in English called “After the War.” It tied into the humanitarian work Kinobe has done throughout his life, working with refugees, with women and children, and with the Uganda-based program Dance of Hope. Children in war-torn places, he said, often can’t imagine what a peaceful life looks like. The trauma can run deep. But it can also be overcome. “A negative story can be turned around,” he said, “and can be a voice to represent to the world.”

In his demonstration of the tama, the talking drum, he explained that he was drawn to the instrument because of the astonishing range of tonal possibilities the drum offered. Though it was notoriously difficult to play. The right hand, which held a stick, had to sound the same as the fingers of the left hand when those fingers struck the surface of the drum head.

Moreover, “the stick and the hand play in exactly the same place, so you have to make sure the stick doesn’t hit the hand,” Kinobe said. “If the stick hits the hand, then you won’t play for about a week.”

But his voice and drum spoke as one as the concert came to a close. He sang a line, then echoed it on the drum. His singing grew more complicated. His drumming followed suit. Another improvisation in which the tone of the drum matched the tone of his voice made the crowd demand an encore. Kinobe obliged with a soothing kora piece to usher everyone one — but not before he dragged a nail along the length of one of the kora’s strings, a final bit of mischief and inspiration from a man with ears as big as the world.

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