Banjos Without Borders – Journey To Uganda

By Sarah Miller

In 2014, I was contacted by the director of a small music school in Uganda. I was his “friend” on social media, because a friend of mine had lived with his family in 2013 serving with his wife’s organization. He had an interesting request. He wanted me to come to Uganda and teach him and his students the banjo. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to make this happen, but I knew I had to go. Though a lot of people thought I was a bit crazy (25-year-old woman traveling across the world with a banjo on her knee; what could possibly go wrong?), I was excited to be the first person to bring banjos to these students!

Jeff Kasigwa at the Ultimate Music School in Jinja, Uganda. It is the only music school in the city.

Jeff Kasigwa is the founder of the school. What started as teaching students in the garage at his home, has now moved to a small building in town with two classrooms, several instruments, and a recording studio. The recording studio is the school’s main source of income, as many of the students can not afford to pay for lessons. Classes are taught by Jeff, a couple of his young adult students that he has mentored, and the occasional volunteer from the United States.

My biggest hurdle in planning this trip was figuring out how I could get the banjos to Uganda without them being lost or damaged. I planned to bring six of them, which would be a bit difficult by myself so I found five people who wanted to go with me! After getting my team together, I started fundraising and making a budget for the instruments and supplies. I spent a long time researching sturdy hard cases for traveling, but most were way more than I could afford. I kept coming back to the Reunion Blues Continental cases. I was doubtful that they would work because they weren’t a normal hard case, they looked like a gig bag! After reading many reviews, I decided that these should actually work pretty well. While still more expensive than I originally budgeted for, these were the most affordable option.

I reached out to Reunion Blues to see if they would help us with this. I asked for a donation of one case, or maybe a discount. I was so overwhelmed with the response that I got from the company. They were going to give all six cases to the music school at no charge. I was so humbled by their generosity and willingness to be a part of this project!

Travis loading up the banjos to go to the airport.

Once we got to the airport, we did not check our banjos in with the other luggage. We had them check them in at the gate so that they would get packed after all the other baggage, and hopefully be handled more carefully. This was advice that I got from a lot of musicians who travel. Once we got to the Boston airport, they would not do a “gate check”, so we had to trust that these cases would do their job. I was a bit worried, but in the end, all six banjos arrived totally unharmed! It was such a relief. These cases definitely passed the test!

Waiting for our flight out of PDX.

Here are all 6 banjos, safely stacked in my room in Jinja!

Once I got to Uganda, we had a week to adjust to the time change, set up the instruments, meet the students and get our lesson plans prepared. My friend, Stephen came with me to teach drums. The rest of my team went to a town 4 hrs away to work with a different organization.

Here they are unpacking the drums. Like kids on Christmas morning!

Francis (front and center) teaches piano at the school and took drum lessons from Stephen.

He had a birthday while we were there. When asked if he usually gets presents for his birthday,
his reply was , “One time my mother gave me milk for my birthday”. What an eye opener!
Stephen pulled together some funds with help from family back home and bought him his own electric piano.

He was so surprised and grateful for that gift.

First day of class. Learning to use an electronic tuner first!

Many would argue that banjo players are always out of tune anyway.

The students were so excited to start lessons. A few of them played other instruments already, but several did not. None of them had ever seen a banjo before though a few had heard about it before because of Bela Fleck’s documentary, “ Throw Down Your Heart”. One of the musicians in the film lives nearby and has a group of musicians and dancers who perform at local events. I got to meet him when we had a picnic at a park near the Source of the Nile. He and his group were practicing. He let me try out his thumb piano.

I taught lessons for about 6 weeks. Near the end of our lessons, the instructor asked me “ Are you going to give us an exam?”. So I wrote a test! I asked questions on the history of the banjo, the names of parts, chord names, different tunings, chord shapes up and down the neck, chord groupings ( 1, 4, 5, method). Each student scored 95% or higher! The amount of information they were able to retain and put into practice was incredible. I’ve never seen anyone learn as fast as them. They are so hungry for any new information or skills that they can learn to further themselves.

Besides the test, I also asked them to perform two songs in front of a group. I had the students on banjo, myself on guitar, Stephen on drums, Francis on piano. They played two Ugandan songs that they sing in church. I was also impressed that they can already sing and play banjo at the same time. A skill that is not easy to master!

When we took the banjos to the church for their first performance, we loaded them all up in the van and stacked them in their with all the other equipment. The roads are rough there, so these cases are a must for transporting, even in town. The students are still using the banjos and cases at church and they have been teaching new students the banjo. I couldn’t be more proud of them!

Here is “King David” teaching banjo. He also teaches piano, guitar and bass.

He is the one who does most of the recording in the studio for local artists.
He is way too smart! He was the fastest to learn new skills and it was a challenge to keep up with him. He was such a joy to teach. I love seeing his updates on the school’s Facebook page. He is currently teaching a handful of young elementary kids the piano while they’re on summer holiday.

David carrying the case with backpack straps.

David and Michael playing on the roof of the school. My favorite place to practice! I would teach lessons in the morning and often come back in the afternoon. As I was walking up the street toward the school, I could often hear a banjo or two ringing from up on the roof. The same students who had been there since 8 am, were still practicing at 4 pm.

Here is Racheal. She also plays drums, sings and dances. She is such a sweetheart.

She is a wife and now a mother to a beautiful baby girl!

In the 7 weeks that I was there, I learned a lot about Ugandan culture and their music. We were able to come up with a few rhythms that really blended into their local music. Being able to play an instrument opens up new opportunities for these young people and also gives them a lot of confidence to take on other new skills. This wouldn’t have been possible without the generous donations that we received. I am so grateful for these cases that were donated for this project. They were perfect for traveling and I know they will hold up for many years to come.

If you would like further information regarding the Ultimate Music School, you can contact myself or the director of the school.

Sarah Miller:

Jeff Kasigwa:

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