Geoffrey Oryema

Geoffrey Oryema is from Uganda, the source of his musical roots. His work, however, has been inspired by myriad styles — a fully-realised absorption of Western pop, African traditions, and the creative need to define a very personal musical identity.

Oryema was born in Soroti, where his family were immersed in the country’s traditional cultures. He was encouraged by his father to play the nanga (a seven-string harp), and he also travelled around Uganda with his mother, a director of the national dance company The Heartbeat of Africa. Other members of the Oryema family were story-tellers, poets, and musicians.

"I was struck by the musical disease at the age of seven." Geoffrey Oryema

As he entered his teens, Oryema learned how to play the guitar, flute and lukeme (a metal thumb-piano). He also began to write songs. It was inevitable that Oryema’s life would be involved in the arts and, in the early 1970s, he enrolled in Uganda’s Drama School of Academy. His career aspiration was to become an actor— an ambition developed by founding an African drama company, Theatre Ltd. He also wrote stage pieces which mixed traditional African theatre with the avant garde Method techniques pioneered by Stanislavski and Grotowski. The result was a very original ‘theatre of the absurd,’ embellished by African tribal sounds and improvisation. It was perhaps the first expression of Oryema’s ability to experiment with disparate cultures.

By the mid-70s, however, the political climate in Uganda was bleak. Oryema’s father was Idi Amin’s Minister of Land and Water Resources— an important role in the government. Amin’s rising tyranny, however, eliminated all political opponents and in February 1977 Oryema’s father was killed in a suspicious car crash. Geoffrey Oryema left his native country by crossing the border into Kenya. From there he travelled to France, where Oryema has lived in exile ever since.

Paris is the European centre of African culture. Oryema spent years playing gigs and experimenting with the huge diversity of musical styles at the heart of the city’s club culture. In 1989 Thomas Brooman, one of the founders of WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance), came to Paris in search of new talent. The visit resulted in an invitation for Oryema to appear at one of the WOMAD festivals.

The following year was crucial in Oryema’s career. The WOMAD connection introduced Oryema to the Real World label, for which he recorded his debut album Exile. He also performed at the Nelson Mandela tribute concert at Wembley. Exile was produced by Brian Eno, and also included contributions from Peter Gabriel on backing vocals and keyboards, and David Rhodes (one of the mainstays of Gabriel’s band) on guitar. The album, based on Oryema’s experiences as a youth in Uganda, brought immediate critical and public acclaim, establishing his reputation as a significant African singer-songwriter.

His second album for Real World, Beat The Border, brought together a team of talented and experienced collaborators. One of the cornerstones was the French guitarist Jean-Pierre Alarcen. He wrote the music for ‘Hard Labour’ and co-composed ‘The River’, ‘Market Day’, ‘Lapwony’, ‘Umoja’ and ‘Payira Wind.’  Beat The Border was produced by Bob Ezrin and David Bottrill; the former (whose credits include albums by Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, Paul Simon, and Alice Cooper) also co-composed ‘The River’, which was remixed as a single by Brian Eno. Bottrill, Peter Gabriel’s long-standing engineer and now a producer in his own right, was responsible for seven of the album’s ten tracks.

Night To Night was Geoffrey Oryema’s third album for Real World, in which he sings primarily in French and English with a passion and understanding that can only come from experience. The album brings together a team of talented and experienced collaborators: Daniel Lanois, Lokua Kanza, Nicolas Fiszman and Jean-Pierre Alarcen. All play a part in producing the album as well as performing on it. The end result consists of wonderful melodies, musicianship, and lyrics with real meaning and substance.

The powerful roots of Oryema’s African heritage now have a more subtle influence on his music. The songs are now more universal, invariably expressed in his second language of English and influenced by Alarcen’s pop-rock roots. Through it all, however, Oryema’s music signals a unique talent whose musical identity has been established away from the confines of simple categorisation.

Further reading

Geoffrey Oryema, 1953-2018

One of Real World's most loved musicians, Uganda-born Geoffrey Oryema, has died at the age of 65.

A look back on Geoffrey Oryema’s 1993 video for ‘The River’

Marking the 25th anniversary of Beat The Border, the official video for 'The River' is now online.