Geoffrey Oryema, 1953-2018

It was with great sadness that Real World Records received news of the death of Ugandan artist Geoffrey Oryema, who had been battling cancer for a number of years. Geoffrey and his music have played a significant part in the history of the label, and he will be sorely missed by all of us.

Geoffrey is survived by his long term partner Regine, his children Ajoline, Chantal and Oceng, and a number of brothers and sisters.

The Ugandan singer lived in exile in France for several decades. His father Erinayo Wilson Oryema was a cabinet minister who was brutally murdered in unclear circumstances in 1977, allegedly on President Idi Amin’s orders, and at the age of 24, Geoffrey was forced to flee Uganda in the middle of the night. He spent four hours in the trunk of a car until he crossed the border to safety in Kenya.

Geoffrey Oryema - Exile. Photo Credit: Frank Drake

This life-changing moment was the central theme of Geoffrey’s debut album, Exile, released on Real World Records in 1990. Produced by Brian Eno, the album is upheld as a world music classic, and one of the most popular releases in the label’s catalogue. On his song ‘Makambo’, Geoffrey sings about the pain of being forced to leave his motherland, whilst the track ‘Exile’ is an open letter to Uganda, calling for peace and an end to armed struggle. He also pays tribute to his father in another key song ‘Land Of Anaka’, and dedicates ‘Solitude’ to his widowed mother.

 

Oryema had a long relationship with Real World and Peter Gabriel. He performed across the USA in the early nineties with WOMAD, and joined Peter Gabriel on stage on many occasions throughout the years. He also worked with Sting, Tracy Chapman, Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel on the Amnesty International tours.

In 1993, he released his second album, Beat the Border, working with producers Bob Ezrin and David Bottrill. Billboard described the album as “a harmonious marriage between traditional and Western influences”. After his final album for the label, 1996’s Night to Night, he continued to record and perform music around the world. He joined Peter Gabriel on stage once again in 2005 for the Live 8 concert at the Eden Project in Cornwall, Africa Calling.

'Land of Anaka' featuring Peter Gabriel (live at Africa Calling, 2005)

In a statement released today, Peter Gabriel said:

“I was very upset to learn of Geoffrey Oryema’s death. Geoffrey was one of the original artists on our label and one of the most loved. It feels as if we have lost one of our original family members and although Geoffrey went his own way in recent years we always felt he was a Real World artist. With his rich low voice and beautiful songs he could mesmerise audiences whether in a small club or Wembley Stadium.

He has shown great courage with all the struggles he has had to deal with in his life and been a devoted husband, father and friend. A big man has gone and left a big hole but he leaves behind a lot of warmth and many beautiful and emotional songs.”

Geoffrey Oryema and Peter Gabriel at WOMAD in Reading, 1992.

During Oryema’s early years spent in his home town of Soroti, he became immersed in the traditional music of Uganda. “I was struck by the musical disease at the age of seven,” the singer said once in an interview. Encouraged by his father, he learned to play the nanga (a seven-string harp), and he travelled around Uganda with his mother, who was a director of the national dance company The Heartbeat of Africa. Other members of the Oryema family were story-tellers, poets and musicians.

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 and developed a career in acting.

Geoffrey Oryema on stage at WOMAD in the USA, 1994. Photo credit: Frank Micelotta.

Following his departure from Uganda, Geoffrey settled in Paris, where he spent years playing gigs and experimenting with the huge diversity of musical styles at the heart of the city’s club culture. It was there, in 1989, that the singer was spotted by WOMAD Artistic Director Thomas Brooman, and invited to perform at the festival, thus marking the beginning of his international music career.

Oryema returned home to Uganda in December 2016 for the first time in 40 years. In an interview with Face2Face Africa, Oryema talked about the significance of this journey, saying, “My recent return to the country of my birth was certainly full of mixed emotions. When I left 40 years ago, it was tears of sadness, fear, hatred, and revenge, which echoed in my head.”

“In the early morning of the 17th December 2016, when the plane landed at Entebbe International airport, that moment to me was like ‘life is an onion,’ because sometimes when you peel off the layers of an onion, it makes you weep. Those were tears of joy.” Geoffrey Oryema

Geoffrey spoke with government and officials in Uganda, trying to facilitate peace. He regularly performed his song ‘La Lettre’, imploring all sides in the conflict to go to the negotiating table and find peace. In recent years, he took up the challenge of dealing with the child soldier problem, and has also worked hard to bring peace to Northern Uganda.

“Geoffrey was a gentle, beautiful, profoundly passionate man whose heart carried the spirit while his voice bore the smoke of his beloved, beleaguered country. I am deeply grateful for the time I was able to spend with him, the music I was privileged to create with him and for all that he taught me about life and devotion.” ~ Bob Ezrin, producer

“Dear Geoffrey… always smiling. A sweet, warm, charming and gifted man.” ~ Brian Eno, producer

In a statement released on Friday by Oryema’s family, he was described as “a giant of a man— a true artist, statesman, activist, father, and friend to many.”

Geoffrey Oryema, born 16 April 1953; died 22 June 2018

a classic album:

  • Exile

    Geoffrey Oryema

    Released 10 September 1990

    Produced by Brian Eno, this album introduced the world to the struggles of singer-songwriter Geoffrey Oryema, who fled Uganda at a young age following the secret assassination of his father, a government minister. A wistful reflection on the Uganda of Oryema’s youth and the sadness of his exile.

By Oran Mullan

Main image credit: Claude Gassian.

Published on Sun, 24 June 18

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