THE SHOW MUST GO ON!
I haven’t posted a blog for quite some time but I have been writing. Back in August I started a series of live music shows called the Kaz Kasozi Soirèe and while preparing it I looked back at some shows I have done in the past; triumphs and failings. Just before we started the series I almost cancelled it due to a loss in the family in the days leading up to the opening show. But then I remembered another chaotic time when I had to simply grit my teeth and crack on.
One thing I have learnt over the years on stage is that whatever the performer’s inner woes and crazy backstage shenanigans, the audience just wants a good show. Your inner strife as an artist is yours to bear not the audience’s. The dirty linen backstage, injuries, fights, the making up, the heartbreaks, the sweat, debts, technical challenges and general mayhem etc are all yours. The audience have left their home, come and paid for a good show and they want it delivered with no excuses. I have persevered through some tough and sometimes even embarrassing performances but I had never felt on the brink of throwing in the towel mid show. Not until Tuesday 13th May 2014 when a series of events drove me to the cliff edge.
LOOKING BACK at the KAZ KASOZI 7PROJECT
Awo ‘lwatuuka...; In April 2014 I began a series of live performances which I called the Kaz Kasozi 7Project, rather similar to my current Kaz Kasozi Soirèe but a little less refined perhaps. It run for 7 episodes each with its character, theme and repertoire. The May edition was the second in the series. The first edition, aptly dubbed Genesis was unfortunately not as smooth as the divine Creator’s 7 days on which it was based. It was a frustrating start with the 1st one at the National theatre where we discovered on show day that we were double booked; cross that and imagine this; triple booked!
During sound-check another group walked in claiming they had a right to the space since they too had booked to run their dance rehearsal for a show. We thinly won that dispute because we had come earlier and our heavy equipment was strewn all over the performance space. Later another much bigger group involving school children showed up to do an actual afternoon performance which was ticketed. This time we lost because they had more money and more numbers plus it involved children. How can you deny a 10 year old who is all giddy about their debut performance in a theatre?
Consequently, our equipment was duly displaced to allow for the children’s afternoon performance which finished too late for us to reset the system properly. Needless to say, this gave us some serious sound problems to solve or endure and other technical challenges. However, somehow we saved the opener with sheer will power and effervescent performance. The audience was also forgiving of the technical glitches. Artistically, the show still spoke. I left stage venting and this continued for a week or so because the challenges here hadn’t been pleasant at all and my performance and the whole band had been terribly compromised. But these challenges had been external and manageable. They were to become pale in the face of the next gig.
Come the second edition the story was mighty different. The second show, I had named E=mc2 after Einstein’s theory of Relativity. I had a little bit more money to spend on it than the first and after the grounding National Theatre rude initiation, my spirits were hopeful that it would only get better from then on. Come show time, things were nowhere near as eloquent as the theory from which I had borrowed the name; Einstein was insulted from his grave. Several personal things had happened in the lead up to the show creating a snowball effect of emotions that threatened to topple the performance completely off stage.
During preparation I also had a small music production training project happening in Jinja as part of the DOA DOA East African Performing Arts Market so I was staying there most of the time but commuting back to Kampala for rehearsals. It was bothersome but manageable. As hush luck often is, with what seemed like the flip of a coin and with impeccably bad timing, I suddenly had two loved ones to look after in hospital both on critical matters of life and death. I rapidly felt an overwhelming weight thrust upon my shoulders. So I was back in Kampala commuting daily to Jinja setting off at 6am to arrive at 8am. Nothing extraordinary in that; but I was constantly getting frightening updates from the hospital and constant demands for money for hospital bills of ill explained procedures through the day. The doctors telling me if such and such a procedure is not done immediately, the patient could die! No doubt I was stressed. Mean while I had to keep a facade of normalcy to deliver the workshop and also in rehearsals with the band so that those areas could remain smooth regardless. I had absolute faith, if not in the doctors at least in God that the situation was going to straighten out.
On one occasion during this hectic episode I left Jinja at 6pm and arrived at the Hospital in Kampala after 10pm. A two hour journey had stretched to four! I left the hospital at 4am to grab some sleep and by 6am I was on the road to Jinja. As I was arriving in Jinja after a very hectic and frustrating traffic crazed journey I received another urgent call from the hospital. I swiftly turned to head back. In a fit of frustration I ditched the car on the roadside and jumped into a matatu taxi. I simply couldn’t drive anymore. I sat by the window so the wind could hit me hard and for a moment I got some calm.
In this brief moment of zen I got back to thinking about the upcoming show which was now two weeks away. A rehearsal had been scheduled for that day in the late afternoon. I was contemplating cancelling the show, mulling over the pros and cons. I decided to read through my report of the previous show (I usually write reports for purposes of evaluating my work.) After going through it thoroughly I decided the show should go ahead because there was no way I could deliver anything worse than what I had done at the Theatre.
It was in this moment of calm that I received a message that during the previous night, Ernest Otim, the bass player, had been attacked by thieving murderous thugs armed with metal bars. They hit him severely on the head, took all valuables and left him for dead. He had gotten a serious gushing injury on his head but had luckily escaped with his life. I was shocked and couldn’t even reach him to ascertain the magnitude of the attack and injuries. At this point it was obvious that the show was now definitely off, though I made no announcement to that effect.
Later I was able to talk to Ernest and he insisted we should still do the gig. I was really reluctant since I hadn’t actually seen him and was worried about his capacity to pull it off as well as his well being. I didn't really know the extent of his injuries and I feared he was delirious. Much as he insisted, I remained of the view that we should cancel it. I feigned agreement with him but I wasn’t at all convinced.
UGANDAN HOSPITAL HORROR
Back in Kampala I proceeded straight to the hospital to check on my people and was greeted with a heightened sense of drama that would sound unreal in a Hollywood movie. In this surreal and frightful episode, I had to secure a commercial ambulance from another hospital; pay for specialist nurses from yet another hospital; hire an oxygen canister from a commercial supplier because the rather expensive ambulance had no such facility and since no one was ready to ride with us, I was given a crash lesson in how to handle and regulate the oxygen gas canister; and finally I had to secure and pay for specialist help at another hospital were the patient was being transferred. I was born in Uganda and love it so but this is the day I truly cursed it with all the venom I could master. What do our leaders do really!
The situation was too sudden that my relatives that could be of assistance were too far afield to make it there on time. Some people I called were nonchalant and unbothered so I dug in best I could. In the ambulance I had to secure the oxygen canister with my own hands and between my thighs so it wouldn’t fall away. Meanwhile I had no seatbelt and every time the ambulance swayed or hit a pothole I was in dire danger of ending the patient’s life! I must have aged like 5years during that 20 minute ride across Kampala.
On arriving at the next hospital I had to carry the oxygen canister on my shoulders like a monstrous bazooka whilst a nurse held tubes gingerly and another nurse carried the patient. A young smartly dressed man (a good Samaritan) who we met at the entrance dropped his business and assisted us clearing the way ahead all the way to the ward. I had called and sent money ahead to fast track proceedings so everything was set and the transfer was successful. The good Samaritan came back and lingered so much until I realised he was waiting for a tip. I gave him 2000/= ugx (about 65cents US) and he smiled broadly. He congratulated me on my oxygen canister heroics and told me I would one day have a good story to tell the patient. He was right about the story, but wrong about to whom I would tell it because, a few days later the patient passed away.
I was devastated and left with crippling hospital bills from two hospitals. My elder sister helped nurse the second patient and my family chipped in heavily with great support but still my pockets were crushed as well as my spirit. In a fit of defiance against this whole situation, I resolutely decided the gig must be done; if Ernest thinks he is up to it then I am on it. Rehearsals so far had been inadequate and it was very unlikely we would be able to squeeze one in but what the heck. I had to busy myself with something.
It was only then that my elder sister let on that her daughter had been critically ill too. The poor woman had been looking out for her young brother yet toiling with her own torment. The following day my niece suddenly tragically passed on. It was too much. I was emotionally exhausted and could see my sister battling through the pain but could offer little in comfort because my tank was depleted.
A day before the gig we were at a burial yet again. This time I was even more determined to do the gig. It was the only normal thing I had in the immediate days. Everything else had been so frightfully bleak and surreal. However, I had run out of immediate funds to finance it. The hospital had bled me dry and there was still one patient to look after. I talked to the band and negotiated with service providers to push back payments a couple of weeks.
THE DREADED SHOW
The venue for the gig had recently had noise pollution issues with the city council authorities but I was assured by the venue management that events were once again happening and though volumes were a bit curtailed it wasn’t inhibiting. Since they had once seen my kind of show I took their word. Come gig day we were determined to put on the show and the whole band got behind the effort regardless that we had a very small audience since I hadn’t had any time to push the event.
Back stage I was still battling with shutting out personal pain so I could get into performance mode and I didn’t want to look weak in front of a band I was leading. I started to meditate so I could focus but the more I tried, the more emotionally entangled I got. It was hopeless. Playing music suddenly felt so frivolous and empty. Anna Van Brakel, a friend now but who I knew very little then, somehow sensed my beaten spirit and came and offered some encouraging words. I cannot remember what they were and whether they were profound or not but I remember the tone. It revived my energy. She helped me get ready and I refocused. She even ironed my shirt!
|Ernest Otim with bandaged head but still giving it all.|
Just before going on, the venue management informed me that there was a city council limit on the decibel volumes of the place and for this reason the sound engineer had already cut it down considerably compared with what we sound-checked. As soon as I struck the first chord I realised this was going to be a very tough and long gig because it was too quiet for the style and nature of music we were playing and emotionally I was somewhere else completely. Ernest with his bandaged head was right there playing grooves but on medication and so wasn’t his usual energetic self; Timothy Nabulwa, both a good friend and music colleague was right there on stage giving me encouraging looks and words for the show to continue. He was the only one who knew the scope of what I was experiencing. Like professionals, we soldiered on.
After two songs I was informed not so subtly by management that the volume was to be cut again. This recurred repeatedly throughout the show, in some cases with complete shut downs that interrupted me mid-song. All instruments were removed from the front of house such that we were trying to play a funk gig like a singer songwriter acoustic gig. I was fraught and dying a slow artistic death on stage.
Amidst all this, I looked out in the audience and the memory of my mother flashed across my mind. Six months earlier she had passed away after a painful battle with cancer and two months before that we had been at this very same venue with a fantastic show which I had done at her behest and which she had attended. Last time she went out and about for leisure. As I sung I was busy wondering how stupid it was for me to choose this venue for this gig. The memory was very heavily loaded. I looked out and saw my brother who always enjoys my shows but this time with no joy in his face. I think he was feeling what I was feeling about mum. He may well have enjoyed himself but I wouldn’t know because I dared not look that direction again in fear of not being able to play on.
I was really awful on stage but play on I did and the band was right there also doing their best through the whole embarrassing affair. The audience was so understanding and accommodating; they were even polite enough to ask us for an encore probably to save us face because they could see that the volume restrictions had really hampered the performance significantly. Little did they know there was much more to it than that. Half of the tiny audience we had that day had already walked out but we still played a practically acoustic version of my song Cherry Lips in a cheery and ironic end.
|Brian Mulindwa and Timothy Nabulwa in the back.|
|I still tried to dance!|
Back stage, the show’s manager Rashida Namulondo came to congratulate me getting through it because she knew it was a tough show. She simply hugged me simply saying “well done”. In that brief embrace, I broke down and shed a tear from the weight of the emotional baggage I was carrying. I quickly instructed her not to let anyone know anything is up and I composed myself, proceeded back to smile and greet the supportive audience. I gained a whole knew respect for Ernest Otim that day to play through pain and medicated haze because he had committed; Timothy Nabulwa for the firm loyalty and friendship; and the whole band for sheer bidi (resolve) and zeal to carry through encouraging a lame horse to cross the finishing line even when it was already evident it was last. Brian Mulindwa, Gerard Mbuya and Kenneth Komagum. Lest I forget, they reminded me then that one can’t stand alone no matter how strong; soon or later one needs others. So I really respect artists who can put on their own events, even bad ones because in the current DoItYourself climate, there is so much that can derail a show. However, while they are on stage, I just want the best they can do; Nothing else.
Fast forward to August 2017 at RedRaw, the first episode of the Kaz Kasozi Soirèe, I came from burial of my brother, straight to stage. Having been through that harrowing experience I have told and many other fraught performances prior, has made me a better performer and band leader. This time still, none in the team were aware of my family loss and that I even sneaked away to a burial and came back and did the show reasonably well. I told them after it was all over. This is not a lack of emotion but finding ways to channel it into the performance and/or compartmentalising at least until the show is done because the show must go on. Of course there are instances when this might not be possible but I have certainly tasted the edge. Life only respects you when you grasp the wheel.
The Kaz Kasozi Soirèe is running until May 2018 with a unique show every month. There is no BS just music, creativity and artistry. Next episode DAVIDSTAR is on THURS 28 DEC at Design Hub 5th Street. You are all welcome.
|Kaz Kasozi Soirèe shoot. Photo by Hassan Hussein GShots|