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Timeline: Justinian Tamusuza (1951- )

Timeline: Justinian Tamusuza
In the late 19th century the "Scramble for Africa" saw Western nations rush to claim control of the continent. This brought immense turmoil to the kingdom of Buganda and is the inspiration for an important piece of music written by Ugandan composer, Justinian Tamusuza.

In 1992, the Kronos Quartet released an award-winning album, Pieces of Africa. Among the wonderful offerings on that project was the first quartet of Ugandan composer, Justinian Tamusuza entitled On the Way of the Cross.

Tamusuza is one of the premiere contemporary African composers today. His music has been compared to American mimialist composers like Steve Reich and John Adams. However, what sets Tamusuza apart is his use of rhythm that calls to mind the pulse of traditional African music.

Tamusuza blends together western classical and traditional Ugandan styles. Like many other African composers we’ve been exploring lately, Justinian’s work is greatly influenced by Bela Bartok. That means bringing the musical, cultural heritage of ethnic groups into new compositional efforts; bridging the study of ethnomusicology and contemporary composition.

Justinian Tamusuza was born in Kibisi, Uganda in 1951. He grew up listening to and creating traditional Bugandan music. Buganda was and is an East African kingdom, first established in the 13th century with a rich history of politics, religion and artistic expression. Tamusuza went on to study music in Europe and in the United States. He trained at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland and earned a doctorate from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

Tamusuza became a professor and taught at Northwestern as well Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. He has served on the music jury of the International Society of Contemporary Music and as artistic director of Africa95 an African Composers Workshop in the U.K.

As a professor, Tamusuza encourages his students to draw upon their own rich cultural heritage in the creation of new music.In this way, Justinian is leading by example. His works Introduction of the Flute and Horn Call, reimagines how to play these traditional, western instruments in order to mimic or evoke the sounds and expressive capabilities of African instruments; bringing African music to Western ears.

This brings us back to Tamusuza’s First String Quartet “On the Way of the Cross.” Not only is the composer using African idioms, he’s also evoking a dark moment of Ugandan history. On the Way of the Cross is dedicated to the Ugandan Martyrs of the late 19th century. This was an era known as the “Scramble for Africa” as Western nations rushed to claim control of the continent. This age of “New Imperialism” brought immense turmoil to the kingdom of Buganda and it all focused around religion. Anglican, Catholic and Islamic influences had spread across the political landscape of the kingdom, vying for control. The king, fearing a coup, ordered the execution of dozens of Anglican and Catholic converts. The world press and almost all of Europe declared the victims to be martyrs. This garnered broad public support for Britain to ultimately seize control of the entire region, leading to war and more death. A powerful story relayed through a traditional Western string quartet using rhythms and melodic ideas borrowed from the Bugandan people, that balancing act is a testament to the talent of composer Justinian Tamusuza.

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James Stewart is VPR Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.