Conserving the Past, Composing the Future at Kakuma Sound

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Conserving the Past, Composing the Future at Kakuma Sound

Treynor Tumwa and Mark LeVine, Cofounders, Kakuma Sound


Kakuma Sound Festival. Photo: SoundForLife.

There’s no preparing for the dust that defines life in Kakuma. The region has long been semi-arid, and with the onset of intense climate change has only grown more so—a situation made even worse by increasingly common large-scale flooding that erodes the soil and creates scarcity and conflict. In the Kakuma Refugee Settlement in Turkana County, northwestern Kenya, these conflicts impact every aspect of life—including the arts. Of course, it’s hard to focus on music and cultural expression when you haven’t seen your home country for years, decades, or even your whole life. When you’ve forgotten what it looks like, smells like, feels like. What it sounds like.

On top of that, there just aren’t many instruments. If you are told you have five minutes to leave your home, likely for good, your traditional drums, flutes, marimba, or xylophone won’t be high on the packing list. And while UNHCR and the international refugee aid system have done heroic work providing long-term food, shelter, healthcare, and education for refugees, they have had little capacity to provide the prerequisites for conserving, never mind passing on, the intangible cultural heritage that is too often left behind.

Four years ago, we created Kakuma Sound in order to fill that cultural gap in refugee communities—particularly through music, which is for most African communities the single most important medium for preserving, teaching, and passing on their cultures, collective histories, dreams, and futures. Over nearly half a decade, we’ve brought hundreds of instruments to the camp, expanding a group of 14 musicians to one that is 600-strong.

Scenes from the Kakuma Sound Festival. Photo: SoundForLife.

Africa’s Great Lakes Region has long been a crossroads for migrations of people, from the Indian Ocean in the east to the tropical forests to the west to the headwaters of the Nile up north. It’s precisely these factors that made Kakuma an ideal location for a refugee camp to shelter peoples from the numerous conflicts along these routes. Almost nowhere else on the planet do musicians from so many different African cultures and countries live in such proximity. Still, for most of its 30 years of existence, the camp’s various communities have rarely interacted; to some degree, the camp is designed precisely in order to keep certain groups more or less apart, so that conflicts brought into the camp can be more easily contained or at least kept to a simmer. While this is a valid policy for protecting vulnerable people, it has cultural consequences.

In facilitating an exchange of music and stories, Kakuma Sound offers people a chance to reacquire the intangible cultural heritage that can be tragically lost through the process of becoming a long-term refugee. More than that, though, we strive to create powerful musical collaborations that have the potential to create new harmonies and bring people together in solidarity. Our focus on traditional music allows such collaborations to take place between nearly two dozen national, ethnic, tribal, and religious communities living in the camp. As one young Ugandan refugee put it, “through our trainings and playing together we have come to meet people we otherwise wouldn’t meet and hear music we’d never hear. And it’s brought peace to us in important ways.”

But about that dust. Dust is everywhere in Kakuma, red and finer than talcum powder. It gets on your body, and your clothes, in your eyes nose, ears, and mouth. The traditional instruments can put up with a lot of dust; you can shake it off your drums, blow it out your flute, flick it off your endingidi or one-string violin. But when you’re trying to run a public address system, plug in a guitar, film a performance, or broadcast to the world—well, dust is about the worst possible thing, even more so than water.

It was against this backdrop that we held the first-ever Kakuma Sound Cultural Festival, after three years of preparation and pandemic-caused delays. Of course, by 10:00 a.m., everyone and everything was covered in dust. The residents of Kakuma, who have been dealing with the wind for decades, quickly erected barriers around the field’s performance area, transforming a traditional stage and audience set-up into a circle with rows of audience members protecting the performers in its center. But while that kept the swirling dust somewhat at bay, the musicians and dancers kicked up so much dust that it didn’t matter. It was visually glorious, setting a mood, and creating beautiful shots and an aura that lasted throughout the festival. Unsurprisingly, however, by the end of Day One, half the cameras had jammed; microphones were caked over; and the PA system produced little but static.

All smiles at the festival. Photo: SoundForLife.

And yet the festival was a success, featuring 20 bands as they shared music and culture with the larger community over two days. Best of all, it featured the debut of an ensemble—the Kakuma Sound All-Star Band—that brought to life our greatest hopes. With members from half a dozen communities (Congolese, Burundian, Rwandan, Ugandan, Ethiopian and several South Sudanese groups), it was clear that our goal of not only “conserving the past, but composing the future” could be a reality. Ugandan rhythms blended with Ethiopian instruments and Congolese choreography—and from the smiles on the faces of the thousands of attendees, the music was as powerful as it was new.

Kenyan superstar singer Eric Wainaina, the chair of our advisory board and one of the Kakuma Sound’s earliest supporters, performed with the All-Star Band. Among other pieces, they played an original composition titled, appropriately, “Africa.” As the festival ended, he recalled his first thought upon hearing our idea: “It’s like the cradle of humanity all over again, but this time the music is really hot.” Other communities, including the host community, came to ask how they could participate in Kakuma Sound. As word spread on social media, requests came in from Uganda, Congo, and Rwanda to create local hubs in camps and refugee centers in these countries.

In each hub, the goal remains the same: bringing back culture that was lost while creating music that has yet to be heard, all while building solidarity among some of the most resilient people on earth.