Open Mic: What rhymes with Kampala?

Poets and performers are taking over Kampala’s nightlife as the “open mic” movement gains popularity.

A bright light illuminates a single stool in the centre of the stage with a single microphone standing in front of it. A young man walks into the light and sits. He takes the microphone and starts to pour out his woes, becoming so emotional he gets off the stool and starts to pace around the stage. His problem is one that many Ugandan men are faced with: “You do not know how you pain me when I call you and you refuse to pick up your phone. Then you call me back when you want money, or airtime.

You want me to take you out to Nandos or Steers to eat because you think it is expensive. By the way, let me inform you that it is not. I drive you to your home. We kiss and cuddle and engage in deep touching. Then you refuse me to enter the land of paradise.”

This lovelorn performer is just one of many sitting in the audience waiting to take their turn. The time has finally come when ordinary Ugandans can take centre stage and claim their 15 minutes of fame. This wondrous opportunity is theirs for the taking every Thursday at Sabrina’s Pub, at an event dubbed “Open Mic Night”.

Sabrina’s offers an open-to-all platform for anyone, be it a doctor, lawyer, administrator or a taxi driver, to take off their work shoes and use their hidden talents to entertain and inspire. The two-hour show originally invited poets to perform moving recitals. However, it grew so popular that people with different skills demanded a piece of the action. Now the audience is also treated to dancing, original music compositions, short skits, and sometimes, a special instrumental treat by the now famous Edmund, the blind violinist and Elaine, the talented guitarist.

It is a night where stories are told; about hope, ambition and dreams. For a few hours, people allow these dreams to come true.

One female poet recited: “Tell everyone you meet about me. Tell them that with my help they can be whoever they want and they can have whatever they want. Ask them to call me. My name is Fantasy.”

Who knew that Ugandans were so starved for street entertainment they would pay every week to sit down and just listen to poems?

Mark Gordon, a Public Relations practitioner with Extream Art Media did. He tells of how it all started, funnily enough, while he was reading the book “Oliver Twist”.

“I thought about this skinny impoverished boy daring to stand out and ask: “Can I have some more?” I started to think of what he would demand if he were an eighteen year old boy living in Uganda today,” said Gordon.

His musings led him to write a poem about it, which was performed at a recital at the National Theatre by the Lantern Meet of poets, an event which takes place twice a year. It was given a standing ovation.

Gordon realized then that poetry could be performed as an art form. He decided to create a platform where people could put aside their fear and express themselves regardless of grammar, background or language.

“I realized that Ugandans are tired of mediocrity,” Gordon said. “They needed a platform to look for clarity, strength and wisdom.”

It turned out to be harder than Gordon expected. He received only sneers when he broached the topic with friends. Music perhaps, they said. But poetry? Get real. He was disillusioned until he spoke with someone who said: “Dude, this is the future. Let’s do it!”

The manager of Sabrina’s Pub agreed to let them use the stage for one reason: he was so amused, he was eager to see just how much of a flop it would be.

He’s not laughing anymore. Every Thursday sees his pub packed with people listening to expressive poetry even in Luganda and Lusoga.

Although the stage is often graced with professionals like female hip-hop rapper Saint C.A. and singer Baba Luku, Open Mic Night remains predominantly a platform for the unknown to exercise their art form.

One performer, Brenda, is a student of Crime and Psychology at the University of Kent in England, and performs whenever she is in Uganda.

“I think it’s important for us young people to engage in alternative forms of entertainment,” she said. “I love to perform even though I have terrible stage fright. It’s an opportunity for me to face my fears every time I get on stage.”

Gordon says he and his team of twelve producers, organizers and sound experts, do what they do for the love of the art but is willing to make a concession.

“Sometimes, it’s hard to justify because the world won’t bend for love. We have to spend money on airtime, transport, photos and sound among others. There is no financial motive in what we do. We charge people 3,000 shillings which is used to put up fliers and posters,” said Gordon.

The real benefit is in the fact that before there wasn’t and now there is.

“Taking pride in that means a lot to all of us,” said Gordon. “Working to ensure the show happens and to see a stage full of performers and excited guests is an experience. One time I had an accident and Open Mic still went on. That is priceless satisfaction.”

As successful as Open Mic is now, it seems that this is just a precursor to a great beginning. Starting in February, the show will now be held at the elegant Open House bar and restaurant next to Watoto Church.

“We’re going to professionalize it,” explained Gordon, “Create a database of performers and have regular meetings with them. I hope to one day be in a position to remunerate performers and my team for their efforts.”

Open Mic Night notwithstanding, the night of poetry, music and art is here to stay, regardless of venue or management. Gordon will perform a production of his works and his walk with Open Mic at the National Theatre in February. In addition, the Boda Boda restaurant in Garden City has also booked a tailored night for Gordon and his team to bring Open Mic to them.

Here then, is a chance to have a new platform that will expose Ugandan art and culture in a very raw form with poems about street kids, refugees, life in Mulago, rape, defilement, poverty, war and healing.

“We’re looking for a spectacular night of poetry, music and art in Kampala,” Gordon concludes, “and together with performers, who are the real stakeholders, we are going to do it!”

By Lindsey Kukunda