As elusive as the concept of African unity may be, Kinobe Herbert is doing his part to realize it. The 25-year-old singer/multi-instrumentalist from Uganda rejects the fragmentation of the continent's often tradition-bound musical landscape, and instead actively seeks to incorporate influences and instruments from throughout Africa and beyond.
"Most people in Uganda know more about America than even countries next door to them in Africa," Kinobe (pronounced Chi-no-BAY) says by phone from a tour stop in North Carolina. "It's because that's what they see on TV. Ugandan education does not teach about other African cultures. And not many of the musicians are into the pan-African thing."
Uganda is a smallish, landlocked country in east central Africa probably best known to Westerners as the one-time killing grounds for dictator Idi Amin, whose brutal regime lasted most of the 1970s. The country has been relatively stable since the mid-'80s, but has not established the musical identity of countries like Nigeria, Kenya and Mali. While Kinobe employs the traditional styles of his homeland, he is by no means a nationalist.
"When I was first in West Africa, I realized we didn't have this music in Uganda," he says. "If I hadn't gone there, I would have missed the chance to play a beautiful instrument like the kora. I have come to love it. It doesn't matter where it comes from."
The kora is a harp-like instrument with 21 strings that showers wondrous cascades of sound. It's just one of the six that Kinobe plays onstage — all of which he makes himself. They range from the okogo (thumb piano) to endere (Ugandan flute). In all, he and the four members of his group, Soul Beat Africa, bring a dozen exotic-sounding (and looking) instruments to the bandstand.
For this their first American tour, Soul Beat Africa has left the trap drummer and electronic keyboardist behind. "We want to make an impression with the traditional acoustic instruments," Kinobe says.
The group's music flows along on undulating beats built around the interlocking textures of hand drums, stringed and gourd instruments, acoustic guitars and the distinctive chime of thumb pianos. Kinobe sings the lilting melodies (with lyrics mostly in Luganda but also English and Swahili) in a relaxed, airy tenor, and his bandmates counter with harmonies that call to mind South African choral music. In all, the music possesses a radiant beauty, a blissfulness that reflects Kinobe's wide-openness and his quest for a universal musical language.
Despite growing up in the capital city of Kampala near Lake Victoria in what he describes as a "happy but poor family," Kinobe was determined from a young age "to go all over the world.
"My parents had barely enough money to send me to school," he says. "But I joined the school band and when I was 10 years we traveled to Europe."
That's where he met Toumani Diabate, a world-renowned kora player from Mali with whom he later studied. "When I went back to Uganda, I had opened up so much to world music," he adds. "I went back to Europe, collected CDs from different musicians. By the time I was 11 years, I was listening to music almost no one in Uganda knew about."
That included a wide range of American artists, among them Dee Dee Bridgewater, Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Ry Cooder and Bobby McFerrin. Kinobe started to see the connectivity between the music of Latin America, the Caribbean, North America and Africa. When he expanded his group from a duo to a quintet three years ago, he gave his electric bass player, Okia Allan, recordings of Victor Wooten to expand his horizons.
Performing has allowed Kinobe to realize his dream of seeing the world. He's played and conducted workshops throughout Africa, along the Indian Ocean, in Central and South America and, by his estimation, almost every country in Europe. He's shared bills with such legendary artists as Youssou N'dour, Salif Keita, Baaba Maal, Ismael Lo and Miriam Makeba. "My mind gets so opened," he says. "I appreciate it so much. All this beautiful music has been revealed to me. I don't know why anyone would want to nationalize music. It feels so limited."