Uganda, Barbershop Harmonies...and what lies between

December 2012: Drissa teaches me to play the Ngoni (the West African predecessor to the banjo) in Burkina Faso.

December 2012: Drissa teaches me to play the Ngoni (the West African predecessor to the banjo) in Burkina Faso.


I'm writing this blog at midnight, just a few hours before I board a plane to Uganda.

Right now it’s hotter in Denver than it is in Jinja, and I crave the cooler African weather and theatrical thunderstorms.

It’s almost 2 years to the day since I came home from living and working in Uganda for a year. And it’s 4 years since the first trip I ever took to Africa in 2012, to tour with my old band Koffi Togo Vibe and study drumming and dance in Togo and Burkina Faso.

My musical evolution has been a strange and nuanced journey through an eccentric contrast of genres and instruments.  It’s funny to think that my first time on stage was when I was five, at the Arvada Center, singing ‘Lida Rose’ as a fifth wheel in my dad’s barbershop quartet.  Four and five-part vocal harmonies are certainly the backbone of my musical education.  I didn’t even know how weird it was that my little first grade self knew more hundred-year-old American songs than most baby boomers.

On top of that, I’ve been a choir nerd all my life.  Colorado Children’s Chorale.  All State Choir.  All State Jazz.  I picked up clarinet in 3rd grade.  Piano in 4th grade.  Taught myself guitar in middle school.  Fell in love with the complexities and dissonance of jazz in high school.  Played keys in the College jazz combo.  

And then, after college, I found myself playing in a Cuban Afro-Beat ten-piece, experimental jazz band.  When I met Koffi Toudji, he introduced me to goat-skin djembe drums, cannon-sized dun-duns, barefoot West African dance, and enticing poly-rhythms.  Koffi heard rhythms the way I heard melodies and harmonies.  I wanted to train my ears to hear what he could hear.

That lead me to Africa.  

And now, after unmentionable hours of planning, I’m making a long-time dream come true and returning for the fourth time, taking 13 of my middle-school students with me.

Looking back on the way things have unfolded, I find myself laughing at all the random pieces I have managed to weave into my life, and into my music.  But while it may seem disconnected at first glance, the more places I go, and languages I study, and music genres I explore, the more I realize how much they connect.  All the jazz, blues, barbershop, Afro-Cuban, and rock’n’roll that I studied for the first twenty years of my life were heavily influenced—no, born from—African roots.  

Playing and singing in One Way Ride has felt a lot like a homecoming, like I’m going back to familiar territory and sinking into genres I’ve been missing.

And at the same time—as weird as it may sound coming from the whitest girl this side of Scotland—going back to Africa, also strangely feels like going home.  Maybe it’s because so much of what we Americans know is born out of and wrapped up in African history.  And if you don’t want to read about it, just listen to Rokia Traore or Fatoumata Diawara for 2 seconds and you’ll know what I mean.

Here’s to making connections between disparate places—whether that’s Denver and Jinja, or blues, barbershop, and Afro-beat. 

~Laura Rose