School of Music, Theatre and Dance

Planting the seed

OU’s James Isabirye successfully defends dissertation on reviving Ugandan culture through music

icon of a calendarNovember 29, 2018

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OU’s James Isabirye successfully defends dissertation on reviving Ugandan culture through music
James Isabirye Dissertation Defense
Oakland University graduate student James Isabirye (third from left) is congratulated after successfully defending his dissertation on Nov. 14 by Joe Shively, Ed.D., interim director of the School of Music, Theatre and Dance; Jackie Wiggins, Ed.D., the former director of the SMTD; and Deborah VanderLinde, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Music. (Photo courtesy JLBoone Photography)

While working to reintroduce traditional songs and instruments to the people of Uganda, Oakland University graduate student James Isabirye — a lecturer of music and drama at Kyambogo University in Uganda — has been pursuing his Ph.D. in Music Education at Oakland University.

On November 14, he successfully defended his Ph.D. dissertation in front of a committee that included Joe Shively, Ed.D., interim director of the School of Music, Theatre and Dance; Deborah VanderLinde, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Music; and Jackie Wiggins, Ed.D., the former director of the SMTD who retired in June after a 24-year career at Oakland University.

“I’m so proud of James and I couldn’t be happier for him,” Wiggins said. “He’s brilliant and he can pull together ideas from all these different places on such a sophisticated level. He’s going to change the world. In fact, he already has."

Using the seeds of a nearly extinct gourd, Isabirye has been helping the people of Uganda rediscover their musical roots by reintroducing instruments, songs and traditions that were almost lost forever following decades of conflict and political upheaval.

“We revived the Entenga music of the Buganda Kingdom, the Amakondere (gourd trumpets of Buganda), the Bigwala music of the Basoga Kingdom, and many more,” he said. “The Bigwala trumpet is especially significant because it attracted funding from UNESCO, and the magnitude of its effectiveness has attracted global attention.”

Isabirye was first introduced to Bigwala while studying the traditions of the Basoga people of southeast Uganda. A genre of ceremonial music and dance centered around five or more gourd trumpets that are blown in combination, accompanied by drum players, singers and dancers, Bigwala was primarily performed during royal celebrations, such as coronations and funerals.

“The music was rooted in the kingdoms, so when the kingdoms were abolished, all the things to do with them, including the musical traditions that were very much cherished, were abolished as well,” Isabirye said.

His dissertation — titled “Nurturing Identity, Agency and Joy-filled Passion Through Revitalizing Indigenous Music Education Practices: Learning In and From a Cultural Revival Project in Busoga, Uganda” — focused on the process of reviving those musical traditions, the impact the rebirth has had on the country’s youth, and the importance of music education on a society.

“Education is such an important aspect of any society,” Isabirye said.

Growing up in a village in the Busoga Kingdom — one of several kingdoms in Ugandan society — Isabirye was exposed to music at an early age through his family, friends and community as part of an indigenous or pre-colonial education system.

“I learned from my mother, from my friends in the neighborhood, through engaging with other people,” he said. “In my village, anybody who found a young person regarded them as their own child, and therefore found it necessary to help them grow up as responsible citizens in the community. This idea was a very important driver for learning to take place in the community.”

His passion for music would remain with him as he continued his education in formal school, where he was exposed to the colonial or missionary education system.

“This system was introduced by the missionaries who came in, set up schools, and invited children to learn,” Isabirye said. “As they came to experience Christianity, the children were also taught values so that they could function in a typical Christian context. In the process, the learners were isolated from their society, from their families. They went into a completely different culture, and their understanding, their way of life was changed entirely.

“While there are other forms of education, they are not acknowledged at all,” he added. “Schools, at the moment, continue to graduate people that continue to serve the interests of the missionaries long after they left. In a way, this system of education continued not to help the societies but to work for the interests of the missionaries and the education system they left behind.”

Isabirye said he hopes the country will adopt a constructivist approach to educationin the future, which is similar to the indigenous style of teaching and learning that he grew up with.

“There is a need to help our country in terms of the way we practice education so it can impact the community and help our children to lead better lives rather than struggling for jobs,” he said. “I talk about constructivism and how it can help because it’s actually rooted in the natural ways of learning and education. We need to practice education in the country differently, then my music education will have a more fertile ground to thrive and grow.”

Isabirye said he was inspired to pursue his Ph.D. in Music Education at Oakland University by his friend, Haruna Walusimbi, one of Uganda’s most celebrated performing artists, and Mark Stone, associate professor of world music and percussion at Oakland University.

“Mark visited Kyambogo University, where I work, and encouraged me to join OU,” Isabirye said. “I searched online and realized the program at OU was taught by Professor Wiggins, who is highly-experienced and well-published. I realized she would be a great mentor for me. I was also encouraged by Haruna, who was in residency at OU in 2015. He talked about the great and diverse programs that are offered at the university.”

Since then, Isabirye has worked intensely over five semesters to complete the requirements for his Ph.D.

“He finished his degree in 15 months, which is unheard of,” Wiggins said. “He’s brilliant. And because of his background, he actually came to OU knowing everything he needed to know; he just needed to read the western literature that supported it.”

Wiggins has been a mentor to Isabirye since he arrived at OU during the fall semester of 2017.

“I could not have found a better professor,” Isabirye said. “She has inspired me to work extremely hard through her own hard work. I have never met such a professional, committed, highly-knowledgeable and joyous scholar.”

Following the successful defense of his dissertation, Isabirye plans to return to Uganda, where he will continue teaching at Kyambogo University.

“My teaching style will now reflect an improvement given the mentorship and broad reading that I have experienced at OU,” he said.

Before he returns to Uganda, Isabirye will be sharing his music — including some of the traditions from the Busoga and Buganda kingdoms that he has helped revive — as the featured artist in the annual fall semester World Music Concert, which will begin at 8 p.m. on Friday, November 30 in Varner Recital Hall.

“The concert will also feature students in the OU World Percussion Ensemble (Ngoma), OU African Drum and Xylophone Ensemble (Akwaaba), and our wonderful OU Artist-in-Residence, Regina Carter,” Stone said. “The students have done great work this semester. Please come out to support them and to celebrate the music of Uganda.”

Tickets are $8 for all seats and can be purchased online at

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