AGAGO. Kilipa as a novice refined the rough edges of his nanga skills by keenly listening to compositions of Lakana Omal.
Lakana, alias Adok Too, from Olwal in Lamogi, Amuru District, was a blind nanga poet-musician who was renowned throughout Acholi land.
Kilipa recalls that Lakana’s songs were recorded on vinyl discs and played on record players.
“My father owned a gramophone and that’s how I began to better myself.”
Chief Justice Owiny-Dollo recalls that Kilipa and Lakana first met at Kilipa’s village in Geregere in then Kitgum District in 1968. Lakana was taken by late Janani Luwum, then the Bishop of Diocese of Northern Uganda, to perform at the commissioning of Labima Church.
“When I met Lakana, I already knew how to play the nanga but I hadn’t mastered it yet,” Kilipa remembers.
“When Kilipa heard Adok Too perform that day, he didn’t spend the night at home in Olupe Opong but followed Lakana and the bishops up to Patongo Catholic
Mission where they spent the night,” Owiny-Dollo said at Kilipa’s funeral service in 2020.
At Patongo, nanga master Lakana and protégé Kilipa spent the night playing alternate songs, one after the other. But as fate would have it, one year later in 1969, the duo faced off in a tough contest at Acholi Inn in Gulu City.
“To witness our competitions, you must have first paid gate fee and issued a receipt,” Kilipa recalls. Indeed, Justice Owiny-Dollo says at the time, Acholi Inn was the melting pot of Acholi culture where music, dance festivals and other cultural events were regularly staged.
“Acholi Inn was such an important place. It was the centre of Acholi culture, and a meeting point,” Owiny-Dollo recalls.
He says many Acholi notables; poet and novelist Okot p’Bitek, Uganda Development Corporation boss Semei Nyanzi, and other highly-placed Acholi leaders working all over Uganda, would, while returning to the north, first stop over at Acholi Inn to exchange niceties, ideas and enjoy the rich cultural staples, before proceeding to their villages.
Justice Owiny-Dollo recalls that on the competition day, other nanga contestants were quickly ejected, clearing the stage for Kilipa and Lakana to battle.
The contest reportedly lasted all night as Lakana and Kilipa belted out song after song.
“The two were matched until dawn when Adok Too intoned Labang, a funeral song, for which Kilipa had no response. The song, Pajule lamo nyara ki oboke olwedo, finally broke Kilipa’s back and ended the contest as Kilipa, the apprentice, had no rebuttal to his master in that category – thus Lakana triumphed,” Owiny-Dollo recalls.
But he says Kilipa, the novice, had given his senior a run for his money, judging from the praises that Lakana lavished on his understudy after the duel.
“In his victory speech, Lakana was magnanimous. ‘In wod malo ni, ibigoyo nanga ma ngat mo pe biloyi ki i Acholi [meaning; you youngster from the East will be unbeatable in nanga skills across the breadth and width of Acholi land]’. And this came to pass,” Chief Justice Owiny-Dollo, reminiscences.
Earlier, Kilipa in our July 2017 interview at his Kitgum home, acknowledged Lakana’s approval.
“After the contest, Lakana asked where I came from. I told him I hailed from Lira Palwo Sub-county [now Geregere] in Kitgum [now Agago] District. Then he told me that ‘after I – Lakana – have long left this world, no one will challenge you in nanga’. So, his prophecy has come to pass.”
Kilipa recalled that the song that prompted Lakana to take note of his budding talent was titled Myel Acholi myel deyo.
“You’d appreciate the poetic words in the lyrics if you read the line: Kel-la kweyo ma Ogwal ongoko ajwar ki laka ma okal obalo,” he notes.
The song urged an Acholi bride to be patient a little more as her suitor journeyed to Kakira sugar plantations and other far-off places across Karuma in search of work that would eventually raise the money for her dowry.
Owiny-Dollo says Kilipa later did a rendition of Kel-la Kweyo, extending it to five stanzas and taking it to another level with his own lyrics – loaded with rich and powerful imagery.
“Kilipa elevated Kel-la Kwey to a very rich musical composition – a truly high-end poem!” Owiny-Dollo said at the funeral service for Kilipa in Gulu on October 2, 2020.
Owiny-Dollo notes that the theme influenced celebrated writer, Okot p’Bitek, to pen the novel Lak Tar [Miyo Kinyero Wi Lobo].
Owiny-Dollo also reckons that Kilipa excelled in the nanga genre because of his exclusive high-pitched voice that God had gifted him.
“There’re few men in the world who sing in soprano or treble and with such sweet voice like Kilipa, who sings in alto,” Mr Dollo, notes.
About Kilipa Ogwang
Born in 1936, and at only 22, Kilipa broke into the celebrity rank with his groundbreaking nanga recording, Bonyo lagara, in 1968. Little wonder that by the time Kilipa breathed his last at 84, on September 24, 2020, he had composed at least 458 nanga songs, averaging 50 albums of 90-minutes playing-time each, and spanning the 60 years of his career.