A privileged childhood
Geoffrey was still in early childhood when his family left Soroti and moved to the Ugandan capital, Kampala. His parents, members of the country's new intellectual elite, were eager to transmit the country's traditional culture to their son and young Geoffrey was surrounded by poets, traditional storytellers and musicians from an early age. His father, an English teacher by profession, also taught him the art of pentatonic music, training him on the nanga (a seven-stringed harp) and introducing him to laraka laka (a genre of music linked to traditional 'seduction rituals' which Oreyma sees as the roots of "real Ugandan rock").
Later Geoffrey's mother, head of the country's national dance troupe "The Hearbeat of Africa", would whisk her son off on tours across Uganda, opening his eyes to different regions. In his teenage years Geoffrey went on to broaden his own horizons, discovering the joys of Anglo-Saxon rock culture via The Rolling Stones and Californian flower-power while attending Kampala's best schools alongside the teenage offspring of Uganda's British and American ex-pat community. Meanwhile, young Geoffrey maintained his interest in traditional African culture, learning the lukeme (thumb piano) as well as flute and guitar.
Geoffrey originally set out to pursue a career in theatre, taking a series of courses at Uganda's National School of Dramatic Art. And when General Idi Amin seized power in February 1971, overthrowing President Milton Obote in a military coup, young Geoffrey began to write his first plays (heavily inspired by Brecht, Stanislavski and Grotowski). These early avant-garde works mined the Theatre of the Absurd vein, mixing tribal sounds and bursts of onomatopoeic utterances with improvisations and mythical allegories (which would surface in his later recording work).
In these early plays Oryema also explored the traumas suffered by the Ugandan people under Amin's destructive regime. Speaking of the havoc wreaked by Amin's brutal forces, Oryema remembers how "every day we were brought face to face with what was happening on the streets. People were being killed and bundled into car boots right under our very noses!" These traumas touched Oryema's own life directly in February 1977 when his father, who had become Minister of Water and Resources, was killed in a mysterious car crash (which had all the makings of a political assassination).
While Idi Amin, "the black Ubu Roi" stepped up his exactions against the Acholi and took increasingly drastic steps to eliminate political opposition, Oryema decided it was time to flee his homeland. Crossing Lake Victoria he headed for Kenya where he was taken in by the French Cultural Centre in Nairobi, which had just put on a production of his latest play Le Règne de la Terreur (The Reign of Terror). While Kampala suffered the final years of Amin's bloody regime, Oryema set his sights on Paris. Bowing to his passion for the French language - which he claims is one of the most wonderful-sounding languages in the world - and the fact that Paris was fast becoming the capital of new African music, Oryema settled there in 1977.
During his early years in Paris Oryema was forced to earn a living through a series of odd jobs, but in the early 80s he managed to start making his first demo tapes. And one day it so happened that one of Oryema's tapes arrived on the desk of the organisers of British world music festival Womad (launched in 1982 by Peter Gabriel). Gabriel, ex-lead singer with UK rock band Genesis, invited Oryema along to the headquarters of his new record label Real World in Bath and the Ugandan musician ended up recording his debut album on Gabriel's 'world' music label. "Exile", released in 1990 and produced by Brian Eno (legendary sound engineer to Talking Heads and U2) featured a rich musical mix, alternating guitar-based tracks with songs accompanied by the nanga (harp), the sanza and the nyamuleré (flute). Oryema's debut album received flattering reviews from the music critics and the rising Ugandan star went on to score a big hit with "Ye Le Le" (a song which ended up being used as the theme tune to French cultural TV programme "Le Cercle de minuit").
Oryema's debut album achieved poignancy without going in for over-the-top backing and its sober feel marked something of a turning-point in African music, pioneering a new style of simple, acoustic arrangement rather than the big-band feel that had been in vogue throughout the 80s. The critical success of "Exile" - which established Oryema as one of the best-selling artists on the Real World label - soon led to him working with the crème de la crème of the French music scene and recording duets with the likes of Alain Souchon and Catherine Lara. He also collaborated with another famous musical exile, the Kabylian singer Idir and the late French jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani.
Music from the heart
Oryema went on to record a follow-up album on Real World in 1994. Entitled "Beat The Border", this second opus brought Oryema's music to new ears. Indeed, his audacious mix of acoustic sounds and synthesiser keyboards managed to break into the notoriously hermetic market in the States, catapulting to the top of the Billboard World Music Chart (where it remained for no less than twelve weeks!) This led to the rising Ugandan star being invited to appear on prime time TV programmes such as the NBC Today Show. Oryema also performed several concerts across the States taking part in a series of fund-raising tours for the Reebok Human Rights Awards and the Rainforest Foundation International Benefit.
Oryema, who describes his music as "coming straight from the heart" and refuses to be "imprisoned in any kind of musical ghetto", has always concentrated his efforts on making his sound as "universal" and accessible as possible. And he continued his competent fusion of western rock and African tradition, on his third album "Night To Night" (released on the Real World label in 1997). Featuring contributions from his Zairean friend Lokua Kanza (who guested on three tracks), this new album combined an eclectic mix of influences, bearing traces of The Rolling Stones, The Shadows and Roxy Music as well as Ali Farka Toure and Baaba Maal. This new musical mix proved to be less commercially successful than Oryema's previous albums, however.
Oryema - who, by this stage of his career, was married to a French woman and living in Lillebonne in Normandy - continued to have "a love/hate relationship with Africa". But he marked the beginning of a new millennium by bringing out a new album entitled "Lost Spirit" on his new record label (Sony). This poignant new opus, produced by Rupert Hines and featuring contributions from former keyboard-player with The Wailers Tyrone Downie, found the Ugandan star finally coming to terms with his country's past and performing a special track dedicated to his father.
Following the release of "Lost Spirit", Oryema hit the road again. He performed a series of concerts across the length and breadth of France in early 2002 and is set to appear at a number of leading music festivals over the summer months.
Oryema decided to go back to his roots in 2004 on the album Words (produced by Adrian Chivers, a former sound engineer at Peter Gabriel's Real World label). The album was infused with obvious pop influences, but Oryema mixed modern touches such as guitars and programmers with the sound of traditional instruments like the nanga and the lukeme. Nadine Marchal and Peter Gabriel's daughter, Melanie, also appeared on the album as guest vocalists. Oryema, who had acquired French nationality by this point, proved he was still very much a 'citizen of the world,' capable of singing in French, English, Swahili and Atcholi. Travel, he explained on the song Flying, was an essential lifestyle, a vital means of opening oneself to other people and new experiences. Travel remained very much a part of Oryema's lifestyle, too, as he hit the road again for a new tour, kicking things off with a series of concerts in France in the spring of 2004.