Ghetto Kids and Zulu Queens



 

The Ugandan kids dancing to Eddy Kenzo’s Dancing Jambole are the only antidote I have right now for the gut-punch news of Charlie Haden’s and Tommy Ramone’s deaths. It never would have occurred to me if they hadn’t died on the same day, but Tommy and Mr. Haden served almost the exact same roles in the Ramones and in Ornette Coleman’s classic band—a foundation, a constructive voice. And the Ramones are pretty much the first rock and roll band where they are all dead. But not the last: For better and worse, the full cycle of life is presently well represented in the R’n R pantheon.

Now back to those youngsters. Labeled “ghetto kids”, which seems ignorant at first but actually refers to a broader Ugandan social media phenomenon— you can find other “ghetto kids” joints on YouTube without much effort. But the actors in this particular video are sui generis. The eight children who appear—ranging in age from approximately 2 to 14 years—are fit and crisply dressed, playing in the yard of a modest but well-tended standalone house. I’m guessing all or most of them are from the same family, based on their appearance and interactions.

They are dancing and miming to “Jambole”, the followup to autotuned Ugandan dancehall newcomer Eddy Kenzo’s international breakthrough “Sitya Loss”. Both songs are sunny-side-up Swahili sugar rushes of modest substance: “Sitya Loss” has the more substantial groove, but “Jambole” name-checks Kim Kardashian. I would not be surprised if Kenzo was secretly funded by the Ugandan tourism industry.

So once again, the kids. The music starts cold and the kids are playing, as kids do, chaotically.  Some of them are standing around, others are hopping, skipping. There is no sense of order, the mise en scene is a spontaneous reaction to the music. A tall thin boy wheels a car tire through the yard for no discernable reason. A surly sprout sits on the porch, arms crossed, taking the scene in, totally unimpressed.

And then—BAM!—a third grade girl throws her backpack in the air and does a split, shaking her finger at the camera. It’s a startling moment, a call to arms, and in fits and starts some sense of purpose emerges from the caterwaul.

Each of the older kids takes turns miming and gamboling, using a few dance riffs Westerners would recognize (some Michael Jackson moves for sure) and more that are fresh to my eyes. The boys tend to gravity-defying postures and skeletal contortions that evoke something very different from the up-up-up of the song. As all this goes on, there are varying degrees of organization among the rest of the kids. To the left, the youngest children recurrently arrange themselves into a line of background singers, for seconds at a time, for as long as they are not distracted by the weird jubilation all around them. Eventually, to the right, the older children (including the surly one, who is finally satisfied enough with the proceedings to come off the porch and strut his stuff) establish a raucously unrefined choreography in the background. This is the visual equivalent of Louis Armstrong’s “Big Butter and Egg Man”, with order and disorder unrelentingly at odds.

But the moment that gets me every time is when the backpack girl reasserts herself, pushing to the front to take her turn. She’s the only one who relies on typical hip-hop moves (also the only one who is obviously mouthing the lyrics), and she so utterly transforms herself into the performers she is copping from (perhaps performers she’s not even aware of) that you completely forget that this is a little Ugandan girl in her backyard. You can’t imagine that she is anyone other than Tomika, belting out “Chain of Fools” in School of Rock, or Lisa Lee taking her turns in “Zulu Nation Throwdown”: “Wallflowers in the house, this is your chance/To show everybody that you can dance”. A little slice of heaven, another bite of the Lisa Lee apple, I’ll take that on a dark day like this.

 

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